Wednesday, January 19, 2011

People, You've Got the Power Over What We Do*

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.

The Cosy

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.

The Thriller

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?

: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne's The Load-Out/Stay


  1. Great article, as usual, Margot. Makes me thrilled and cosy to see good friends' names in the company of old friends like Misses Christie and Rendell, and Messrs. Connelly and le Carré.

  2. I find myself getting comfortable with series. I don't mind characters growing, casts changing (JP Beaumont is awfully hard on his partners), but many times I've followed a writer into a new venture, or picked up another series by the same author and haven't been as captivated.

    My writing tends to follow an underlying theme, although my books are all different. I can only hope readers are relating to my characters and what they're dealing with within the confines of my sub-genre. And since it's romantic suspense, I have a rather solid checklist of reader expectations that have to be met.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. Molly - Why, thank you :-). I agree with you about Christie, Rendell, Connelly, and le Carré. They've really mastered what they do, haven't they?

    Terry - That's an interesting point. Readers get comfortable - even happy - with the way that authors do what they do. When the author changes, that can cause some cognitive dissonance. There's a motivation there for the author to follow a certain rhythm. As you say, that doesn't mean the author can't add new characters, etc.. (Harry Bosch is pretty hard on partners, too). But it does mean readers come to expect certain things from their favourites.

    I think you're wise to have a solid checklist of what fans of romantic suspense want. That's a really effective way of focusing your stories so that readers are not just excited about your characters and plots, but also satisfied (i.e. "Yeah, that's romance with a twist of mystery!"). Folks, do check out Terry's novels and stories.

  4. I prefer to say I like crime fiction, which gives me leeway to explore all the genres. Though I must admit, my favorites are police procedurals and psychological thrillers.

  5. John - Oh, I know exactly what you mean about liking the whole genre. I don't like to limit myself, either, although I admit I am not a huge fan of the really dark or really gory thrillers. Even those, though, can catch my attention if they are very well-written.

  6. I'm a fan of most mystery genres, but I find I've been reading more thrillers than anything else over the last couple of years. Now I'm working my way through all the Harlan Coben books I've missed...

    When I started writing, I was heavy into reading mostly cosy series, so that's what I tried to write. One of the first decisions I made was to write for an older audience, which is why I made my protagonists sixtyish, and their still-active parents in their 80s.

  7. As a reader I'm glad that there are sub-genres of the crime fiction category. That way hopefully I won't pick up a book thinking it's going to be a good cosy and get a thriller by mistake. That's not to say that I wouldn't read a book in a different genre by an author I liked. There are several authors who write in different genres that I enjoy. But because of the sub-genre categories, I know what I'm getting with each book. Another intriguing post.

    BTW, I have an award for you at Thoughts in Progress.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Interesting post, Margot. When I first started reading crime fiction I had no idea about the different genres. Then I began to wonder about the history of the crime fiction novel and how it has developed and found so much variety.

    I like most genres but I don't like too much graphic description of blood and gore. However, recently have found myself reading it if the writing is good enough to make me want to know more of the story. So I guess my tastes are eclectic now.

  9. Thanks so much for the mention! Great overview of mystery genres here, Margot. :) I read all of them, but cozies are my favorite to write.

  10. I agree with the point of your post, but also as a reader I do not like predictability. Perhaps this is why I am always keen to try new (to me) authors, or debut authors. Michael Connelly, for example, has a stable formula but he varies it and provides surprises for regular readers. He doesn't let his series sink into boredom (for example, as J D Robb has done - she's found a working formula for Eve Dallas that nets her a certain number of readers, and regurgitates it twice a year - so I have stopped reading, but in return she is crying all the way to the bank!).

    Val McDermid is a case in point - a few years ago she was writing what came so close to "torture porn" that I think it was torture porn. She's changed direction totally now, her last two or three standalones had nothing explicit at all in them, in terms of gore, murder descriptions, etc. Even her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series has been toned down a lot in that regard compared with the first one or two entries. I presume this is to do with breaking her sales out of the crime fiction genre and into mainstream subgenres here!

    Best wishes

  11. Patricia - I think it's interesting how often what we write is influenced by the kind of reading we do. I can see the influence of cosies in your Sylvia Thorn books, but I also see a touch of the thriller. And you brought up a very interesting point. Once an author chooses an audience and a style, she or he can make the protagonist someone that audience can relate to easily, and part of that is the age of the protagonist. I like the fact that Sylvia and Willie are in their 60's; it gives them an appeal that younger protagonists might not have for the audience you've chosen.

    Mason - Thank you :-). And thanks for the award :-). You make a very well-taken point. Sub-genres are helpful for the reader because they allow the reader to know what s/he's getting. If the reader does want to try something new, s/he can. If the reader is specifically looking for a certain kind of book, s/he can find that, too. There is some sense in having categories, isn't there?

    Margaret - Thank you :-). It's so interesting that you got some background on the history of the genre. It has changed a lot, I think, even in the last decades. Like you, I'm not generally much for a lot of gore. When a book is very well-written, that's one thing, but otherwise, it's not my cuppa.

    I like the way you've branched out recently and tried different kinds of crime fiction. That speaks well for you and it's a good reminder of how important good writing is. Readers will enjoy something that's very well-written, even if they might not have tried that sort of novel before.

    Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure :-). I'm like you in that I read all sorts of crime fiction, but I don't write in all of the sub-genres. Doing that well takes a lot of talent and effort and I can't think of a lot of authors who can, and, let's be honest, who successfully market themselves as, say both cosy writers and thriller writers.

    Maxine - You're not alone in disliking too much predictability. That's one thing that can make a series go downhill fast. It's one argument, too, for writing standalones. And yet, as you say, there are authors who have found a formula that sells books, and that's the formula that they use. It must work, too, if one looks at their sales. My guess ('though I haven't done the research) is that many readers do become at least somewhat brand-loyal, so to speak.

    On the other hand, there are authors like Connelly and McDermid who vary their novels within the genre. They alter their focus, they add new characters and series, and they adjust their style. Like you, I admire authors who make those changes. It keeps their work fresh, I think. That freshness in itself inspires a different kind of "brand loyalty."

  12. I have set a goal to read all of Carre's books this year. I feel bad that I haven't.

    What subgenre would you classify Val McDermid because my books are closest to hers.


  13. Clarissa - I haven't read all of le Carré's books, either. There are so many good books out there that I think it's very hard to read everything an author has written, unless one focuses and really determines to do that.

    As to what sub-genre Val McDermid's work is? She's hard to categorise because she has done different kinds of things. I would say if forced that psychological thriller is a good description (although she does other kinds of thrillers, too). I know: probably not the direct answer you might have been hoping for, but one of the things I like about her work is that it's not easily "pigenoholed."

  14. Wouldn't it be dull if all mystery books were the same? That's one of the things I like, I can read a cozy and then a detective or a historical mystery and throw in the occasional thriller (but not too much gore, or I'm outta there!).

    My preference is always for more character-driven plots than action-driven and that's what I try to write. The occasional moment of peril is always good, but I don't need danger and mayhem on every second page. I try to write the book that I would want to read; interesting setting, multi-layered characters, twisty plot and (of course) correct historical details! I'm not saying I'm successful, but I AM trying!

  15. Elspeth - I think the most talented authors do just that: they take the same care and pains with their writing that they want their favourite authors to take.

    You put that quite well, too: it really would be dull if all crime fiction were the same. One of the reasons it's such a strong genre is that it's varied. That's also, in my humble opinion, a reason for its longevity. There's rich variety, so the reader can dip into a cosy, a thriller, or a "hard-boiled" detective novel depending on mood. And yeah, I know what you mean about too much gore; I easily reach my limit for gore, too...

  16. You make some important points here. Good post. Expectation is so important. Even if you love caviar, you're not happy if you think you're biting into blackberry jam. I don't enjoy reading sadistic-serial-killer novels that involve torture, so I'm very careful to stay away from Patterson-type novels. I guess that's why series are especially popular in crime fiction--we want to know what type we're going to get.

  17. Anne - Thank you :-). I know exactly what you mean about expectations, and I like your caviar/blackberry jam example. If readers want a cosy, they don't want a dark, bleak noir thriller. If readers want a high-octane spy thriller, they don't want to open a book only to find out it's a cosy with an amateur sleuth.

    And like you, I generally avoid torture-porn novels and novels where the gore is heavy and gratuitous. So yes, there are series I avoid, and that's one of the reasons. Perhaps you're right and that's one reasons people like series as much as they do. With a series, there are some expectations for what one'll get.