Monday, April 25, 2016

The popularity of mysteries

I was able to attend the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus on Saturday. It was the tenth year this fine event has been held, bringing together under one roof dozens of Ohio's authors and, of course, their books displayed on tables. Because I had to leave early, I attended just two of the many panel discussions held during the day, but they were good ones. The first featured five mystery writers and the second the three writers responsible for recent biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country's only four-term president, and James A. Rhodes, Ohio's only four-term governor. These politicians had more in common than you might think, although the real surprise, at least for me, was Douglas Brinkley's list of things Franklin Roosevelt had in common with Theodore Roosevelt.

Yet mostly today I want to reflect on responses made by the mystery writers about why mysteries are so popular with readers. This popularity was evident at the book festival, where at least 15 of the 40-some novelists present were mystery writers.

Shelley Costa
Shelley Costa, author of Practical Sins for Cold Climates (a book I'd like to read just for its title), suggested mysteries are popular because they are "moral fiction." In other words, murderers get caught, and justice prevails. Most readers prefer unambiguous endings. Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife and the Assassin, spoke about how "the social fabric is torn by crime," and a mystery story is about its repair.
Sam Thomas

I have heard this explanation before, and I'm sure there must be some truth in it, yet I wonder if another, simpler explanation might have been suggested earlier in the discussion when Thomas commented that when he was trying to get his first book published, the publisher asked if it were part of a series. He said he knew enough to answer yes, even though he had no idea for a second novel featuring the same character.. Other authors echoed much the same thing. To get that first novel published, they had to commit themselves to writing a series.

Why do publishers like series? Because readers like series, and once they become familiar with the characters in one novel, they want to follow them into other books. One reads Jane Marple mysteries at least as much for Jane Marple as for the mysteries themselves. As good as Sherlock Holmes stories are, it is the character that readers love, which is why Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be written long after the death of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One could write similar mysteries featuring other characters, but it is Holmes readers want to read about.

Series of books are popular in other genres, such as romance, westerns and science fiction. Readers even like to revisit beloved characters in more serious fiction. Consider the recent avalanche of books featuring the beloved characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Yet more than other kinds of books, mysteries are ideally suited to series treatment. There can always be another murder that needs to be solved by our favorite fictional detective.

I bought just one book on Saturday, but that was a mystery, Bookmarked for Murder by Dan Andriacco, another of the panelists that morning. If I like it, and especially if I like the characters, I will probably seek out other novels in that series. That's what readers do, and that's one reason so many mysteries are sold.

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