Murder, she writes
With half of the mysteries each year written by women, the macho world of crime fiction is rapidly filling up with not-so-hard-boiled female detectives.
When Kate Mattes opened Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., in 1983, all the mysteries featuring women professional detectives – both hardcovers and paperbacks – fit on a single shelf.Skip to next paragraph
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Today that category fills eight crowded shelves – and that's just counting the paperbacks. To accommodate more titles, Ms. Mattes is rearranging the store to create a bigger area for these books.
"I call it the strong-women's section," Mattes says. "Sections are based on demand. There were such demands for strong-women's fiction that we realized we were nuts not to create a section."
Her overflowing shelves serve as one measure of the growth of a popular literary genre – crime fiction written by women. After decades in which male writers dominated this area, turning out more titles and garnering the lion's share of book reviews, women are gaining recognition, awards, and more reviews, says Libby Fischer Hellmann, president of Sisters in Crime, an international group of female mystery writers celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Almost half of the estimated 1,500 mysteries published each year in the US are written by women, Ms. Hellmann says. In addition to creating intriguing new fictional roles for female crime-solvers, these whodunits are drawing more women to read mysteries of all kinds.
"We hear from women readers saying they had not read a mystery since they outgrew Nancy Drew," says Sara Paretsky, a bestselling author. "We've helped grow the market for crime fiction. While fiction is stagnant or falling, crime fiction remains a very buoyant subgenre."
In addition to fiction starring women as professional detectives, a second category of traditional mysteries – called Malice Domestic or cozies – features women as amateur sleuths. They might be librarians, archaeologists, or writers; they may have children and pets. Some revolve around creative activities, like needlepoint and scrapbooking. They may be set in tea shops or bookstores. Several authors write cooking-related mysteries with punning titles: "Sticks and Scones," "Crepes of Wrath," "Custard's Last Stand."
Gary Schulze, co-owner of Once Upon a Crime mystery book store in Minneapolis, describes these books as "light, kind of like 'Murder She Wrote.' " He adds, "There are no onstage murders, though most of the time there will be a body and an investigation involved."
Margaret Maron, an award-winning mystery writer, explains that women who write traditional mysteries "are more likely to know about the preacher who has run off with the choir director" than they are to know about the mafia, international spy rings, or drug peddlers. "We're writing about the crime that might occur in a domestic setting."
Whatever the subject, Mr. Schulze finds women mystery writers often displaying more sensitivity. "They're going away from so much action-driven plot to character-driven plots. They get a better feel for the characters, adding a little bit of subtlety. They're not so in-your-face."
One fan, Amy Cloud of Bellingham, Wash., likes crime fiction by women because characters appear more deeply developed, more empathetic, more "real." Lisa Daily, a columnist in Sarasota, Fla., finds mysteries by women often "funnier and less gruesome." She adds, "You get all of the excitement of a good mystery yarn without having to endure seven nauseatingly descriptive pages of blood."
Trudy Schuett of Yuma, Ariz., praises some crime fiction by women for its "everywoman" tone.
"The characters have human problems, like eating too much junk food or money worries," she says. "The female authors seem to get the idea that a bit of romance is OK, but it doesn't necessarily have to be about sex. Male authors tend to put sex first, romance second."
She finds men "better at making a bad guy chilling and disturbing."
Jean McMillen, who owned a mystery bookshop in Bethesda, Md., for 10 years, criticizes some female authors for their "trivialization" of women. This includes talking down to them and having them deal with less-serious problems.
Women writers often offer unusual perspectives. Rochelle Krich, president-elect of Sisters in Crime, writes two series with Orthodox Jewish settings.