Mystery and Detective / Woman Sleuth

What makes a book a mystery, anyway?

As a reader, you might think you don’t care whether a book is called a mystery, a thriller, a crime novel, a novel of suspense or noir. You might think that’s only something agents or editors or booksellers care about. But, I have a hunch that you, like all readers, gravitate to one set of shelves in the bookstore first.

If you wander immediately to the section labeled Mysteries, you’ll find a whole array of different kinds of novels from cozies, to police procedurals, to detective stories, either with an amateur sleuth or a hard-boiled private detective. Yet, they all have one thing in common: the mystery novel immediately opens with a murder that the detective, sleuth or PI must solve for a variety of reasons that often involve saving his or her soul.

The pleasure for you, the reader, is that you get to play detective along with the book, to follow leads, to reject false twists and red herrings, to feel very clever when you are right or enjoy the special thrill of having the writer surprise you. Mysteries tend to be the most cerebral of the genres I’ve mentioned, and they really appeal to readers who enjoy puzzle-solving, readers who have a deep desire to find out the truth of an event, in this case a murder, through the careful assembly of facts. If you’re this kind of reader, you want to see justice achieved and order restored.

Like a lot of people, my first introduction to the mystery genre was through the great California writer Raymond Chandler and his private eye Phillip Marlowe. I’d been going through one of those bad patches in life that seem so interminable when you are in your twenties when a friend dumped a pile of paperbacks on my kitchen table and said, “Here. Raymond Chandler mysteries. These will help.”

Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye got me through a pretty terrible August in my life, and now in the COVID times, I’m turning once again to those kinds of compelling tales.

What I really love now is seeing how many women authors are expanding the possibilities of what the genre can do. Maybe you’re at loose ends with the new, horrible normal and need an escape. Just like my friend handing me a pile of paperbacks and saying, “Here. These will help.” I’ll mention a few mysteries that you should definitely check out:

Attica Locke in Cutting Season (amateur sleuth), Tana French in The Trespasser (police procedural which has the female police detective battling sexism in the force as well as her own demons) and Megan Abbott (hard-boiled noir) who has taken the category up several notches. As the Hollywood Reporter said of this award-winning writer “she makes devotees of Cain and Chandler fall down and beg for mercy.”