What Mystery Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 8th, 2011

Mysteries can be a mystery! NAL and Berkley editorial give us an inside look at the mystery market: what works and what they’re looking for. 

 book and glasses - special credit reqIn this second installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want,” we’re shifting the focus from romance novels to mystery novels, an intriguing and timeless genre with a number of popular subgenres. With so many different kinds of mysteries on the shelves, it can be confusing to figure out what exactly it is you’re writing and if it’s what a particular publishing house is looking to acquire.
We’ve once again turned to the experts, the mystery editors at New American Library (NAL) and Berkley Books, to give a quick lesson about the mystery genre as a whole, what’s hot right now, and what they’re looking for:

When it comes to writing a mystery that fits into the current market, first get back to the basics to make sure you’re book is categorized correctly. It’s easy to confuse a mystery component of a novel with a mystery novel itself. A “mystery” refers to novels whose plot revolves around a crime, typically a murder, and the search to figure out who committed it.  The protagonist is generally a sleuth, either professional or amateur, who engages in a hunt for the culprit by investigating and following various clues and reasoning processes.  After weeding out other potential suspects, the story usually ends with the apprehension of, or at least understanding of, who the killer is and what motivated them to commit the crime.

While mysteries often have other elements included in the story, the protagonist of a mystery is primarily concerned with the solving of the crime. For instance, the main character might have a love interest, so there could be a romantic subplot, but as long as it is secondary to the crime itself, you are still writing a mystery, and not a different type of book, like a romance.

Mysteries are related to, but different from thrillers, in that a thriller also tends to begin with some sort of crime.  However, in a thriller the reader usually learns quite quickly who has committed the crime and the driving force of the plot is not to figure out who-done-it, but to see if the hero can prevent the antagonist from getting away with the crime and striking again. Now, of course, there are all types of mysteries, so you’ll see that the genre has all sorts of subcategories.  This is because people shop for mysteries by the settings and time periods they find most interesting. The most popular subgenres change with time, and the best way to keep track of what the current ones are is to read the bestseller lists and see what kinds of mysteries are most popular.

Right now, some of the most successful genres are the following, and we editors are always looking for more fresh and exciting stories in the same vein:

Cozy mysteries
A descendent of  the novels written by Agatha Christie, this is a mystery where the sleuth, who is often female, is an amateur detective (meaning they aren’t a professional PI, police detective, cop, FBI agent, or any of the other various licensed professionals who might legitimately be solving a crime).  There is little to no violence on the page in the cozy mystery.  The setting tends to be small towns and the characters often know one another.  Usually there are subplots involving romances and friendships, with various relationship and career issues. In a cozy, the balance between character and storyline, the characters and the relationships between them, are often as important as the puzzle of the plot. We are especially eager to see more Cozy mysteries on submission.

There are also a number of variations within the cozy subcategory:

  • The culinary cozy, where the amateur sleuth is involved in the world of cooking and/or the setting is connected with food.  Think of New York Times bestselling author Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Schulz series has been running for decades now;
  • The crafty cozy, where the amateur sleuth is part of some hobby within the crafting world (like knitting or quilting) and the members of the world help to solve the crime.  Authors like Maggie Sefton,Earlene Fowler, and Betty Hechtman are all people who are using a fiber hook in their mysteries and making the most of it;
  • The paranormal cozy, where the sleuth often has some sort of paranormal ability and/or investigates strange happenings connected with the paranormal world.  New York Timesbestselling author Victoria Laurie and national bestselling authorSofie Kelly are two authors among many who have made the light paranormal mystery their own;
  • The chic-lit cozy, where the sleuth is often involved in more glamorous pursuits like fashion, jewelry, accessories. Ellen Byerrum and Elaine Viets have been crafting fun chic-lit mysteries for decades.

Historical mysteries Here the setting is an intriguing historical time period, the sleuth may or may not be modeled after a specific, well-known historical personage, and historical events often serve as a springboard for the mystery explored.  Variations include:

  • Historical mysteries where the sleuth is based on a recognizable or famous historical personage, like Abigail Adams, Dorothy Parker, or is a minor character connected with a more famous historical character, like the maid to Sir Author Conan Doyle.  New York Times bestselling author Laurie King writes a “Mary Russell series” centering the fictional wife of Sherlock Holmes, and more recently J.J. Murphy has put Dorothy Parker at the center of mysteries and the Round Table;
  • Mysteries set in a particular time period, like the Regency era or early Colonial America, whose protagonist is in some way a stock character typical of the era.  Victoria Thompson’s gaslight mystery series, set in turn-of-the century New York with a midwife protagonist is just such a series.

Traditional mysteries
Unlike cozies, in the traditional mystery the puzzle of the plot and the setting become as important as, if not more important than, the relationships between the various characters in the story.  Often the characters in these mysteries are well developed with deep backstories and complex personalities—yet still they play second fiddle to the solving of the crime. But because the characters are so vivid, the crimes also tend to be complicated, complex, and fueled by surprising motivations.  Some of the mysteries in this category may use language that is quite literary in nature, so the style of the language becomes a distinguishing feature of the book.  Authors you may have read include Nancy Pickard, with her wonderful “Kansas” series, or Louise Penny, with her long running “Chief Inspector Gamach” series. Other mysteries in this area may high suspense and semi-realistic chase scenes, so they may at times feel like thrillers.

Scandinavian mysteries
These are mysteries that have come to the fore in recent years.  Set in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, or Finland, they often have a traditional PI investigating a crime that is indicative of things gone amiss in the society at large.  The detective in the Scandinavian mysteries can exhibit a modern, world-weary attitude and be overcome by feeling of ineffectualness and despair.  The setting becomes all important as the ice and cold of the physical world becomes metaphoric for the conditions the detective seeks to surmount.  These books have dominated the New York Timesbestseller lists lately and well known authors include Stieg Larsson,Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo.

Hard-boiled mysteries
Of course, not all mysteries can be doing well commercially all the time.  The hard-boiled, or “noir,” mystery is a type that has long existed but is not enjoying as much popularity at the moment.  These are mysteries in which the sleuth is usually a professional PI (and often a tough, quiet sort of guy) and the setting is gritty and realistic.  There are varying degrees of violence and the crimes are often explicitly described on the page.  Guys like Mickey Spillane were some of the commercial founders of this category.
However, even if a certain category is not popular now, it will no doubt, have its day eventually.  Twenty years ago American readers weren’t generally reading Scandinavian mysteries, and now they dominate the bestseller lists.  The only thing you can really count on is change.

So, study the market, pay attention to what’s on the bestseller lists, and read the books that people are talking about the most. Not so you can mimic them, but so you can meld your own interest with what the market supports.  Some worry that this is being “overly commercial,” but editors would argue it’s a way to be relevant to the current reading world.  If you don’t pay attention to what mystery fans want to read, you may have to accept that you’ve spent your time and energy working on a project for an audience of one (or maybe two or three!). If you want reach a bigger fan base, you need to stay in touch with what readers are responding to.  That is what we editors will also respond to.

  
Next up in our “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” series:  Science fiction and fantasy!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

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