Our August genres for middle grade book boot camp are mysteries and thrillers. You can find the list of recommended reading for this month as well as some resources here at the Book Boot Camp wiki.
Growing up, my favorite genre was mystery – especially a good “who done it?” As we get ready for our #bookbootcamp Twitter chat, I spent some time reviewing the OLD stuff I grew up on. Having done that, I have a better idea of what I am looking for when I decide a middle grade mystery is either good or not so good.
The earliest mysteries I remember reading were Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books, the first of which was published in 1963. I loved the short story format, and the fact that if you were really paying attention, you could solve the mystery with Encyclopedia. When I was reading The Three Investigator series, it had just started, 1968. The series ran through 1987 with 44 titles.
If you are my age and grew up reading mystery series in school, you have reason to thank a literary syndicate, Stratemeyer Syndicate. Originally founded in 1909 by Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicate was noted for formulaic, ghost-written, and wildly popular mystery and adventure series including Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Hardy Boys. Like most kids, I grew up not knowing that the authors Carolyn Keene, Laura Lee Hope, and F. W. Dixon were pseudonyms.
This week, I re-read the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock. Anachronisms that I did not notice in the 1960’s grabbed my attention. For example, Nancy wears gloves when she drives in her convertible, many of the homes she visits don’t have phones, and why wouldn’t a girl as smart as she is be heading for college? The author refers to Nancy over and over as "the young sleuth." Of course, none of these details were noticed when I read the book in elementary school.
In high school, I read classic mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes and added several “Golden Age”of mystery writing authors to my favorites list, including Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The creepiest murder mystery I ever read was nonfiction, In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote. It terrified me with the randomness of the murders.
I have a few criteria that I look for in a good mystery:
- I want a crime – murder, theft, kidnapping, poison pen letters, I don’t care, but at the end of the book I want to be able to state the conflict as a crime that was committed, and the resolution as the solution to the crime.
- I want enough clues that I can make a reasonable guess at the solution, but don’t give it away too early.
- I am OK with last minute revelations, “Yes! It is true that I was the nanny of the murdered child and that makes me an obvious suspect had you only known that small fact from the beginning!”
- I want the mystery solved at the end. Don’t leave me guessing.
Stratemeyer Syndicate. (2001). In The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/childbooks/stratemeyer_syndicate