Bill White is a journalist who writes for The Morning Call, a newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He also runs a daily blog (http://blogs.mcall.com/bill_white/) in which he discusses, among other things, detective fiction.
I asked Bill a few questions about the genre.
1. Were there any fictional detectives that you felt were missing from your list of best literary detectives (http://blogs.mcall.com/bill_white/2011/06/best-literary-detectives.html)?
I regretted omitting the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. While I understand that those books were churned out by various ghostwriters, they helped introduce a lot of young people – including me and my kids – to the fun of reading in general and reading mysteries in particular. There also are some interesting women detectives, beyond Lisbeth Salander, who could have made the list. Miss Marple, Anna Pigeon and Kinsey Milhone all come to mind.
2. Do you write short stories? If so, what are they about?
I’ve written a handful of short stories, but I think I’m better suited to the short essay format of columns and blogs. I’m writing at least eight pieces a week, including some satirical stuff (such as the detective-story style column I reproduced in that blog post) that gives me a chance to write in different styles, so I haven’t felt the need to spend more time writing when I get home. More to the point of this subject, I’ve never tried my hand at writing crime fiction, much as I like reading it.
3. What do you think Raymond Chandler would be writing today if he were still alive?
I think Chandler was so talented that he could write anything successfully, but I don’t see why he couldn’t still be writing detective novels. They’re still a very popular genre today, and his wonderful way of conveying a sense of place would translate very well to any era.
4. What qualities do a literary detective, in your opinion, have to have?
It’s hard to generalize when you look at my list there. Some have great fascinating back stories; some almost none. Some are brilliant; some just dogged. Some are prone to violence; some almost never lift a fist or a gun. I do think it’s fair to say that they all are relentless in their pursuit of the truth, even when it might be smarter to back off, and that all of them as characters are so compelling that the plots tend to take a back seat.
5. What are some stereotypes that plague the genre?
I suppose there are stereotypical characters and conventions in every genre, but what strikes me as I look at my list is what a tremendous variety of writing styles, settings and feels are represented. The problem I see is that when you’re writing a series for as long as some of these writers have and with the resistance many readers have to tinkering with beloved characters, you fall into such familiar patterns that the stories stop feeling fresh. If you’re Robert B. Parker, what more can say about Spenser that you haven’t already said? The answer, in his case and many others, is that you create new characters and new series, just to give yourself a little creative elbow room.