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.
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.
"Readers tell me my protagonist's faith has brought them closer to their own faith," she says. She also tackles social issues, such as at-risk teens, spouse abuse, elder abuse, and date rape.
Hellmann describes another sub-genre, the chick-lit mystery, as "Prada-type girls who happen to solve mysteries when they're not working in their wonderful Manhattan jobs."
By contrast, Elaine Viets's "Dead-End Jobs" series is grounded in realism. Her protagonist, Helen Hawthorne, holds a different minimum-wage job in each book. To research "Dying to Call You," Ms. Viets worked as a telemarketer. For the forthcoming "Murder With Reservations," she worked as a hotel maid, making 34 beds a day.
"The hard-boiled male is often the critical darling," says Viets. "But I believe that the hard-boiled thriller is old-fashioned now. The really difficult books are the books about everyday relationships, about maintaining a job, maintaining a family. It's easy to make a thriller interesting. It's much harder to keep people interested in ordinary life, yet women have that skill to keep people reading for 300 pages. Women don't always write grand books, big thrillers. But they do the Jane Austen kind of book – the book about society."
Despite progress, women who write whodunits still have a few real-life mysteries to solve. One could be called The Case of the Changing Publishing Industry.
Now that American publishers have consolidated into six conglomerates, their emphasis is on blockbusters, says Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen mystery book store in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I used to hear authors talk about the quality of their work," she says. "Now it's the number of sales. It's produced a lot more anxiety. It's forcing a lot of authors whose numbers aren't satisfactory to reinvent themselves and adopt pseudonyms." Stores and editors, Ms. Maron explains, "are more willing to gamble on a new name than to help an older name grow."
Then there is The Case of the Glass Ceiling.
Hellmann calls this the "thorniest issue we are dealing with." Male authors tend to get higher advances than women. Publishers also invest more marketing dollars in men, although that is improving for women. Maron recalls a time when her publisher "wouldn't even give me a nickel to walk across the road." For publicity tours, she adds, "Four or five of us would pool our money for a rental car. Bookstore owners put us up on their couches."
Still, for the 3,000 members of Sisters in Crime, signs of progress are encouraging. In many major publications, male and female crime writers are receiving almost equal review space. And long gone are the days Mattes describes, when women mystery writers sometimes had to use male pen names and create male protagonists.
But some things haven't changed enough. In the early 1980s, Ms. Paretsky called attention to the growing use of graphic sadism against women in mysteries by men. Today, she says, "In terms of content, I'm not sure we've had an effect."
Noting that plots have gotten "more graphic, more explicit – explicit sex, explicit violence, explicit torture," Maron says, "The ante has just been upped and upped and upped, by men and some women, too."
Still, many writers are encouraged by better characterizations of women. "Forty years ago, when you had Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett writing, they had the dames with the legs that went on forever," Hellmann says. "Now women are much more three-dimensional, much more layered."
For all authors, perhaps the biggest challenge involves The Case of the Diminishing Readership. "There's one underlying need we have to address," Hellmann says. "That is nurturing the next generation of mystery readers. We used to say, 'All these kids are reading Harry Potter. They'll be the next generation of mystery readers.' But they're not. They stop reading as teenagers. They're lured by iPods, the Internet, MySpace, and games."
Explaining that this applies to all fiction, not just mysteries, Hellmann says, "We have to find ways to get people back to reading, period. We have to show the joy of sitting down with a good book and being transported into another world that touches you and challenges you."