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Mysteries in Unusual Formats

Avid mystery fans are familiar with the expectations of the genre. Occasionally, an author will try something new and delight fans in the process. In this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss mysteries that bend genre conventions.


Wrong Place Wrong Time (2023) Gillian McAllister

Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister written (1684) Aphra Behn

Dracula (1897) Bram Stoker

Woman in White (1859) Wilkie Collins

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (2019) Holly Jackson

The Christmas Appeal (2023) Janice Hallet

The Appeal (2021) Janice Hallett

The Woman in the Library (2022) Sulari Gentill

The Documents in the Case (1930) Dorothy L. Sayers

Ink Black Heart (2022) Robert Galbraith

The Block Party: A Novel (2023) Jamie Day

Security (2016) Gina Wohlsdorf

Murder in the Family (2023) Cara Hunter

Tell Me What Really Happened (2023) Chelsea Sedoti

The Twyford Code (2022) Janice Hallett

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels (2023) Janice Hallett

Sliding Doors (1998) film

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) film

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you?
SarahI’m doing really well how about you?
BrookI’m great and I’m excited to talk about today’s topics: unusual formats.
SarahYeah, so as mystery fans and mystery readers, we are most familiar with stories that follow the progression of the detective as he or she gathers the clues and interviews suspects and comes to a conclusion about who the culprit is. Or maybe in a domestic thriller, we see the perspective of different characters. We get their interpretation of events until the final big reveal at the end. But I’ve recently noticed a few mysteries that are told in unusual formats. When I first proposed this topic to you, I was thinking of Gillian Mcallister’s book Wrong Place Wrong Time, which is told in reverse. It opens with a woman witnessing her son commit a crime and then she relives time leading up to the event trying to prevent it. It was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s looking for something different. Most of the stories that I’ve found that are um, what you would consider unusual formats are epistolary and so you know the epistolary novel has been around for years.
SarahWhile I was doing the research I found a list published by book riot that shows Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister written in 1684 by Aphra Behn as one of the first epistolary novels. Dracula, published in 1897, of course is probably one of the most famous epistolary novels with letters written between characters. I think for me the appeal of this kind of a story is feeling that you’re reading something that isn’t intended for you. It’s like reading a reply-all email chain or a long Facebook argument. You can’t help yourself getting drawn in. Another example of early mystery fiction told in an epistolary format is the Woman in White published in 1859 by Wilkie Collins.
SarahMore recently, there are books incorporating audio transcripts and other technology that we are more familiar with in the twenty-first century. For example, transcripts from podcast episodes or text messages. I think of Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder as a great example of this.
SarahBrook, I know that you read The Christmas Appeal by Janice Hallett, which is told through emails and text messages as is her first book The Appeal. And she’s written a couple of other books that also explore different ways of telling mysteries. Another unusual format is a book within a book. So, I really enjoyed Solari Genteel’s The Woman in the Library, which was published in 2022, especially because of the author is sleuth perspective in this book.
SarahGolden age author Dorothy L. Sayers published one book in 1930 that doesn’t include her sleuth Peter Whimsy. But is told in a series of letters titled Documents in the Case. I recently started reading it and it like I said earlier like it’s really interesting to just read something that is intended for someone else. So, Brook have you in addition to reading The Christmas Appeal have you read anything like this?
BrookAh, yeah, and I love epistolary novels ah, ever since being a lit major a long long time ago I just I love them and for the same reason that you say, Sarah. It feels like you are in someone else’s business like you’re somewhere and you’re getting the goods that that you’re not supposed to be there. It’s that voyeurism feeling. But one book that I can think of that I recently read that utilizes an unusual format is Ink Black Heart and this is I think the fifth book in the Robert Galbraith series. It came out in 2022. And this one is ah the entire book isn’t told this way. But so it has elements of this unusual format where sections are the online conversations between suspects in like a gaming atmosphere and so the detectives are like you’re reading over their shoulder because they’re trying to see what’s going on in the case by following these gamers. I have to admit it was hard for a while I think as somebody who you know we get used to that traditional story that you described in the intro and it it can be kind of jarring for a minute. But once you get into it then you realize what’s going on and um and it can be a lot of fun because then you start to have that feeling like you’re reading someone’s inside information.
SarahWell and and that kind of sense of not really knowing what’s going on or or um, being surprised I listened to The Appeal by Janice Hallett without realizing that it was going to be a series of um emails and text messages between the characters in in how the story was told um, and yeah, it took me a while to figure out. Ok this is this is how the story is going to be told.
SarahUm, but as you say once once you figure that out it it then becomes just so enthralling right? That you’re you’re reading someone else’s private communication. But I have to say I think I prefer ah books that are in the format that you described Ink Black Heart, where there is some of that traditional narrative that you are familiar with that is supplemented with these extra snippets whether it’s ah as in that example, the gamer forum conversations. I’m reading a book right now called um, The Block Party and ah, it’s largely in kind of that traditional format that we would expect but every now and again there are excerpts from I’m assuming it’s a neighborhood Facebook group or maybe it’s a neighborhood whatsapp conversation. But you know you get these um, different voices in these snippets of conversations and I really am impressed with how authors can in a very short amount of text really convey the different voices of characters.
BrookI agree I think that for character ah revelation I guess is the word this works so well I’ve really felt that in the Janice Hallett book The Christmas Appeal because their emails and their texts back and forth depending on who they were talking to, they would have you know a “Sally, the dinner was wonderful” and then they’re talking to Bob and they’re like “can you believe they served that?” And so you get the feeling of the relationships and the characterization just like really clearly, really quickly. So it’s fun.
SarahSo I mentioned A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder in in the introduction and that’s a YA novel. It’s the first in a series of I think three where the main character decides that she’s going to do a podcast. Ah, true crime podcast investigating the death of um I think it was ah a classmate a couple of years ago or maybe the older sister of a classmate I can’t remember anyway. Um I listened to that book and I really appreciated that they for the podcast episode pieces um brought in voices of other characters so that it sounded like it was a podcast right? So she’s you know, doing an interview with um, a friend or brother of the accused killer and so then it’s a different voice. It’s not just her voice and I think that’s something that an audio book. You know when you listen to something you can get that richer experience.
BrookAnd I wonder because I know that you also listened to The Appeal on audio and you shared with me earlier. Um, when you were reading it that at first you’re struggling to figure out what was going on and I wonder if that book had been produced with different narrators if that would have been easier and quicker.
SarahI think it was, Brook. It was a while ago that I that I listened to. Because it opens with that email that comes from the supervising lawyer for the for the case. Right? And it’s sent to the two associates who are reviewing all of these documents and then every now and again you get a little exchange between the associates about whatever it is that they’ve that they’ve been working on and I think it was because I just didn’t have that visual context that this is an email that I’m listening to right? Um, or this is a and and I think it like I think they read the meta diet data. So that you know you know this is sent on Tuesday September 16 at 8:45 am or whatever. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was I was cleaning while I was listening to it or something and you know sometimes I don’t have my full attention which is a terrible thing to admit. But um I I did have to go back and restart it and and. Say like ok you this is important information and you really need to to um to listen to it.
BrookSo that’s a good point. For these unusual formats when we have epistolary elements. There are some benefits to listening to an audiobook and there are other benefits to actually having the physical book or an ebook and the experience is maybe a little different depending on the format that you are enjoying the story through.
BrookI learned of ah a book that I have not read but seems very interesting when researching this and it’s called Security, by Gina Wohlsdorf from 2016 so a few years back. And this one is seen it seems to be like you said that there’s some traditional narrative. But then the unusual format component is scenes from various security cameras that are in this resort so you get verbal description of what’s happening on security cameras you know at that moment. So at that time of day what’s happening on each camera. I find the idea of it a little jarring. Like I’m you know speaking of trying to incorporate the idea of reading a series of emails or texts like this is visual description. But I did see that a few reviewers basically said what you and I did, which was “it was a little hard to get into. But once they did, they really got that that sensation of voyeurism in this particular novel.
SarahOh that sounds really interesting and so my hold didn’t come through from the library in time for me to read Kara Hunter’s Murder in the Family which was released last year but apparently it uses television transcripts and other media excerpts um to tell the story. And it sounds you know similar to what you were just describing and I honestly I can’t wait to read it like I think it’ll be a really I hope it is a really interesting read.
SarahAnother kind of unusual format that I read I think this was last year was, Tell Me What Really Happened. And again this is YA and it is a series of police interviews with a group of kids who I think one of them has gone missing and so they’re trying to figure out what’s happened. They went on a camping trip and one of them didn’t come home. And you know so it’s it’s because the characters are all teenagers you get that kind of teenage voice that seems a little bit more pronounced because. It’s supposed to be what they’re saying or what they’ve said rather than um, you know when we’re reading a ah book featuring teen characters. You know, ah the descriptions of of what they’re doing isn’t written as a teenager would speak.
BrookYeah, well and I think that these unusual formats lend themselves really nicely to um the idea of unreliable narrators because.
BrookBecause you’re getting the words straight from them. It actually reminds me a lot of the idea of gone girl because we’re seeing her words in her alleged journal, and then we later find out that it was a lie and so I guess I’m almost saying the opposite of what I’ve said earlier is just where we really learn a lot about the characters but in this sense the characters we can get a really good unreliable narrator twist later because we think we’re seeing their honest true thoughts, their honest statement to the police officer and then later discover that we’ve been had.
SarahYeah, and I think that’s a really good point, Brook because it probably depends on the format of how their thoughts are being conveyed to us right? So in those you know group chats someone’s true colors are more likely to come through than as you say if they’re writing something that they’re expecting someone else to read so their diary or even if it’s a letter to someone or or an email to someone. I don’t know if people are more cautious in email because there’s always a risk that it could you know once you’ve sent it off. It could It could be forwarded to anybody. Right? Um, which is far less likely to happen if you’re writing a um handwriting a letter. For example.
BrookExactly Yeah, it’s such a creative opportunity for authors who are willing to take on this this challenge.
SarahYou know thinking about Janice Hallett she really seems to have done exactly that, right? I think all of the books that she’s published have played with format. So, The Appeal and The Christmas Appeal are these transcripts of of emails and text messages that the legal team is reviewing um her second book. The Twford Code is audio transcripts and her third book the Mysterious Case of The Alperton Angels I haven’t read that yet. Um, so I don’t know what that format is but she really seems to be leaning into that. And I read another book after I read Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister I read another book by hers and it was a much more traditional format in terms of the way that the book was told.
SarahAnd obviously like once you’ve done a story in reverse, you’re probably not going to tell all of your stories like that. But hats off to Janice Hallett for like really playing with that format.
BrookAbsolutely you know you mentioned the book within a book format and I hadn’t thought of this but many of Robert Goddard’s books and we spoke about him in our recent Winter TBR lists are similar to that because you’re oftentimes getting large portions of a character’s journal because many times he does like a past tense and a present tense. You know way to tell a story which I suppose is an unusual format in and of itself you go to the past. And hear part of the story and then you come back to the future but a lot of times that’s done in someone’s journal. And I love that as well. I love that idea of books within books or ah or or getting inside someone’s journal.
BrookAs far as film and TV goes probably the only way to do much of unusual formats because we are talking about visual is probably the first example that you talked about those nonlinear or time shift kind of stories. And we do see that an awful lot where the first scene you see in the mystery show or movie is maybe the crime or maybe you see the villain but you don’t know who it is and then we go back to the beginning and tell the rest of the story. That’s that’s a pretty common way to tell a story visually but I will say that you know we are looking at a nonlinear story then.
SarahYeah, that’s a that’s a good point. And in Wrong Place Wrong Time, she relives days in sequence right? So like she goes back one day and then she goes back two days and then she goes back five days like you know so she’s seeing she realizes. She’s reliving um significant moments and it’s kind of that you know if I could have made a different choice. What would have happened right? She’s she’s kind of playing with that in the book. And um I mean we’ve seen that in movies. It wasn’t a mystery but Sliding Doors, right.
BrookYeah, yeah, and even you know Glass Onion has a nonlinear element because we’re getting the story told to us and then about at the halfway point if I’m remembering correctly.  We discover that actually at one character is a twin and so we go back to the beginning and we retrace the footsteps and we go back and we find out what what actually happened So There’s some nonlinear storytelling going on in that movie as well. Well, Sarah this was so much fun I love thinking about all the different ways to tell a mystery story.
SarahYeah, so it was a great conversation, Brook and thank you for having it with me today.
BrookYeah, it was great and thank you everyone for listening today to Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.