Lately, I've found myself enjoying historical mysteries, which have not always been my cup of tea. And I think I had an epiphany regarding why.
It occurs to me that, no matter how one slices and dices our genre, it can be reduced (if one wishes to be reductive) to procedure. Murder happens; is investigated; is brought to a logical and sometimes surprising conclusion. One doesn't get to the surprise without the procedure.
"Procedure" is one of those words with not very sexy connotations. The term doesn't connote anything very interesting at all - the vision conjured up is one of flatfeet knocking on a lot of doors, chasing down questionable leads, and filling out forms in triplicate. Not exactly pulse-pounding. This might be why we have moved away from using the term. Many of today's crime writers might not feel complimented to hear their work described as "procedural."
As a point of contrast, look at the work of McBain and Shannon. The latter, in particular, was almost ruthless in her persistent belief that police work is not about brilliant deductions or literary clues, but rather about talking to a lot of people, not getting very far, and occasionally catching the crooks red-handed or having them turned in, completely unexpectedly, by vindictive rivals.
I like procedure, which I see as inseparable from plot, which I see as inseparable from the mystery genre. In the wrong hands, procedure can and does seem boring. That's why, I think, the best writers find a way to sex up their procedure - and this is what historicals seem to excel in doing. As an example, look at the quite prolific P.C. Doherty. He has an Egyptian series as well as a couple of medieval series. In one of his Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries (set in England of the early 1300s), The Waxman Murders, Corbett essentially serves as a Steve Carella or one of Shannon's guys from the LAPD. Corbett sits in a room and has people brought in for questioning, or he travels from place to place and asks questions of people. Nothing particularly interesting about that - but the setting, as well as Corbett's quirky colleagues, add a terrific level of interest. While seeing the suspects questioned, I'm also learning about the legal system of medieval England AND reading about the way people lived back then. In essence, Corbett has sexed up his procedure by adding further layers to it.
Crazily, part of what made me enjoy this particular book is my awareness that if I skimmed through it, I'd miss a lot. I don't mean this in a braggy way, but I read Pynchon and Robbins without having to turn to a dictionary. This is far from the case with Doherty - I'd absolutely flunk a vocabulary test based on these books, because they are so steeped in the language of the time, particularly with regard to garments, weapons, and religious practices. (Note to Doherty's publishers: Please consider adding a glossary to the end of the books - readers will thank you.) When I have to slow down, I savor the reading a little more. So between the vocabulary and the period details, a procedural has become something richer and more rewarding. This leads me to today's tip for writers: Procedure is essential, but not sufficient.