ATLANTA — Suppose you're a pretty well-read person who somehow never got around to trying mysteries. So you go into the Superduper Bookstore, and ask a clerk for the mystery section.
"Mysteries?" he says. (Are you just imagining that sneer?) "Do you mean crime, suspense, thrillers, true crime, or noir fiction?"
Wait. Before you decide to head over to regular fiction and get Anita Brookner's latest, don't despair.
For starters, there's a reason why you're confused. With more than 1,500 new mysteries being published every year, no one can keep up with all of them. (This writer, who has reviewed mysteries for more than a decade, discovered at least a dozen unfamiliar authors in the course of reporting this article.) Even the mystery experts can't decide on a definition of a "mystery" any more. Consider:
"I don't use that word," says Bill Malloy, editor-in-chief of Mysterious Press.
"I prefer to call it 'crime fiction,'" says Mark Stevens, owner of Atlanta's Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop.
"I don't much care what you call them," says Jim Huang, who has been editor of the mystery magazine, The Drood Review, for 14 years. "I just know them when I see them."
That might be easy for Mr. Huang, who, in addition to editing the Drood Review, also owns Deadly Passions Bookshop in Kalamazoo, Mich.
But for newcomers to the mystery field, and for people who have never been aficionados, the changes within the genre can be bewildering. So here's a sort of consumer guide, a brief history of the mystery, some explanation of trends, and even a hint of what the next hot trend may be. Because there is one thing you can be sure of: Whatever you call it, the mystery field is now producing some of the best novels being written.
Arguing about who wrote the first mystery is one of those parlor games that encourages some people to run to reference books and others simply to run away. After all, are there not mysteries in the Bible? In many Greek texts, and ancient tales from almost every land? You see where this could lead.
However, if you were asked on the TV show "Jeopardy" who was the father of the detective story, your "daily double" points would be safe by answering "Edgar Allen Poe." His detective C. Auguste Dupin solved "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841.
But real-life French detective Eugene Vidocq's "Memoires" had been published in 1828, while back in 1764, Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" appeared ... and so on.
And here's an interesting tidbit: One of the first mystery bestsellers was written in 1887 by Australian Fergus Hume, called "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab." It didn't do much at home, but a London group reissued it and sold more than 400,000 copies - a staggering number for those days.
Still, poor Mr. Hume's success was destined to be overshadowed when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the still-incomparable Sherlock Holmes to the world in the 1890s.
The "golden age" of detective fiction is generally regarded as the time between 1925 and 1945, when works by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot); Earl Biggers (Charlie Chan); John P. Marquand (Mr. Moto); G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown); Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe); Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason); and others appeared.
The famous hard-boiled detective took its shape from Dashiell Hammett's continental Op[erator] and Sam Spade. Raymond Chandler showed that truly literary fiction could indeed be found between mystery covers with his tone-perfect Philip Marlowe novels ("The Big Sleep," "The High Window").
Two important points emerged from all this. Mystery fiction was already doing what it does better than any other genre - reflecting the society at the moment. It was no wonder that dear Miss Marple appeared when she did; and it was just as easy to understand that readers shaken by two world wars would welcome the cynicism and suspicion of possible post-war tough guys.
"The moral center sort of gave way in the 1950s," observes Mr. Malloy. "We'd gotten rid of Hitler, but now there were the big bad Soviets, maybe UFOs, a lot of insecurity under that calm '50s faade. Ellery Queen, for one, reflected this with scarier tales, as did Patricia Highsmith."
But it's also important to realize that for decades after the "golden age," mysteries remained pretty much in these two categories - the sweet old-lady "cozy" and the tough-guy private-eye type. Both, however, were traditional mysteries in the sense that "you, as the reader, match wits with a detective," Mallory said. "The narrative was usually driven by a crime."
But things were about to change. In 1977, another hard-boiled detective appeared, but - she was a dame. Her name was Sharon McCone, the author was Marcia Muller, and so began the biggest change in mystery fiction in decades.
"Absolutely, the most pervasive trend was the introduction of the female private eye," declares Mr. Stevens. "I mean, back then, who knew who Marcia Muller was? She laid the groundwork. What happened was that American women weren't seeing their lives reflected in mysteries. Their lives weren't like Miss Marple's."
But many women readers could identify with Sharon McCone or Kinsay Milhone (Sue Grafton's creation) or Sara Peretsky's V. I. Warchawski. These were young, tough, single women trying to do a job, and maybe even have time left for a personal life.
Statistics tracked by Huang bear this out. Of new mysteries published in 1988, 586 were by men; 248 by women. By 1995, of 895 new titles, 501 were by men, 376 by women.
As these books and others (such as P .D. James and Dick Francis) jumped onto national bestseller lists, several magazines and papers were calling the 1980s a second "Golden Age of Mysteries." As if that didn't open the publishing floodgates enough, a writer called Scott Turow published "Presumed Innocent" in 1987, and suddenly an entire new category emerged, which shows no sign of weakening, even now - the legal thriller.
"Oh sure, legal thrillers are still hot," affirms Stevens. "It all started with Turow, and then Grisham, of course. We still sell a lot." What about those "cozies," the industry term for traditional, often British mysteries. While Stevens says his Anglophile readers still seek them out, as well as traditional British police procedurals, he doesn't see enough new ones coming in. "It would be premature to say they're dead, but they are moribund."
Huang agrees. "I think the publishers think they're dying out, but many of my readers still want them." Light years in style and tone from the cozies is that new category, "thriller," which has caused confusion for some readers.
"Well, a thriller often has to do with espionage," explains Malloy, "but it also includes all those serial crime novels." Since "The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris, Malloy says, a big distinction is that in a thriller the narrative is driven not so much by the protagonist solving the crime, but the protagonist not getting hurt.
"In 'Lambs' you're most interested in seeing that she doesn't get hurt, that she doesn't get eaten," he says.
Regional mysteries are popular, too, with certain readers seeking out books set in specific areas. The southwest remains a popular site, thanks to Tony Hillerman, as does Florida. (Will it ever be the same after Carl Hiassen?)
Just as diverse as the locations are the occupations of the protagonists, from nuns and housewives to teachers and bookstore owners.
"I'll tell you one trend I see coming," says Stevens. "It's the Internet stalker, high-tech thriller. Publishers seem to be pushing it, but I have to tell you, no one has ever come in here asking for an Internet thriller. But they're sort of sneaking in, along with science-fiction mysteries." Stevens cites Philip Finch's "f2f" and Philip Kerr's "The Grid."
What can a reader do, either to start in the field, or go beyond the bestsellers? The best way of course, is to go to a bookshop specializing in mysteries, if you're near one. And that should be getting easier. According to Huang, the number of mystery bookshops has more than doubled in the last 10 years, from around 50 to more than 100 in the United States. Sales of bestsellers, Stevens and Huang agree, mostly come from either their own recommendations or from other readers in the store.
"Although there are some lazy readers out there," says Stevens, "the ones who won't go beyond the Grishams or the [Patricia] Cornwells, I always believe in my heart that if given a choice, that if you tell a person about a really great but unknown book, I really don't believe people will always choose the Cornwells. They want a good book. You give them a James Lee Burke, they come back for another one."
Huang agrees. "The bottom line is that they want a good story. They want interesting characters that they can either relate to or be fascinated by." So with all this to choose from, is there still something new out there waiting to be declared the latest trend?
Huang and Stevens say yes. It's the historical mystery.
"We've had Ellis Peters for years now, of course," says Huang of the British writer whose Brother Cadfael novels were a yearly gift until her death. "But historical detectives are very popular."
Both men see medieval mysteries selling the most (such as Candace Robb's, "The Apothecary Rose," or Margaret Frazer's, "The Novice's Tale"), but also cite another epoch, ancient Rome (books by Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis) as an attraction.
This writer just finished a dazzling new novel, "Hearts and Bones," by Margaret Lawrence, about a Maine midwife in 1786, who tries to solve a murder.
When asked why they read mysteries, fans have consistently named three factors: an exciting story; believable characters whose lives you care about; and the satisfaction of seeing the good guys win.
Surely that trend hasn't changed, has it?
"Well," cautions Malloy, "people still do read mysteries to see the good guys win, but that's not an overwhelming trend anymore, so they may be disappointed."
Huang is more encouraging - sort of. "Oh, I think the good guys win. But satisfaction now is defined differently. And you have to redefine good guys."
P.D. James gets the last word. She says crime writers are among the few to tell a story "that affirms the sanctity of individual life."
Like the Energizer bunny, interest in mysteries keeps 'going and going.' Old genres still prosper while new twists on mayhem claim center stage.
And the winner is....
Like so many other industries, the mystery world loves to bestow awards upon its own. And while some specialize (the Agatha Award is given by Malice Domestic Conference fans for best "cozy," while the Private Eye Writers of America give the "Shamus Award"), it is generally agreed that the Edgar Award is the most prestigious.
Begun in 1946, the Edgar has "the patina of age," says Bill Malloy, editor in chief of Mysterious Press. "They're titled most prestigious, because they're given by their peers," says Priscilla Ridgway, executive director of the Mystery Writers of America, the group (currently numbering 2,600) that began, and still administers, the awards. Several authors have said that the award has had a huge impact on their careers, she says.
Here are a few recent Edgar winners to let you judge for yourself:
1993 - Bootlegger's Daughter, by Margaret Maron
1994 - The Sculptress, by Minette Walters
1995 - The Red Scream, by Mary Willis Walker
1996 - Come to Grief, by Dick Francis
Sleuth Book Suggestions
If a mystery bookshop isn't near, here are five books that will help beginners get started, or give fans new sources of pleasure. All are in paperback:
1. The Armchair Detective Book of Lists:
A complete guide to the best mystery,
crime and suspense fiction
Edited by Kate Stine
Otto Penzler Books, $12.95
2. Mystery and Crime:
The New York Public Library Book of answers
Jay Pearsall, Fireside, $11
3. The Crown Crime Companion: The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time. Selected by the Mystery Writers of America
4. By a Woman's Hand:
A Guide to Mystery
Fiction by Women
Jean Swanson and
Dean James, Berkley, $12
5. A reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery
Hold On To Those First Editions
Mysteries are becoming increasingly valuable books to collect. For example, Patricia Cornwell's first mystery, "Postmortem," published just in 1990, is now worth "over $1,000" according to Mark Stevens, owner of Atlanta's Mystery Bookshop. (However, the 1995 guide "Book Collecting" by Allen and Patricia Ahearn lists it at $500.) Other figures from that guide:
'A' is for Alibi
1982 - $950
A Time to Kill
1989 - $1,750
The Man with a
Load of Mischief
1981 - $250
1982 - $350