Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Guest Blogger - Gerrie Ferris Finger

Gerrie Ferris Finger, author of The End Game is my guest blogger today. I've never met Gerrie, but I have a great deal of admiration for her. On May 5, I reviewed The End Game, and I had to question why it won a competition for Best First Traditional Mystery Novel. But, Gerrie does a wonderful job rebutting my review. I hope you take the time to read her argument.

Guest Blog by Gerrie Ferris Finger

In the fall of 2008, I entered The End Game in the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. In 2009, I got "the call" from Ruth Cavin that I had won the contest. In April of this year, the novel was published, and I got to appear on a panel at the Malice Domestic Convention in Crystal City, Virginia.

The panel, "Ripped from the Headlines", discussed mystery novels that took all or part of their genesis from real events. The End Game was not about a real event, but rather a series of happenings that began to occur in the United States. That being, girls and women abducted and brought into the U. S. for the purpose of physical labor and/or sexual slavery in private homes and places like massage parlors.

The End Game has gotten many reviews, all favorable so far. But a certain wonderment seems to have entered the minds of some reviewers, including the delightful and insightful Lesa Holstine, proprietor of this blog.

The wonder of it is: Is The End Game a traditional mystery novel?

Perhaps the subject of child abduction is not associated with traditional mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, although Christie certainly wrote about the evilest of deeds man can do against his fellows. So did Dorothy L. Sayers and Ruth Rendell. P. D. James addressed sobering subjects, as did Elizabeth George. Traditionalists, all. But consider Christie's child murderer who wrote in her diary: "Today, I killed grandfather."

So what is a traditional mystery? I suppose for every reader there is a different notion. For me, traditional mysteries are who-dunnits from beginning to denouement. Traditional mysteries are divided into sub-genres. We'll skip the Chick-Lit and Vampire mysteries and consider the Cozy.

The cozy is a traditional mystery – a who-dunnit – done with a lighter touch than found in novels by Elizabeth George or Ngaio Marsh. Today's cozy hero or heroine often owns a shop or is engaged in a vivacious profession (as opposed to a private investigator). Their inquisitiveness gets them involved in the murder of a rogue who deserves his end. The trio or quartet of suspects have every reason to despise the rogue. It becomes great fun to unmask the bad guy or gal. Even peacocks and cats get involved. This sub-genre is spun from the likes of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth (both of whom I adore). Martha Grimes epitomizes the cozy.

These greats of mystery inspired me as did John D. MacDonald and Rex Stout. I've read the Nero Wolfe canon at least three times. Patricia Highsmith could make my skin crawl. And Raymond Chandler's losers and dreamers could make you wonder about mankind.

It's safe to say when St. Martin's first thought up the competition many years ago, their idea of a traditional mystery was closer to Christie than Chandler. St. Martin's contest rules state the manuscript must: contain no explicit sex; contain no excessive gore or gratuitous violence; the hero or heroine doesn't get beat up to any great extent; and novels classified as "hard-boiled" are not appropriate.

When Lesa reviewed The End Game, she listed its violent aspects: two foster parents burned to death, two dogs killed, victims with slit throats, and the threat that two children would be sold into prostitution. She wrote: "Maybe Malice Domestic doesn't consider that 'gratuitous violence' since it did fit in the plot. However, I thought The End Game verged on hard-boiled, rather than traditional. Evidently, that's just my opinion."

On the subject of sex, one of her readers commented that the sex put him off.

With such facets in my novel, you might ask, what possessed you to enter it into St. Martin's contest?

Well, The End Game has no explicit sex. The suggestion is there, but no depiction – no stroking of body parts or ardent kissing. The deadly violence, with the exception of the final battle, is off page. The heroine, Moriah Dru, gets scraped up but not to any great extent. The dogs are dead to begin with, one had been for several years. To counter balance, there are two search and rescue hero dogs that have warmed the hearts of a few reviewers. The bad guys deserved their slit throats, but readers don't see it happen. The arson fire that killed the Barnes had been put out by page one. (In traditional mysteries, murder happens, even to wonderful people.) The little girls had been abducted before the heroine appears, and, of course, there is no depiction of child abuse. What lingers in readers' minds is the horror that awaits the girls if their abductors get away with them.

I would not have been surprised if The End Game had been deemed outside the bounds set by St. Martin's. But, I thought the fact that it was a mystery to the end, a true who-dunnit, made it traditional. What else could it be? It's not a literary novel, or a romance, or a romantic suspense. It's not an historical mystery, nor is it a thriller, although it has thriller aspects. It's neither truly hard-boiled nor noir, because the protagonist is an upbeat character and the ending is satisfying. I have to admit though, I don't mind my style being called as edgy as Raymond Chandler's.

One last thing to be said for traditional. The End Game has a locked room murder, wherein poor old Miss Goddard is done in. Snakes and apes may be excused.

Thank you, Gerrie. Your blog certainly gives me something to think about.

Gerrie Ferris Finger's website is

The End Game by Gerrie Ferris Finger. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2010. ISBN 9780312611552 (hardcover), 310p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

A great rebuttal! I've been watching genre-blending and noticed that borders for sub-genres have changed.

I think cozies are definitely getting cozier, just based on personal observation...even less violence, even less mild profanity.

I think traditionals may be encompassing a wider field.

I'm not sure where it's all heading, but I've been very interested to watch it happen! And congratulations to Gerrie on her success.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. I agree with you. I think the divide is so wide now, the cozy is a genre all to itself. It seems it encompasses comedy as well as mystery. I'd have a hard time slotting some of the old-time amateur sleuth writers into it.

jenny milchman said...

I had the exact same question, Lesa! When I began Gerrie's novel I was also excited that it had won since it did expand the definition of the genre. Those traditional elements--locked room, sleuthing, whodunnit--are there as she says, but Gerrie shook them up and salted them out in such a new and unusual form, it made me sit up and take notice. I'm glad SMP, which along with Poisoned Pen Press is possibly the definitive publisher of mysteries, can add genre-redefining books to their roster...both because it provokes the interesting issue Lesa raised and because the books are just so good...

PS: Gerrie wrote a Made It Moment for my blog if people want to read more about her story!

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

What's funny, Jenny, is, when I was writing the story, I didn't intend to expand the definition of the genre. You're a writer so you know these stories take on a life of their own and it's hard to keep characters in line.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Gerrie. "Traditional" and "cozy" don't necessarily mean the same thing. I told you earlier that I had qualms about your book because of the subject matter, but when I read the Malice Domestic rules I knew it would be okay -- no explicit sex, blood and gore offstage. I did find the confrontation between protagonist and villian upsetting at the end but won't say more because of spoilers.

Good luck with your book and future writings!

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoyed this post. I commented on Lesa's original review that I was itching to read this book and I definitely am.

I agree that the boundaries seem to be stretching and expanding in all areas of mysteries. This was the topic of a bit of conversation at my last mystery book group meeting. We will be reading mystery award nominated and winning books for our July meeting and my group asked the difference between the books nominated for the Edgar and the Agatha.

If you don't mind, Lesa, and also Gerrie, I'm going to share some thoughts that both of you have presented to my group. I tried to give them my personal definitions of "traditional", "cozy", and "hard-boiled", but I think you guys have given more food for thought.

This was lovely. I appreciate the give and take conversation in the comments. And, Gerrie, I will seek out your book soon!

Lesa said...


I'd love you to send me your definitions of traditional, cozy and hard-boiled. Perhaps my biggest problem here is I'm writing the chapter about mysteries for Genreflecting, and I have to classify the books I'm writing about. I'm having a hard time with the classifications because of the changes. I'll take anyone's suggestions!

I'm taking Kris Neri to lunch on Saturday before she speaks for Authors @ The Teague, and I'm going to get her opinion as to the sub-genres.

Thanks, Gerrie, for such a great response. And, thanks for all the comments!

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Thanks Lesa and commentators for an enjoy experience. Long live the mystery, whatever the genre.

kathy d. said...

Okay, after reading Gerrie's very good blog, I'm in! I'll read her book and put it on my list and hope the library has it.

I love whodunnits, with violence off the page with the focus on the mystery, the puzzle, the who-done-it?

My mother used to get upset that I read mysteries at all, because in her mind, since it involves murder in the first place, that's violence against a person.

So once one gets past that point and chooses what to read--and I did that at 15, with Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes, one moves on to many genres.

But I agree with my mother that since there is a murder, a mystery in intrinsically about violence, no matter how nicely or not nicely it's written about.

So with that premise, we figure out what we like to read and the parameters of the mystery. I don't like gratuitous violence (have gotten nightmares from some books; I stay away from them and their authors), don't mind sex, as long as there is not sexism involved and as long as it's tastefully done.

But gratuitous violence and brutality--no. I have read two of Stieg Larsson's books but have skipped over some parts. And I worry about this whenever I pick up a book.

I have to take books on a case-by-case basis. Some "thrillers" fit into my parameters; many don't.

It sounds like some traditionals, like this one, does fit into my parameters.

A lot more to think about and discuss on this.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Gerrie, for writing such a thoughtful blog.

You're right, Kathy. A lot more to think about and discuss.

Holli said...

I am very interested in your comment that your novel isn't a thriller but has some thriller aspects. It inspired me to write my own blog about the difference, or rather, the fact that I have difficulty determining when a book falls into the thriller category in addition to being a mystery.

I hate to categorize or label too much, but I think it's important for readers to know in advance if a novel is considered a cozy or hard boiled or a thriller, for no other reason than for them to determine if it's a book they might be interested in.

From your description, your book sounds like a thriller (in addition to mystery) to me, and something I would probably enjoy, and because of that, I will buy it.

BTW, I mentioned this blog and your comment in my own blog as well as your book and your award. Congrats!

Holli Castillo

Lesa said...


I read your blog posting about whether or not a book is a thriller. Frankly, I just wish we were calling them all mysteries, and letting it go at that. I notice the bookstores still just have a category called mystery.

kathy d. said...

It's very hard to judge what type of book one gets in any category. I like some thrillers and didn't find them too violent, like Linwood Barclay's or Joseph Finder's "Vanished," and any number of them.

But I don't like gratuitous violence or action and no character development or introspection.

How do we define categories within mysteries? There are so many slippery slopes.

Are legal mysteries considered thrillers? I read "The Hidden Man," which is a legal mystery which becomes more than that. It wasn't very violent but it became fast-paced. It was a real puzzle but had a lot of action.

How would one character Sara Paretsky's books which I love? The character is a p.i. but gets into a lot of adventures and gets banged-up sometimes. But there isn't gratuitous violence.

How hard it is to categorize these books; to me, it is a case-by-case judgment.

Lesa said...

I agree with you, Kathy, which is making this tough for me. And, sometimes, it's a case-by-case judgment in the works of one author, even within a series.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I admit that I stopped reading Lee Child's books because I read one that was not only too violent, but the main character enjoyed brutally killing some people; he relished it.
Too much for me.

Yet I read Michael Connelly's books, really like the one with the lawyer main character, but like some of Bosch's also.

Thrillers so varied.

So when I see a list of Thrillers, I look up each one before I think about reading it.
Yet many Swedish mysteries are thrillers, some violent, some not, but some not worth missing.

Worse comes to worse, I get it out of the library, where it's free and return it if I don't like it, stop reading or give to a friend who can deal with it.

Lesa said...

Complicated, isn't it? You're right. The library is a good place to test books and authors you're not sure about. Then, if you find someone you love, and know you'll be safe, you can buy the books. I used to tell people they could always get the book at their public library, but, nowadays, with all of the budget cutbacks, it's hard to promise you can get all of the current books there. (sniff - that hurts to write.)

kathy d. said...

Yes, my library doesn't have everything in New York yet!

I was saying Kelli Stanley's "City of Dragons" is a fascinating look at SF in 1940 in the Chinese Community. Her character is a jaded, brave, bold woman detective who carries bourbon around as her weapon.

But what a read! I enoyed it, it was different, fun, I learned a lot.

Can't find that until one tries.

We can write up books and blog about them for other readers, suggest thrillers or others.

Yes, I do cry over lower budgets for new library books. I've been waiting for over a year for many Scandinavian books to get here. And paying $35-#45 isn't my thing.

Lesa said...

So, Kathy,

How do you "classify" Kelli Stanley's book? Is it a PI novel? Thriller? I own it, and haven't had a chance to get to it.

That's just a shame that you've been waiting that long for those books. But, I agree. That price is way too much.

kathy d. said...

Kelli Stanley's book is a p.i. novel, a mystery, a historical mystery since it takes place in 1940.

I wouldn't say it's a thriller but am not sure what a thriller is. There's the chase, the fast-paced mysteries. How does one define a thriller? At Int'l Thriller Writers, all sorts of books are listed.

Lesa said...

I know that they list all kinds of books on that site, Kathy. I think you answered though, when you said a historical mystery with a P.I.

Here's a definiton from Thriller Press. "It is difficult to state a clear definition of a thriller because thrillers cross over many genres of writing. However, the single greatest characteristic of a thriller is the obvious one. It "thrills" as one reads it. The plots are scary, the characters are at great risk and the novels are constructed in a manner that makes the reader really want to turn the page. Thomas Harris's SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Ken Follett's THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE and Peter Benchley's JAWS are all classic thrillers."

kathy d. said...

I've always felt that way reading Linwood Barclay's edge-of-your seat plots, can't put them down or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series or "The Hidden Man," by David Ellis.

Lots of books are like that but not scary.

I read "Vanished," by Joseph Finder which I could not put down. It was nominated by Int'l Thriller Writers for a top mystery prize. But it wasn't scary but it is a page-turner.
The character was at risk but not like horror-type risk.

Lesa said...

It's hard to break every book down as to definitions, isn't it, Kathy?

kathy d. said...

Yes, it's very hard to break down books into categories. I still have to decide whether to start one on a case-by-case basis and as you said, Lesa, sometimes it's even books within a series.

Lesa said...

You're right, Kathy. As much as I like to read books in order, sometimes I've had to skip a book that just didn't fit. For instance, I've read MOST of Sue Grafton's. I really liked U, but I didn't finish S or T.

kathy d. said...

Sue Grafton's books are okay with me, not my first pick, but I'll spend a weekend with Kinsey Millhone over this summer and enjoy it.

A friend just read "Innocent," Scott Turow's new legal mystery. She liked it a lot and she's finicky. So if legal mysteries are up anyone's alley, this one seems good. It's reviewed in the NYT Book Review this weekend.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Kathy. I'm not a big fan of legal novels, but I heard Scott Turow on NPR the other day, and he was really funny in his interview with Scott Simon.