My guest today is Judy Alter, writer extraordinaire. She gives a thoughtful post on Gone Girl and her own The Perfect Coed. --Kaye George
Make Mine Mystery
I’ve been following a lengthy thread on a crime writers’ list about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has been on the best-seller list for two years now. The comments on the thread range from “literary masterpiece,” “wonderful prose and careful construction,” “satire, not mystery” to “I could get into it,” “I gave up after twenty pages,” and “I didn’t like the characters.” The latter interests me most. I’ve not read the book—and probably won’t—but I’ve heard a lot about how unlikeable both the husband and wife in this book are. It leads me to wonder why people read it and why it’s been on the best-seller list so long.
There seems to be widespread consensus that Gone Girl is not a mystery. Several readers classify it as a suspense thriller—but is that not a mystery subgenre? I’m a little confused here.
Many readers will tell you they tire of light fiction—cozies where there are few dark moments, often lots of humor, and usually a satisfying ending. They want deeper, darker stories that challenge them to think about the nature of mankind. I saw one suggestion that we live in such time of turmoil that our reading tastes reflect the times we live in. I’m not sure I buy that argument—certainly, we live in dark times of political dissatisfaction, world terrorism, racism at home, difficult dilemmas for all of us, not just our leaders. But if our reading tastes reflect our times, is the darkness of the Middle Ages what made The Canterbury Tales great? I suspect today, like all ages, it’s different strokes for different folks. The one principle that I find most commentators agree on is that a novel has to have a satisfactory ending with some sense of morality triumphing.
But that leaves another question about Gone Girl. How important is character to your reading interest. And which comes first—plot or character? Do you get involved in a book where you either don’t like or don’t care about the characters but the plot fascinates? I don’t. I like to feel I’ve been into the world of the characters, that I care about what happens to them, just as I would care about what happens to a good friend. And I want to feel sad when I come to the end of the book because I don’t want to leave the world of the characters. They’ve become friends. If I don’t like the characters or feel some identification with them, plot doesn’t matter. I don’t care what happens. This is not to say that characters should be without flaws. Heaven forbid! Even in the lightest cozy, I want characters to be true to life…and there’s not a one of us without a whole bunch of flaws.
Passing judgment on Gone Girl when I haven’t read it borders dangerously on arrogance, and I wouldn’t even bring the topic up if it weren’t that I’ve read so much about it, mostly negative, and I’m puzzled about its lengthy run on the best-seller list. It’s set to me to thinking about what I really like in a book when I read, and I confess—I like, and I write, cozies. I identify with the (usually) single female sleuth even if I am a tad older. I dislike violence and am not particularly interested in graphic sex and plain don’t like erotica. But I enjoy a good puzzle, so a well-plotted cozy mystery with likeable characters is my choice for escape reading. Bad confession for one who has written and edited all her life: I don’t want to read a book just to admire the skill of the prose. I want to become involved in the story.
Lest you dismiss me as a lightweight, let me say that my latest book, The Perfect Coed, is barely a cozy, if at all—I’m thinking of promoting cozy noir as a subgenre—and the protagonist, Susan Hogan, professor of English, is likeable but prickly—that’s the best term for it. But I hope you’ll like her.
Judy Alter is no stranger to college campuses, like the one she invented for The Perfect Coed. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries. She is the author of the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and the Blue Plate Café Mysteries.
She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas by the Dallas Morning News. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Turquoise Morning Press: http://www.turquoisemorningpressbookstore.com/search?q=Judy+Alter
Web page: http://www.judyalter.com
Blurb for The Perfect Coed:
Susan Hogan is smart, pretty—and prickly. There was no other word for it. She is prickly with Jake Phillips and her Aunt Jenny, the two people who love her most in the world. And she is prickly and impatient with some of her academic colleagues and the petty jealousies in the English department at Oak Grove University. When a coed’s body is found in her car and she is suspected of murder, Susan gets even more defensive.
But when someone begins to stalk and threaten her—trying to run her down, causing a moped wreck that breaks her ankle—prickly mixes with fear. Susan decides she has to find the killer to save her reputation—and her life. What she suspects she’s found on a quiet campus in Texas is so bizarre Jake doesn’t believe her. Until she’s almost killed.
The death of one coed unravels a tale of greed, lust, and obsession.