I've decided to start a series of posts about where to start. This could be where to start almost anything--books, movies, collecting, clothing, style, food, etc.
I'm starting with a literary genre today: Mystery
A few years back I took a short story workshop, and then last year took a mystery workshop taught by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (if you want to kickstart your writing, or want to be tossed into the deep end with writing, I highly recommend traveling to the Oregon coast and take one of Kris's, or her husband Dean Wesley Smith's writing workshops).
Why do I bring up the workshop? Well, apparently I had some notion that most mysteries were simply Agatha Christie cozies and hadn't given much thought to sub-genres. There are many, many sub-genres.
So back to where to start: This is a broad overview of mysteries and ultimately, you're going to have to sample the sub-genres to determine what works for you as a reader. I loved cozies growing up, but now I enjoy hardboiled, noir, detective, and police procedurals more.
Cozy: Cozy mysteries are usually not bloody or graphic and typically take place in more confined settings. They typically have an amateur detective working toward solving the crime with the occasional cameo by some sort of law enforcement - often they're of the bumbling or not-quite-with-it variety.
Cozies are a pretty popular sub-genre right now and they have a definite look to them on the shelf. Bright colors, titles that are puns, sometimes cats on the cover as well. Also, cozies are the shortest of the genres, so they're a quick and fun read.
But where should you start? Go ahead and start with a Christie--any old Miss Marple will do, though on television and movies I'm partial to Hercule Poirot. Try A Murder Is Announced: A bunch of people are summoned to a house and someone is murdered right under everyone's noses.
Detective: Detective stories can be private detectives/investigators or law enforcement detectives. These range from light, near cozy style to dark mystery, noir and beyond--pretty much a catch-all category. These are not police procedurals --that is a separate sub-genre. These stories focus on the detective. Honestly, even cozies fit into this category since many of them are using amateur detectives. TV version of the standard detective story would be: Magnum P.I. for example.
But where to start? I'd say go for Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch series, beginning with The Black Echo. I'd characterize the series as a standard detective series that is squarely in the middle of the light to dark spectrum (cozy being light, noir being dark).
Police Procedural: The main character works for the police, or is an attorney, or is a federal law enforcement officer, etc. These stories focus on the procedures in solving a crime.
Hill Street Blues is a great TV example of the procedural--in fact, the series was based off Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels which I'm going to recommend here. There were also plenty of TV movies based on these novels. But if you enjoy seeing how the justice system works or how police go about solving crimes, then procedurals are for you.
Where to start? Ed McBain--he wrote a ton of books based around the fictional 87th Precinct. They are great reads and pretty fast. You can start almost anywhere with them despite them having recurring characters. McBain wrote these from the mid 1950's all the way until around 2005--so, there's quite a bit of material there.
Hardboiled: I think these are my favorites. Character driven and a lot of attitude. You feel the world, see everything from the character's point of view. The main character is cynical, but has a moral code. The world the character inhabits is visceral, gritty, and typically urban.
There are modern examples of hardboiled, but I love the classics: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane. If you enjoy tough, gritty guys slapping people around, but have a need to make things right, this is the genre for you.
Where to start? Here you could go with The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, or I, The Jury. The movie versions of Sleep and Falcon are great since you get to watch Humphrey Bogart. For the Mickey Spillane I recommend Kiss Me Deadly. I wrote about the film here.
Noir: I hadn't read too much noir before taking the Mystery Workshop. For the class we read The Ghosts Of Belfast by Stuart Neville. We were also assigned Fatherland by Robert Harris which I had read before. Fatherland can also double as a detective genre as well as alternate history. Ghosts is straight noir. If you enjoy dark, hopeless stories and people who are really screwed up, and everything sucks, well--maybe you should seek counseling. These aren't light books, or light reading: be prepared for an ending that isn't likely to be pretty.
Where to start? For really dark, try The Ghosts of Belfast. If you prefer a little detective and alternate history involving Nazis then try Fatherland. Batman can be noir by the way and science fiction has quite a bit of noir.
There is another type of crime novel--which is really what the mystery genre should be called by the way. Thriller. I'm not going to get into this sub-genre since it's really the least pure of the crime novels. Though, I do enjoy a good heist movie or novel--but heists aren't always Thrillers since they can be paced slower and thrillers are definitely quickly paced with hardly a rest.
Hopefully this was a decent primer on reading the various genres of mystery--many thanks to Kris Rusch for teaching me what is required to be able to write in the sub-genres.