Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Genre Identity Confusion

Sandra Parshall

You’d think writers, of all people, would be able to define what it is they’re writing. In the crime fiction world, though, we have so many subgenres and offshoots and blendings that even the authors are confused at times.

Is it “traditional” or is it “cozy” – or are the two terms interchangeable? Is it woo woo, with a psychic sleuth? Or chick lit, with a man-crazy heroine? Is it a pet cozy with talking and crime-solving cats and dogs? Is it a culinary mystery, with recipes and entertaining tips thrown in among the bodies? A knitting cozy, a bookseller cozy, a scrapbooking cozy? The variations are endless. The traditional/cozy label usually applies to an amateur sleuth story, but even mysteries featuring police detectives may be called cozies if the tone and content are mild enough. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series is a good example.

I was surprised when The Heat of the Moon was nominated for an Agatha Award, and even more startled when it won, because I had always thought the book was psychological suspense – and while it has plenty of domestic malice, there’s nothing “cozy” about it. I am told, though, that it meets the criteria for traditional mystery, so I tend to think traditional and cozy are different subgenres.

Procedural mysteries occupy their own category, and these days the label covers not only novels featuring police detectives and FBI agents but also investigative journalists and prosecuting attorneys. I was a little startled the first time I read a review that described a book as a “journalist procedural” but I’ve grown used to it.

The polar opposite of the cozy is noir mystery. As the name suggests, this kind of story is dark in every way and takes a bleak attitude toward humanity and the world. A happy ending should never be expected. But it’s still a mystery: a crime has been committed and a sleuth sets out to solve it.

If it’s not a straight mystery, is it “suspense” or is it a “thriller” – and once you’ve decided that, which sub-subgenre does it fall into? Romantic suspense? Psychological suspense? A psychic, political, international, medical, legal or eco thriller? The ever-popular gory-beyond-belief serial killer thriller? Or perhaps it’s a supernatural thriller, which until recently would have been labeled horror and given no space whatever under the crime fiction umbrella.

I’ve always believed that a mystery was a story driven by the effort to solve a crime, and a thriller was driven by danger and the effort to prevent something awful from happening. But the old definitions don’t hold up anymore. Many authors now borrow elements from two or three subgenres and combine them, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, in a single book.

Everyone seems to be clambering onto the suspense/thriller bandwagon. Look at the bestseller lists and you’ll see why: thrillers and suspense novels are the top sellers in crime fiction. Books that once would have been labeled police procedural mysteries now appear with “A Novel of Suspense” on the cover below the title – even if the stories are clearly mysteries, with detectives plodding through interviews and gathering clues and eventually catching the killer. That’s just false advertising and it probably irritates a lot of readers. What we see more often these days are traditional mysteries being amped up with additional murders (remember when one murder was enough to drive a whole book?), threats to the protagonists, crude language, and a dash of sex.

What’s happening here? Television and films are, undeniably, influencing the way novels are written. Some readers flee from the violent, fast-paced content of movies and TV shows and seek refuge in super-cozy books with cats that solve crimes and murders that rarely leave a bloodstain, much less a lingering nasty odor. But many more readers seem to want novels to keep up with filmed entertainment. More forensic evidence, please: we see it on CSI, and we’ve begun to believe no crime story is complete without a generous dose of it. More blood and agony: we’ve watched The Sopranos and we know people are seldom murdered gently.

I’m not complaining. I can enjoy a talking, crime-solving cat occasionally – although I am profoundly grateful that my own Emma and Gabriel can’t talk and have no interest in the activities of humans beyond our talent for opening cans -- but on the whole I think the trend toward realism is a good thing. The role of forensics in solving real killings is less important than TV would have us believe, but murder is a brutal, world-altering act and I appreciate writers who acknowledge that. Blood on the page serves as a reality check.

Cozies will probably always have a place on the bookshelf for readers seeking escape and relaxation, but people are so aware of crime these days, they see so much of it on the news and in entertainment, that non-cozy novelists will inevitably be forced to portray it realistically in fiction. At the same time, the fast pace of movies and TV pushes novelists to provide the same quick shocks and thrills to readers.

At some point we may have to drop most of the confusing labels on crime fiction and use only two: cozy mystery and... what? Suspense? Thriller? Some completely new term? What will we call our books when all the barriers between subgenres have come down?

POP QUIZ! Quickly – don’t stop to mull it over – how would you label these books?

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy

City of Bones by Michael Connelly


Joyce said...

I'd just call them all crime fiction! :-)

When I was first looking for an agent, I used the word "mystery" in my query letters. For some reason, many agents assumed "mystery" meant "cozy." I finally wised up and started calling it crime fiction and I had many more requests for fulls and eventually landed an agent.

It seems to me that the more writers call their books thrillers when they're not, the more it's going to confuse readers. I prefer the general term "crime fiction."

Sandra Parshall said...

I prefer "crime fiction" too -- but I wonder if that term makes agents, editors and readers think hard-boiled or noir. In cozies and many traditional mystery, the crime is played down and the personal lives of the characters are emphasized. I've read some references to Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know that suggested it's not mystery or crime fiction at all but a mainstream book that has crime in it (and the crime is revealed very late in the story).

Joyce said...

That's interesting about Laura Lippman's book. It's still on my TBR list, so I can't voice an opinion yet.

Too bad we can't just call what we've written "a really good book!"

Sandra Parshall said...

Laura's book is wonderful. So wonderful that it inspires reviewers to say it "transcends the genre" -- which always sounds condescending to me, as if crime fiction is somehow less worthwhile than mainstream or literary and writers should aspire to escape the genre ghetto. I think some of the best writing today is in crime novels.

Carol said...

I've only read two: What the Dead Know (literary suspense) and Monkeewrench (mystery). I'd also call The Heat of the Moon literary suspense.

I'm with the "call it crime fiction" crowd, though. A reading of the book jacket's back cover copy pretty much tells the story anyway. Ditto reviews, ads in mystery publications, etc. Plus, with so much cross-fertilization, who the hell knows what to call them?