I am a pretty eclectic reader and among the genres I read is detective fiction. A variety of sub-genres appeal to me, from the psychological detective story to the police procedural to the historical mystery. There are a few popular mystery writers I can't stand (Agatha Christie, for one) but a lot more I really enjoy. I also enjoy some of the lesser known mystery novels and some sub-genres like lesbigay mysteries and scifi mysteries. I read two mystery novels recently by two authors who both do a lot of research for their novels They represent very different approaches to how they use that research and that's most of what I wanted to talk about here.
The first of the two books was Anne Perry's Buckingham Palace Gardens. It's one of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries. Perry writes historical detective fiction, set in Victorian England. She's a pretty prolific author and I've only read a small portion of her work, perhaps 10 books altogether. This is the latest book in this series.
My original interest in her was not because of any recommendation of her books or reading any reviews. It was kind of a morbid interest, in fact.
When a story hit the newspapers that a middle-aged novelist now called Anne Perry had, under a different name, been convicted of murder as a teenager, I was intrigued. I wondered what kind of murder mysteries a convicted murderer might write, as well as why she would choose this calling when she apparently wanted to reinvent herself with a new name and so on.
I was even more intrigued when I found that she writes historical mysteries, a sub-genre I've often enjoyed. She writes, as far as I know, two series of mystery novels, each featuring a detective in Victorian England. The first I tried was the first in the series featuring Thomas Pitt, a police detective who falls in love with a woman much above his station, who returns his feelings. They get married early in the series, maybe even in the first book, and the backdrop to the mysteries is their domestic life. Charlotte is very smart and having been raised in a different class has access to information and people Thomas doesn't, which he accesses when he is assigned a murder of someone of the upper classes to solve.
I quite liked Charlotte and Thomas and the detective in her other series, William Monk, as well. I think she writes fully realized and interesting characters. And she clearly does a lot of research on her time period for each book. However, I find that Anne Perry has two major flaws in her fiction, flaws that I usually think of as rookie mistakes, although she is still making them, some fifty books in.
Flaw 1: She cannot bear to leave out anything she finds in her research. Don't get me wrong - I'm a big believer in research. I think an author should make a strong effort to get all the details right. "Write what you know" is good as far as it goes, but you've got to know more than just living your life teaches you. And with historical fiction like Perry's, understanding the details of everyday life in the place and time she's writing about is essential. So I'm glad that she learns a lot about that.
However, I'm a big believer that the research should inform the writing, not get dumped wholesale in it. In general I'd say that 95% of the research I do for my fiction never shows up directly in the story. Yet knowing so much more than I write about teen prostitution or Russian poetry or Samurai sex means that when those topics are alluded to in the story, they are accurately represented.
With historical fiction more of the historical detail will show up in the story than 5%, but a whole lot of it ought to be unsaid but known. Perry's characters have the most unlikely conversations, just so the author can work in a long explanation of Victorian house cleaning methods or clothing construction or whatever. It makes the story sound clunky and unnatural. It makes the characters seem to be having the conversation to lecture the reader on the topic, rather than because it fits in with their lives and conversational patterns. And it's just so unnecessary. A passing comment about the use of tea leaves in cleaning would be interesting, intriguing, and give the sense that the author knows whereof she speaks.
Flaw 2 is a related issue, in that it also comes from an inability to inhabit the characters and represent them in a natural way. Perry's Victorian characters are often way too modern in their views of gender roles, social class and so on. She reflects the structure of the society in her novel, but her characters' comments on society so often sound like they are the author's mouthpieces, somehow developing a late twentieth or early twenty-first sensibility on these issues, commenting as outsiders. Again, she seems unable to trust that her readers will understand the differences between the society she writes about and the one they inhabit without the author - in the person of the characters - telling them directly.
I do see those as major flaws, but I still find her books diverting, the main characters interesting. The mysteries themselves are pretty good, as well, with the right level of clues dropped that the reader catches on just before the detective. So I'm not a big fan of Perry, but when I see one of hers in the library that looks interesting I take it and generally find I enjoy it in spite of the flaws.
Dick Francis is kind of the anti-Perry. He's an author who does research right.
I resisted reading him for a long time. He's a former steeplechase jockey who became a mystery writer. His mysteries generally are set in or around the world of English horse racing. Much as I love murder :-) I have no interest in racing and thought I'd be bored with the books. But once I tried one I found that wasn't the case at all.
Francis mostly has a new, usually amateur, detective in each book (he has reused a detective in a second book only once, that I know of). Each book is about horses and something else. And the something else is meticulously researched, with just the right amount of detail in the book. Francis completely inhabits his characters, painting a realistic picture of their world without falling into the Perry mistakes. The one I just read is called Second Wind and is about, of all things, meteorologists. They, of course, get involved with horses and murder. It all unfolds in a perfectly natural way. The characters are engaging, the plot exciting, the mystery believable. The reader learns something about weather forecasting along the way and is left in the certain knowledge that the author knows a whole lot more about the subject than he's telling.
That's how it should be done.