Monday, August 18, 2008

Mystery versus Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is a pretty broad label that can encompass anything from Sherlock Holmes to Lolita. It is, like most labels, artificial. It's also useful. Labels generally are. If you went to the bookstore and the romance and the crime fiction were shelved together with chick lit then browsing at the bookstore would be a less enjoyable experience because everyone would have to wade through ten things they have no interest in to find one thing they might want to look at. Having handy categories is a must, even if the lines can blur at times.

Still, there are some labels that have a pretty clear meaning. Take "mystery" for example. While there are different types of mysteries, it is pretty easy to find the common thread in books as different as The Orient Express and The Maltese Falcon. There are questions to be answered. The author uses unanswered questions to keep the reader in suspense. The term mystery is often abused, though. Many bookstores will label their crime fiction section mystery, even though mystery fiction is a subset of crime fiction. Sometimes it creeps onto book covers as well.

The recent reprints of Donald Westlake's Parker novels from the University of Chicago are labeled mystery on the back cover. Now the label is undoubtedly intended to help let those stocking shelves know where to put them, but it's not an accurate label for the books. While the Parker novels are crime fiction, there is no mystery element to them. There is never a whodunit element in the books because the reader knows Parker's doing it. The suspense comes from finding out how he's going to pull off the crimes he commits.

Now, I'm not picking on U of C, here. The books are very nice, and I'm reading these old Parker novels for the first time now that they are back in print, and I'm enjoying them quite a bit. It does bother me a little, however, seeing mystery used as shorthand for crime fiction because mystery has a certain meaning, and it promises a reader a certain experience. If you start labeling everything on the shelf a mystery the meaning of the word is eroded. Of course I'm a sticker for precision in language, and I could be the only person in the world who this bothers.


Libby Hellmann said...

No, Nathan... you're not the only stickler. I've intentionally started calling it all "crime fiction"... I think it's much more inclusive. There are still folks who think "mystery" means Agatha Christie and that's it. But what about Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and whatever it is that we write? I like crime fiction. Also a "novel of suspense" which the Brits use quite a bit.

Nathan Cain said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who is irritated by the overuse of the mystery label.

marty said...

We're not in the wrong here, or being unreasonable. It's the bookstores that generally have two "catch alls," Mystery, and Fiction (or Literature). What drives me crazy is when something like the Westlake novels get bumped into the larger "Fiction" section, and then they get lost amidst Danielle Steel, and a bunch of other crap.

Barbara said...

I'm at least as annoyed with the profligate use of the category "thriller."