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Once Were Mysteries

Aug 31, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

The former chairman of the Booker Prize committee said last month,

“A mystery has as much chance of winning the Booker as a donkey winning the Derby.”

I ask myself, in pretty much all honesty, Who won the Booker last year?


I can rattle off who won the Edgar, the Hammett. But you could say my interest lies solely in mystery.

My daily reading consists of an eclectic mix of biography, and books on writing, poetry, philosophy, psychology. Because I’m fascinated by all of them.

John Arden, the acclaimed playwright, activist, author, recently domiciled in Galway. On the publication of The Devil, he met me after a signing, not a literary critic on the horizon, said,

“Crime novels are the new social conscience.”

I wrote a children’s book, was assaulted on most all sides by


“You’re selling out?”

“You can’t write a children’s book .”

And you really have to smile, move it from drama to light entertainment.

I ask my own self,

“Have you ever heard of a literary writer transcending the genre and writing a mystery novel?”


But their excursions into the second grade are excused by terms, no kidding, like


Yah gotta love ’em.

James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell, John Straley, ostensibly in the mystery genre, are beyond any category. They write of the human condition in poetic, stunning prose. And do they engage in the debate as to what genre they belong? No, they just keep writing absolute gems of novels that will be read in fifty years’ time, fully appreciated.

George Pelecanos is one of the most acute social observers of our era. But as literary, the jury is out. His contribution to the greatest TV series of the modern era, The Wire, is almost overlooked outside of the mystery community.

True story, cross me bedraggled heart.

I went to college with a guy who is still one of my closest friends. He became a professor of English lit, and I write mysteries.

He called me last year, said,

“There’s money in crime?”

No argument there.


“I need to pay off my mortgage and was thinking I’d dash off a fast potboiler.”

OK, gritted teeth.

I tried,

“You’re welcome to my library, the best and the brightest of mystery, I hope.”

A sigh.

“I don’t want to read the stuff, I just want to write one, get the cash.”

I said, what else,

“Good luck with that.”

Forgot about it, I had a potboiler to finish.

Two months went by and he called.

“I can’t do it.”



“You want me to look at the manuscript, see if maybe I can help?”

He was astonished, said,

“My problem is, I’ve tried to write badly, but I keep lapsing into literature.”

Oh Sweet Jesus, I love that. Absolutely. It’s classic.

Another one of my friends, and you have to wonder what my enemies are like, a respected Irish poet, asked,

“You’re educated, you read, when are you going to write a real book?”

On those terms, never.

I’m not a waiter hoping to be an actor. I’m a mystery writer praying to fuck that I can write a stunning mystery novel.

I read Craig McDonald’s Print the Legend and learned more about Hemingway than from four years of studying contemporary American literature.

I read John Straley and learned more about the human spirit than in Psychology 101 .

I read James Sallis and realized that poetry can truly inform a piece of writing.

James Crumley, in One to Count Cadence, hit all the literary spots and turned to mystery because, he told me, he wasn’t getting his ideas across. The Last Good Kiss is quoted verbatim by most mystery writers.

Ed Bunker, who stayed at my home in Galway, shortly before he died, said,

“Writing (mystery novels) got me outta the joint and opened up a world of possibilities.”

In an era of Kindle, Amazon ratings, where does, say, the spirit of David Goodis linger?

In the new authors , a whole batch of gung ho mystery writers who believe that mystery is the new rock ’n’ roll.

Duane Swierzynski

Al Guthrie

Russell McLean

Ray Banks

Alan Glynn

Megan Abbott

Hilary Davidson

Who don’t give a toss about so-called literacy conventions. They are out there writing the most exciting literature this side of the Booker Prize.

And that is where my future lies, reading wise .

Ken Bruen has been a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards, and has won a Macavity Award, a Barry Award, and two Shamus Awards for the Jack Taylor series. He lives in Galway, Ireland. Learn more at

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21 Responses »

  1. “Crime novels are the new social conscience.” – Arden would know. Hell of a playwright – Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is effing brilliant.

    And thanks for the nod, Ken. (Even though I believe the link goes somewhere else … heh.) Us lot, we can but totter blindly after them what did all the hard work, like your good self. And you write what you bloody well want …

  2. I just love Ken Bruen, and anyone not reading him is missing out on a great talent.

    • Hi Jeff,

      I remember you from r.a.t.s on usenet. Found this via @mikecane…and it is a kickass post. Bruen has been added to my to read list…you are on my list already.



  3. God bless you, sir!

    (madly jotting down “John Straley,” whose work I’ve not yet read)

  4. I really like the idea of a children’s book. To do them well, they’re no pushover either (otherwise wouldn’t everybody be doing it). I love your list of ‘out of the box’ writers.
    When I grow up, I’m going to write ‘out of the box stuff too’ (or when I’ m 50, whichever comes sooner).

  5. Fabulous essay… Mulholland Books rule!

  6. It’s a long time since I’ve heard anyone mention John Arden’s name. When I was at school, a geography teacher put on “Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance” and was asked to leave the school shortly thereafter. Later, when I was studying drama, I got to meet Arden – a great man and a horribly underrated and forgotten playwright. Thanks for the reminder, Ken.

  7. There can be a kind of reverse snobbery as well, though, with mystery writers crowing about the superior merit of the genre, hammering literary writers over the noggin ‘with the chips they’ve just lifted off their own shoulders. It’s sad we even have this debate, which I think is the real point Ken’s making. It always is and always has been and always will be about the writing, which is a mysterious business. And just as you can’t keep truth in a cage (per William Carlos Williams, anyway), you can’t keep good writing in a single literary form. I’d add to Ken’s Walk of Fame: Alan Furst, Robert Wilson, John Harvey, Jake Arnott, Denise Mina, Dennis Lehane, Sean Doolittle, John Shannon, Domenic Stansberry, Richard Marinick, Charlie Huston, Peter Temple, Adrian McKinty, Cornelia Read, Josh Bazell — and too many others I’m sadly forgetting. And is Jess Walter crime fiction? Richard Price? Kate Atkinson? Peter Carey? Would they snarl if you said so? Who knows, who cares? But have I stopped reading “literary fiction?” Please shoot me if I do. Here’s to good books, and good writers, and good lists we can now consult for gems we’ve not yet discovered. We’re the last great cult — readers. Ken — you’re finally a priest!

    Introibo ad altare Dei . . .

  8. A wonderful essay from a writer who should never have to defend what he does.

  9. I’d make a bet that your grocery list in uniquely Ken Bruen. No mistaking it for anyone else. Now that’s a great writer.

  10. I always just tell people that I read both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction.

  11. A Great essay. I agree with most of the comments, good books are all about good stories. A plethora of solid authors have been mentioned – here’s a few more:

    Christa Faust, Charles Ardai, Nate Flexer, Victor Gischler, Tom Piccirilli

  12. I’ve loved mysteries forever; not as big a fan of straight crime novels, but still … and I do love historical mysteries, which I suppose is it’s own thing.

    My own list of writers: Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, Lindsay Davis, Sharon Kay Penman, Will Thomas, Margaret Frazer and the marvelous Alan Gordon.

    Thank you for a whole new group of writers to check out, including you.


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