So what’s up with mysteries, anyway? They’re all kinds of confusing.

If you saw my last blog post, you know my writing is going in a new direction…the mystery/crime thriller. Personally, I’m kind of partial to the classic whodunit, but for anyone who’s read my book CLEAN EXIT, you know I have no qualms tackling a good caper thriller too. But as I’ve been researching the market, I’ve begun to observe several surprising trends that I can’t quite explain. I wanted to share them with you today in hopes that maybe some of you might help give me some insight.

1. No one seems to know the difference in mystery and suspense.

Seriously. Go to your local bookstore. Peruse Amazon’s categories. Take a look at all the different types of books all lumped together in the broad ‘mystery’ category. It’s confusing as all get out.

Granted, every genre has sub-genres, but to me, there should be an obvious disconnect from a book that describes itself as a ‘mystery’ from a book that’s obviously intended to be a psychological thriller or a caper novel or just plain ol’ suspense.

If my local Barnes & Noble is an indication of the rest of the stores nationwide, bookstores seem to be confused about this as well. If you go to their Mystery section, you’ll find anything from cozy mysteries to police procedurals to forensic thrillers to psychological thrillers. If you walk to the other side of the store and start scanning the more generic Literature section, you’ll often find the same types of books there, as well.

Granted, having owned a small press in the past, I realize that much of this categorization is relegated to the publisher. When it comes time to distribute a book, it can’t leave the warehouse until it’s been given a category to go into the catalogues. I can’t help but wonder how much thought goes into choosing which category to place a particular book in. I guess that would be a question for a publisher’s marketing department, but right now, I don’t know too many of those.

So, what do you think? What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller to you? Share in the comments.

2. What’s up with all the animal, baker, and bed & breakfast sleuths out there?

Now please don’t take that last question the wrong way. I love a great cozy mystery. But my local Barnes & Noble has about four complete shelves dedicated exclusively to the cozy mystery and of them, it seems like half feature a cat as the main detective. The others all seem to feature bakers and hosts at bed and breakfast places, as well as an assortment of themes centered around desserts.

Okay, for the most part, I kind of get this. When I’m scouring the aisles of the mystery section at the bookstore, I’m usually surrounded by sweet little blue-haired old ladies, flipping through the pages of these cute little mysteries. Cozy mysteries, defined loosely here as a classic whodunit that is light and breezy, and typically features an amateur sleuth as opposed to police detective. Think ‘Murder She Wrote’ or ‘Diagnosis Murder’ and you’ll have a great idea of what I’m talking about.

Naturally, these sweet, lil’ old ladies aren’t interested in big, gun-toting, fist-smashing bare-knuckled detectives going up against the mob. No, they read mysteries as a form of relaxation and to, perhaps, exercise their own gray matter by possibly solving the crime before the hero (or cat) does.

But my question is…why cats? Other than Disney’s classic ‘The Cat from Outer Space’, I don’t know too many crime solving felines out there. They don’t even have opposable thumbs, right? So why cats? I can understand the Baker sleuths. I can understand the Librarian detectives. I can even get behind a ghost solving murders with the help of his widow. But cats?

Once again, please don’t take this as a criticism of the cat detective genre. Truth is, I’ve never read one. I’m just hoping someone might give me some reasons why I should give it a try.

3. Man, women like mysteries!

This next observation is going to sound sooooo sexist. Okay, so I’m an unenlightened neanderthal. I’ll own up to that. But I’m also honestly perplexed and am hoping someone can help me understand this better.

Once again, while you’re at your local bookstore, perusing the Mystery section, start reading the authors names. As you do, pay close attention to the sub-genres of each of those books (refer to Observation #1) and you’ll begin to see a major pattern.

[Gross Generalization Coming Up!] For the most part (see? gross generalization averted by that modifier), very very very few men actually write what I would consider a classic mystery novel. They write thrillers galore. They write caper thrillers. They write serial killer thrillers. They write police procedurals. But if you’re looking for a great whodunit or a cozy mystery…you’d be hard pressed.

Oh, there’s a few. Lee Goldberg has written a few good mysteries (especially in his Monk series). Hy Conrad (also a Monk writer) seems to write almost exclusively in the whodunit category. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Tom Straw, as well. Who’s Tom Straw, you might ask? Well, he’s the guy who brought the Richard Castle books to life (all of them were AMAZING!) and is currently writing his own series of mysteries, including the fantastic Buzz Killer.

But that’s three men off the top of my head and I’m already pretty much tapped out. I know there are more, but my old noggin ain’t what it used to be. The only thing that comes to mind when I think of mystery authors generally have no Y’s in their chromosomes. The vast majority of mystery writers (especially cozy mysteries and whodunits) are overwhelmingly female.

As mentioned in Observation #2, we know little old ladies love reading good mysteries. But don’t men enjoy them too? Granted, the explosive action of Remo Williams, Mack Bolan, and Dirk Pitt might appeal to more men than, say, an amateur sleuth slowly and methodically uncovering the truth behind a murder…but surely, there are men out there who like solving murders along with the detectives, just like those little old ladies. I know that I do.

So, once again, I pose a question: am I right in all this male/female generalization? If I am, why do you think there’s such a wide gender gap in mystery fiction?

4. Historicals are just as confusing!

As you know, I’ve been a thriller author during my entire writing career. I’ve written mostly paranormal thrillers and paranormal mysteries. I’ve dabbled a bit in historicals, such as my paranormal adventure The Djinn, as well as in the books I’ve co-written with Jeremy Robinson (The Jack Sigler Continuum series).

There seems to be a pretty fast rule in thriller fiction. Historicals don’t sell. They really don’t. I discovered this while running Seven Realms Publishing when we released Sean Ellis’ amazing Dodge Dalton adventure series. Historical thrillers and adventures just don’t sell well. I don’t really understand why. I love history, myself. And I love going back in time in my fiction, as well. I love smell the foul odors and hearing the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer against the kiln. But statistically speaking, most other people do not.

Unless, that is, you’re talking about mysteries. I’ve noticed the old ‘historicals just don’t sell’ rule doesn’t seem to apply to them. Granted, I could be wrong since I’ve yet to actually publish one myself…but the sheer number of historical mysteries available on the market today gives me great hope that the sub-genre is thriving.

I just don’t understand why. I don’t understand why it works in mysteries, but not in thrillers and adventures. Maybe it all goes back to those little blue-haired ladies again. I’m not sure. But I’m definitely interested in your thoughts about it. What do you think? Are historical mysteries different than historical thrillers or adventures? Is one more acceptable to you than the other?

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts I’ve had recently regarding the mystery genre that I wanted to share with you. Consider it a research project. I legitimately want to hear your opinions on all this. I want your insight. Please leave a comment. Answer any or all of the questions I’ve set forth in this post. I look forward to hearing from you, my friends!

3 thoughts on “So what’s up with mysteries, anyway? They’re all kinds of confusing.”

  1. I have to say, I haven’t thought about these questions much but now that you’ve mentioned them I will start to pay attention a little more.
    Technically, I am a little old lady, in practice, not so much.
    I’m not a big fan of cozy mysteries although they do seem to be very popular, they show up in my daily suggestion lists pretty often and I read them now and again.
    Thrillers are not my favorite either although I do enjoy reading them now and again too. And some of my favorite thrillers have been written by women.
    I don’t pay attention to genre (I have an eclectic taste in genres) as much as I do to well-written. I love any well written book. I am a voracious reader and pretty passionate about inspiring others to read too.
    The other thing about genre is that it is hard to pin down, at least for me. I can never decide and that’s why my lists are two categories Romance and Mystery. Most things kind of broadly fit in one or the other, sort of.
    This was a great post and your questions give much food for thought. Hopefully you will get some good comments.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m hoping for some other great comments myself. But for now, I’m content with just musing on the subject for a while. We’ll just to wait and see if anyone has some insight into this vexing conundrum. I’m also hoping to invite a few mystery authors I know to interview in hopes of answering these questions in the coming weeks. 🙂

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