As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there isn't just one kind of crime fiction. There are lots of sub-genres, and in many ways, that's a good thing. There's something for just about anyone's taste within the genre, so readers will probably find something they'll like, and writers will probably find an audience for the kind of crime fiction they want to write. Because there's such a variety in crime fiction, readers, publishers and agents rely on subcategories such as cosy, noir, and police procedural. Those categories are really useful in helping readers to choose the kind of book they want - a book that will match their tastes. They're also useful for publishers, booksellers and agents; categories help in marketing. In a very interesting blog post, Alan Orloff makes the point that authors also need to pay attention to the sub-genre they've chosen; they need to know the audience for that sub-genre and they need to know what the conventions are for that sub-genre. He's got a well-taken point. If you've ever chosen a book by a thriller writer and discovered that this particular book was really a cosy, you know what I mean. If you've ever looked for a book by a cosy author and found that the book was really a dark, bleak police procedural, you also know what I mean. Does this mean that crime fiction authors can't try different kinds of novels? No. As a matter of fact, sometimes it adds a refreshing dose of innovation to a series if the author tries something a little different. It does mean, though, that it's important for an author to be aware of what the audience expects from a cosy, a police procedural, a psychological thriller or whatever other sub-genre the author chooses.
Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I'm sure you'll be able to think of more than I could.
People who prefer cosy mysteries are, in general, most interested in characters and settings. Although they know that murder is tragic, sometimes gory and always horrible, they aren't as interested in the graphic details of a murder. Although they're not necessarily prudes, cosy readers aren't interested in a lot of obscene language or explicit sex. Instead, they like the interplay of characters, an interesting setting and of course, a good mystery to solve.
For instance, the Memphis Barbecue series by Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) features interesting, even quirky characters. There's Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat's Barbecue, one of Memphis' most popular barbecue restaurants. She herself is an interesting character. The members of her family, and the "regulars" at the restaurant are also interesting and lively. For example, in Delicious and Suspicious, we meet a group of volunteers at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Nicknamed The Graces, they're varied, quirky and lively. The Taylor family and the "regulars" get caught up in a murder investigation when Rebecca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned after eating a meal at Aunt Pat's. Lulu Taylor wants to salvage her restaurant's (and her family's) reputation, so she decides to find out who killed Adrian. Besides the mystery, the characters and the Beale Street, Memphis setting are also strong elements in this novel.
The Police Procedural
Police procedural fans enjoy the details of a police investigation. They don't mind grit and gore as long as it's not gratuitous, and they generally like complex characters. They prefer real-life, authentic portraits of police work and they are not impressed with "magical" solutions to the case that's the focus of the novel. They prefer the pieces to come together in a realistic way.
There are a lot of well-regarded police procedural series, so I'm not being fair at all by using just a few as examples. However, Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series and Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano series demonstrate the kind of focus on complex characters and the details of an investigation that police procedural fans like. What's interesting about these two particular series is that they're quite different. Mankell and Camilleri have different writing styles and focus on different things. However, in both series, we follow the police as they make their investigations. We see how cases are solved by police teamwork and not by one person's brilliant deductions. Fans of those series see the characters evolve, and both series have a sense of realism about them.
It's not doing real justice to the sub-genre to include the forensics procedural in this category, but in some ways, it's quite similar to the police procedural. Fans of forensics procedurals also like the details of an investigation. They like their characters complex, their cases solved in realistic ways by hard work and team effort, and like fans of police procedurals, they don't mind grit if it is important to the plot.
There are several different kinds of thrillers, of course. There are psychological thrillers such as those written by Ruth Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine. There are legal thrillers such as those of Phillip Margolin. There are spy thrillers, too, such as those by John le Carré. And I've only mentioned a few. Thriller fans like lots of twists, turns and surprises. They like a fast pace and action to the plot. This doesn't mean that there has to be a gun battle or car chase on every page; in fact, that quickly becomes clichéd. But thriller fans like things to move along. Like fans of some other sub-genres, they don't mind gore, sex or grit if it serves the plot well, but the best thrillers don't rely on those devices to get readers to turn pages.
The Detective Novel
In a sense, most crime fiction novels are detective novels. After all, most crime fiction novels involve a crime, a person or people who committed the crime, and the detective who solves the crime. I'm referring here, though, to crime fiction where the focus is on one detective (as opposed to, say, a police precinct) and the way she or he solves crimes.
Detective novel fans often come to love a series because of the personality of the detective. They like to see the detective evolve over time, and they like the focus of the novel to be on the way the detective goes about his or her work. Detective novel fans like the characters they read about to have some depth. That said, though, it's just as important that the mystery the detective is solving be an interesting, plausible story.
The detective novel has a very long history and there is a rich variety in this sub-genre, so there's no way that I could possibly mention all of the successful detective series. Let me just refer to two examples. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels are all considered great detective novel series. Christie is better known for her genius at plotting than at real depth of character. That said though, millions of fans have become devotees of her sleuths and the ways in which they go about solving crimes.
Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series has won millions of fans as much because of Bosch's character as anything else. Of course, fans of this series wouldn't stay around of the plots and mysteries weren't interesting and had no twists and turns. But Bosch's complex character is an important focus of this series.
There are a lot of other sub-genres, such as noir and comic/caper crime novels that I haven't had space to discuss. Fans of those sub-genres, too, have certain expectations of what they read. And there's not enough space for me to detail everything that draws fans to cosies, thrillers, and so on. Does this mean that, say, there can't be a car chase in a cosy novel? Or that a psychological thriller can't have any quiet moments? I don't think so. I can think of a lot of novels with what you might call "crossover" elements, and that's one drawback of having categories; they can be limiting. But in general, crime fiction fans want certain things from the sub-genres they love. What about you? Do you choose novels by sub-genre? Or do you choose your novels by author? Does it put you off to choose a novel by sub-genre, only to find it to be quite different? If you're a writer, how do you find out what your particular audience wants? How do you frame your work to fit what your audience wants?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne's The Load-Out/Stay