I don’t like the term ‘mystery’.
I haven’t always felt this way, and I’m a bit of a hypocrite on it, because I still head straight for the ‘mystery’ section when I go into a bookstore.
But I don’t like the term. I much prefer crime fiction over mystery. And arguing over labels might sound about as fun as arguing over infant baptism, but I’m actually starting to think that the prevalence of the term ‘mystery’ is hurting the crime fiction industry.
A little less than a year ago, Kevin went on a search for a few books for me for Christmas. According to the Chapters/Indigo computers, the books were in the stores. But he couldn’t find them.
After visiting three stores, he did locate them. In Fiction & Literature.
By the time he located them, he was extremely pissed off. And I was baffled. What were the books doing there? They say they’re thrillers right on them.
Which, of course, was the problem, and is where the divide comes in. A mystery, by definition, is typically about an unsolved crime and the driving force of the book is to resolve the case by determining who did it. It’s a situation where something isn’t known, and a lot of people like their mysteries to provide the answers and resolve the crime.
A thriller, by definition, involves knowing. In a thriller the emphasis is on a chase, showdown, rescue… stopping something bad from happening, be it from within or outside the bounds of the law. You usually know who the bad guys are. You might not know everything, but that isn’t the point. The point is about how our protagonist will rescue his kidnapped daughter, or how our hero cop will prevent the robbery.
Not how to figure out who committed the crime.
One of the things that continued to baffle me for the longest time was why I couldn’t find some books in the ‘mystery’ section. I always maintained that when my book came out, that’s where I wanted to find it. I couldn’t figure out why some of the books I associated with my genre weren’t there, and it bugged me.
Until I figured out that 99% of the thrillers were being put in general fiction.
It explained why I couldn’t find Tess Gerritsen, PJ Parrish, MJ Rose and many others in the bookstores. I’m one of those people that carries a list of names, and can be swayed into purchases based on what’s in the store. But by sticking in the mystery section, I wasn’t seeing a lot of authors that I associated with my genre.
Now, what’s funny is that Ken Bruen and Lee Child are both over in mystery. So is Simon Kernick (who is moving more and more into thriller domain with each book, and does it brilliantly).
I have to say that I think it’s a bad move, having them separated out. Perhaps some other people don’t care, but I do. The majority of the people I know, people like me who focus on crime fiction, don’t really look outside the mystery section. That’s where the big table display for hot books is put out. It’s where I can find Mark Billingham, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride, and Simon, so why would I go anywhere else? To me, the ‘mystery’ section has been the cornerstone of my reading life for a good few years now, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
I find myself wishing they’d rename it Crime Fiction – which is what it is. Crime fiction encompasses mystery and thriller territory. I can understand from a simplistic point of view why some people don’t consider thrillers to be mysteries. The main focus of the story is different. But thrillers and mysteries are still first cousins. They're part of the same family - there's more common ground between John Rickards and Stuart MacBride than there is between John and Mordecai Richler.
It seems silly to get into debates about semantics, even to me. I’m not terribly keen on narrow labels, although I’ve admitted I understand how they evolve and that they’re here to stay.
But if I was going to fight over one change, I think this would be it. I hate wandering through Fiction & Literature. It’s such a nebulous section of the bookstore, where action-packed thrillers cozy up beside airy-fairy nonsense about the meaning of light. I can’t quickly put my hands to the stuff that interests me over there.
And I have bought authors off of browsing through the mystery section. Several, in fact, right back to purchasing my first Rankin book. More recently, names that have been on my radar, and because I know every book in that section fits my area of interest, I will peruse the A to Z and select a handful of books from new-to-me authors to give them a try.
But I won’t do that in fiction & literature, because there’s too much stuff over there that doesn’t interest me and it takes far too long to wander through.
I guess, if there’s a moral of the story in this, it’s that if your book is being called a ‘thriller’ and is likely to be put over in that general fiction category, getting into bookstores isn’t going to be enough to get a sale from me. You’re going to have to get my attention some other way. I don’t have the luxury of living anywhere close to an exclusive ‘crime fiction’ bookstore – in fact, I’m about 50 km away from the nearest chain store (one way – that’s a 100km round trip) - which means I’m stuck with how the chains decide to categorize their books.
I’ve got a limited amount of time to make my selections when I do go. Since I tend to always find something I want over in ‘mystery’ I really have no reason to look anywhere else unless I have a specific name I’m looking up.
Most thriller writers will need to find another way onto my radar and, from talking to other readers, I know I’m not the only one who isn’t very likely to pick those books up on chance, either. Being on store shelves is a good thing, but it isn’t enough. You need to be on the right shelves to get noticed by your target audience and I firmly believe that most ‘thriller’ writers are missing a good chunk of that market here. Being more of a ‘mystery’ junkie than a conventional thriller reader, figuring this out isn’t enough to entice me out more. I have limited bookstore time because of living so far away.
Sometimes I wonder how long it will be before I give up and just start ordering all my books online, but I still love going to the store, holding books in my hands and finding one to leave with that I’m excited about reading. And that’s an experience you just don’t have online.