Once Were Mysteries

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 KenBruen.com.