Friday, February 20, 2004

The niche of mystery 

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch had an article by Bill Eichenberger on the genre and its propensity for books catering to a specific crowd. No link available, alas, as the Dispatch is a pay-registration site, but here are some choice bits with my own comments.

"It used to be that if someone wanted a mystery to do with forensics," Toni [Cross, co-owner of the Foul Play Mystery Bookshop in Westerville, OH] recalled recently, "you handed them a Patricia Cornwell novel.

"Now you have forensic anthropologists, forensic paleontologists. Today, Watson would have to be a pediatric periodontist.

"Now you have mysteries solved by hairdressers . . . and mysteries solved by hairdressers who only do blondes. I'm holding in my hand right now a book called Highlights to Heaven . It's subtitled A Bad Hair Day Mystery -- not just any kind of hair day, a bad -hair day."

Matters aren't helped by authors who switch from one niche to another, as most eventually do.

"When they switch, they usually switch names, too," John said. "Monica Ferris (A Stitch in Time: A Needleworkers Mystery ) is on her third name. So you don't just have to keep track of all the series; you have to keep track of the authors as they change names."

Willetta Heising -- author of Detecting Women: A Readers Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written by Women, in its third edition -- understands.

"Hey, when we say there's a mystery for everyone, we're not kidding," she explained with a chuckle. "I just got 15 in the mail today with subtitles like A Needlework Mystery, A Scrapbooking Mystery, An Antiquing Mystery and A Figure-Skating Mystery .

"I envisioned someone sitting around the editorial department of a publishing house, having just come off a binge of Home & Garden Television, concocting all these mysteries."

Now, I myself don't read most of these overly compartmentalized mysteries, because what's only pointed out later in the article is that the vast majority of them fall into the cozy category, which I am deliberately less familiar with than the more hardboiled genre. But even in the grittier section, there are tons of different starring roles: cops, forensic pathologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, PIs with differing specialties, all kinds of journalists, Wall Street types, and on and on. But hardboiled readers are, to my mind, different because they look for books that have a certain feel or type, and are less obsessed about a particular profession or interest. But like Cross says in this article, I can attest to the customer who walked into the bookstore and demanded a certain type of mystery, setting, or character, and did we stock such a thing. And almost invariably, we did, whether in the regular stalls or the out-of-print section, no matter how out of left field the request was.

What's also interesting is that many of these subtitled mysteries are from a single publishing house program: Berkley Prime Crime, which puts out dozens of paperback original cozies per year and are expanding the number they publish each month. St. Martin's is fairly cozy-heavy, as well, and we need not talk about the success of the Cat Duo, Rita Mae Brown and Lilian Jackson Braun (because frankly, I'd really rather not.)

Which leads to the crux of the article: why are niche mysteries so damned popular? Margery Flax, Office Manager of the Mystery Writers of America, had the answer:

"The reason there are all these sub-genres? They sell. People like to read stories that might have their personal interests as part of the story, or they like learning about something when they read."

And as long as fans rush into the bookstores to buy the latest releases and demand even more specialized books, these niche mysteries won't be going away anytime soon.

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