The Sunday Salon: Dense Mysteries

The Sunday
The Dog Days of August are upon us.  Gone are those lovely temperate summer days we had until now.  The clear blue skies and refreshing breezes have been eclipsed by hazy sunshine and humid air, and the world outside feels heavy and thick  – dense with heat and moisture.  It’s fit for nothing but lying under the ceiling fan, a glass of iced tea beading with sweat at my side.

I’ve been reading mysteries this month, and the kinds of mysteries I love best are dense like the atmosphere.   Do you know what I mean by a “dense” mystery?  Not the “cozy” kind where the characters are rather one dimensional and the plot drives the story, but a mystery where the actual event becomes almost secondary to the sublots and personalities involved.  I’ve had two of those in quick succession…Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George, and now A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie King. 

George’s writing is rich with detail and description, a density born of long hours of  thought, note-taking, and research.  In Write Away, her book about the writing process, George talks about creating detailed plot outlines and character studies for each of her novels.  She spends hours, days even, visiting the places she intends to write about, taking photographs and searching for details as minute as the types of stone used to build a pathway, or the thatching on a cottage roof.    Her characters are multi-dimensional, fleshed out to the smallest of physical and psychological details.  For some, this density of detail can be  as oppressive as the Augus humidity.   “There’s too much detail,” in her books, my husband complained (oddly I thought for an engineer who lives for detail in his own work).  “I forget what the’s story’s about.”

But I love that kind of complexity in plot and place and person.  George is a master of it, and so, I’m finding is Laurie King, in her Mary Russell series.  This is just my second read from that collection, and I’m finding it even more enjoyable than the first.  The actual mystery (the sudden deaths of several wealthy young women who are followers of a ministry led by the charismatic Margery Childe) is embedded in an interesting study of women’s rights in the 1920’s, a study of the roles of women in religion, and the coming of age of Miss Russell herself. 

So on this hot and rather oppressive day, I’m content to lie quietly on the chaise lounge and immerse myself in the deep thoughtful waters of a dense mystery.

Now tell me, how do you like your mysteries?  Detailed and dense, or quick and quriky?


12 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Dense Mysteries

  1. Oooo. Definitely detailed and dense. Laurie King is a particular favorite of mine and has not once disappointed. Josephine Tey is also a favorite with her probing psychological portraits. And I just read An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson, the first of the Josephine Tey mysteries, and that was also very satisfying. Happy reading!

  2. Dense, definitely dense! I just reviewed some that fall into that category – In the Woods by Tana French was one, The Mistress of the Art of Death was another. I have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to read, which I hope will also fall in this category. I’ve read most of George’s mysteries, but am paused at What Came Before He Shot Her, I have to admit I was bored with the build up in the beginning of the book, because the mystery in that case (why a child from the wrong side of tracks shoots a stranger as an initiation rite into a gang), should really be why no one was able to get rid of the gang! sorry, it’s hot here too, and I hate that we seem unable to root out the causes of poverty and crime! It’s lovely that heat makes you want to read mysteries, which was a question I posed in my post today: do you read differently when it’s cold outside, from when it’s hot? I do, tending more to mysteries in the summer than fantasy. Thanks for the thankful post!

  3. I’m with you. I love the detail and the complexity that the best in this field can bring to their work. I forget. Have you read Tana French? She is another such writer. I haven’t come across Laurie King. I’m off to the library site now to track her down because if you love her I know I will.

  4. I like variety. I’ve just read Andrew Taylor’s novel, Naked to the Hangman, which is oh 7th or so in his Lydmouth series. They are all set in a town near Wales during the 1950s and are wonderfully evocative without being bogged down in detail. And the plots are excellent. He’s one of my favourite crime writers of late.

  5. I stopped by to say I like my mysteries dense and to tell you to check out Tana French, but I see others have already beat me to it. 🙂 Well then let me say this: In the Woods was good, but The Likeness I thought was literary perfection. Just my opinion.

  6. I’m not always a mystery person. But when I do delve in, I love dense mysteries. I just love feeling the plot thicken more and more as you turn each page. And when there’s the right amount of detail – it just pulls you into the story so that instead of feeling like you’re watching the events unfold in front you, you become a part of them. It’s fiction that is written that meticulously that stays with me the longest and frequently makes my list of favorites.

  7. I think I am a bigger fan of dense mysteries (or would be) although I don’t read many of them because I get turned off by the simplistic plots of the mysteries I have read… where the villain is too easy to find, the dialogue is stilted and the plot predictable. This one sounds way more interesting!

  8. I think I don’t read enough mysteries. And I should. They are entertaining, and the real treat is when they’re written by an excellent writer. Your Ms. George sounds like such a writer. I love detail, length, dallying in the story while something is waiting to happen.
    I shall have to give it a whirl. I have my little booklist right here, open, with Ms. George added to my list. (such a book of books to read it is!)

    However, I will give the cozy it’s due for sheer entertainment but show me a bookaholic who doesn’t love a carefully wrought book with length and depth and breadth and well, I’d just be surprised, that’s all!

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