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'Crime Wave' authors bring mystery writing to East Grand Forks library

Mystery writing may begin with a puzzle, but the genre is ripe for exploring the darkness of human nature and the issues of the day, if an author is willing to investigate his characters' motives, three Minnesota mystery writers said Thursday nig...

Ellen Hart

Mystery writing may begin with a puzzle, but the genre is ripe for exploring the darkness of human nature and the issues of the day, if an author is willing to investigate his characters' motives, three Minnesota mystery writers said Thursday night at East Grand Forks Campbell Library.

If many mystery novels seem darker than they did, say, 10 or 20 years ago, it's a reflection of how authors see their work and what the public wants, they said.

"For me, 'dark' is the quality that sells more books," said William Kent Krueger, author of the Cork O'Connor mystery series set in Minnesota Northwoods. "That's the glib answer anyway."

Krueger and authors Carl Brookins and Ellen Hart have been making appearances together as the Minnesota Crime Wave for about 10 years to promote their books and to talk about writing and the writing process.

The authors spoke in particular about what it meant to write "dark" and how an author's writing can become naturally darker with time.

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Many authors, including herself, began writing mysteries as puzzles but ultimately wanted their stories and characters to be timely and explore important issues, said Hart, whose books include the James Lawless series.

Traditional mystery novels, such as those written by Agatha Christie, generally offered maximum suspense with minimum sex and gore, the authors said. Modern mystery novels are still "who-done-its" but are more likely to explore the "why-they-did-it" aspect as well. The old mystery plotting formulas have changed, they said.

"In a traditional novel, you can be shot, stabbed or poisoned but you can't be punched," Hart said.

As an example of issue-oriented mysteries, Hart referred to her novel, "An Intimate Ghost," which is set in motion by a story that exemplifies how some random decisions we make can end up changing our whole lives.

As a writer, Brookins said, he is interested in exploring how people come to the point in their lives where they are willing to commit murder. And that's one of the beauties of writing crime and mystery novels, Krueger said. An author can talk about important themes without the burden of trying to write "the great American novel."

The three authors emphasized the crime wave theme of their presentation by dressing up in prison stripes, pin-striped gangster suits and fedoras, with crime scene tape, a cigar and a small toy machine gun as props. Writing murder mysteries can be fun, too, they acknowledged. Brookins especially was singled out for creating criminals and victims who seemed a lot like some of the people who he didn't like very much in real life.

Among them, Brookins, Hart and Krueger have written dozens of mystery novels. As the Minnesota Crime Wave, they publish a newsletter and a Web site ( www.minnesotacrimewave.org/ ) and have brought about the publication of two anthologies of 13 mystery stories each by Minnesota authors, "The Silence of the Loons" and "Resort to Murder."

Krueger's latest Cork O'Connor book, "Heaven's Keep," was released in September. Brookins writes three series: A sailing mystery series featuring Michael Tanner and Mary Whitney, including "A Superior Mystery," set in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands; a series featuring hardboiled (and really short) detective Sean Sean ("The Deceiving Don"); and a murder series set in academia ("Bloody Halls").

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The latest in the Jane Lawless series by Hart (who also teaches mystery writing) is "The Mirror and the Mask."

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com .

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