Bringing Back Gothic Mysteries To New Readers
One of the interesting things about being a writer is reading a fabulous book, finishing it, and thinking, “Why did that work on such a visceral level? What gave it that special pop that made me put it on my keeper shelf?”
Okay, most people, notably my children, don’t find my tendency to analyze good fiction charming. They’re annoyed when I shout out things like, “Foreshadowing!” or “Turning point!” But as a working writer, I’m fascinated by upcoming trends and new ideas. The trouble is, when you stick around this business long enough, you discover there are no new ideas. What worked in the past also works in the present because the stories that people want to read don’t change; only the presentation does.
The latest trend that has intrigued me is the appearance of the Lady Sleuths and their marked resemblance to the old, overworked, and abused Gothic mysteries. Gothics staples including:
—youthful, usually innocent female
—crumbling ruin of a castle/manor house/hotel, etc.
—tormented lord/husband/detective/person of importance
—unexplained, scary events occurring to the protagonist
—a mystery to be solved
Daphne du Maurier created the twentieth-century voracious appetite for Gothic mysteries with her most famous novel, Rebecca, about an innocent and impoverished young woman who fell in love (in the first person) with the tortured master of Manderley. The Gothic-typical English manor house is haunted by the evil lingering presence of the hero’s first wife, Rebecca. Du Maurier described the story as macabre. I would add brilliant in the psychological study of a difficult marriage and an intimidated second wife forced to grow into a strong, enduring woman.
The mid-twentieth century marked the heyday of romance in Gothic mysteries, with hundreds of books by lady authors, notably Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Mary Stewart. These women created plot twists and turns that fascinate even today. Add a ghost to the mix and you have Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels. While writing this article, I reread Ammie and admired once again the characters and brilliant construction of one of the scariest ghost stories I’ve read.
Of course, as part of my religion, I’m a devout coward, so I don’t read too many tales of terror.
Barbara Michaels also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, and I suspect she’s the first author who transformed the Gothic heroine into the Lady Sleuth. In 1975, Crocodile on the Sandbank featured Amelia Peabody, an early twentieth-century ballbuster…er, spinster…who, on the death of her father, stunned her family when she traveled to Egypt to become an archaeologist and fell into adventure, danger, love, and mystery. The best thing about Amelia Peabody: she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. For me and many, many other readers, the change from dewy virgins to determined investigative females was a welcome twist on the Gothic template.
For a long time, it seemed Amelia Peabody was the only Lady Sleuth around and Gothic mysteries died with the occasional exception of a new treatment by a few noted authors (Christine Feehan’s The Scarletti Curse, Tiffany Reisz’s The Lucky Ones.)
Then, as so often happens in publishing, the exception became a trend. Sherry Thomas developed her Lady Sherlock series, and the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women, presents a remarkable twist on the Sherlock legend: Sherlock Holmes is, yes, a female. Silent in the Grave begins Deanna Raybourn’s stunning Lady Julia Gray series, with our heroine’s intrepid investigation into the sudden death of her husband and, of course, the appearance of an intelligent and tormented hero.
The Young Adult infatuation with dystopian worlds made a success flip to Gothic mysteries in Kerri Maniscalco’s debut novel featuring Audrey Rose Wadsworth, a wealthy and original seventeen-year-old who is secretly studying forensic science and becomes an unwilling sleuth in Stalking Jack the Ripper. (Her follow-up titles are Hunting Prince Dracula and Escaping From Houdini, thus winning the Best Search Engine Book Titles Award.)
With the nineteenth century well represented, authors are moving onto new ground: the early twentieth-century. Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues opens the Phryne Fisher series about a self-determined Englishwoman who moves to Australia to become a detective. Of course, the books have been made into a TV series; note that the books are much more wild and free. Amanda Quick plays off the well-known Hitchcock titles and tales with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Other Lady Vanishes, set in the Southern California seaside resort town of Burning Cove where the scandalous 1930s Hollywood personalities come to cavort, relax … and be murdered.
Reinventing the traditions of Gothic mysteries was a challenge I gladly took up when I created Dead Girl Running. I live in the Pacific Northwest where, during the long winter nights, storms lash the isolated seacoast, and for a writer, that environment begs for the construction of the massive, castle-like Yearning Sands Resort and a protagonist on the run from a horrific past. Dead Girl Running begins,
I have three confessions:
- I’ve got the scar of a gunshot on my forehead.
- I don’t remember an entire year of my life.
- My name is Kellen Adams … and that’s half a lie.
Kellen is a survivor, determined to discover and eliminate the ruthless killer who stalks the halls of the resort she now calls home. Every friendly face hides a mask. Every kind word sounds like a lie. Kellen is driven to defend her job, her friends, and the place she’s come to call home. Yet she wonders—with the scar of a gunshot on her forehead and amnesia that leaves her unsure of her past, could the killer be staring her in the face?
There are so many the magnificent Gothic mysteries and audacious Lady Sleuths, how could I choose a favorite? Easy — it chose me. From the time I first read Jane Eyre as a teen, the story absorbed me to the point that when I read, I don’t yell out, “Foreshadowing!” or “Turning point!” I simply live the events of Jane’s life and absorb the strength of the tale. That’s the grand part of the Gothic mysteries; at their foundation, they’re about honor, friendship, and, ultimately, finding the strength to fight and win against all odds. In the world today, what wonderful lessons for us all!
About DEAD GIRL RUNNING:
I have three confessions to make:
I’ve got the scar of a gunshot on my forehead.
I don’t remember an entire year of my life.
My name is Kellen Adams…and that’s half a lie.
Girl running…from a year she can’t remember, from a husband she prays is dead, from homelessness and fear. Tough, capable Kellen Adams takes a job as assistant manager of a remote vacation resort on the North Pacific Coast. There, amid the towering storms and the lashing waves, she hopes to find sanctuary. But when she discovers a woman’s dead and mutilated body, she’s soon trying to keep her own secrets while investigating first one murder…then another.
Now every guest and employee is a suspect. Every friendly face a mask. Every kind word a lie. Kellen’s driven to defend her job, her friends, and the place she’s come to call home. Yet she wonders—with the scar of a gunshot wound on her forehead and amnesia that leaves her unsure of her own past, could the killer be staring her in the face?
Author bio: New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd writes “edge-of-the-seat suspense” (Iris Johansen) with “brilliantly etched characters, polished writing, and unexpected flashes of sharp humor that are pure Dodd” (ALA Booklist). Her fifty-eight books have been called “scary, sexy, and smartly written” by Booklist and, much to her mother’s delight, Dodd was once a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. Enter Christina’s worlds and join her mailing list at www.christinadodd.com.