A short essay for the Mystery Writers of America's 2006 Edgar Week Annual
In order to secure its future, the mystery genre needs to reconnect with its past. Over the past few decades, the genre has changed and grown so much, and so many more readers, writers, editors and publishers have come into the genre, to the point where we don’t always agree what it is exactly that we love when we say we love mysteries. The growth in readership has paralleled – and sometimes even been helped along by – dizzying changes in a publishing industry that barely resembles its twenty-year-old self.
We’re at an uneasy moment in the development of the mystery story. The major publishing companies have all but declared that the word “mystery” is commercial poison. While a handful of mystery writers enjoy unprecedented success, with new titles that debut at #1 on The New York Times list, many more of our genre’s finest are unable get a contract with a traditional publishing house. Writers are pushed to abandon the “mystery” series that define their careers in favor of high-concept “thrillers,” or they resort to print-on-demand businesses that are not yet mature enough to either support careers or even simply reach booksellers and readers. All the while, readers are increasingly bewildered , less and less able to find the kind of books – the kind of mysteries – they want to read.
Like the other popular fiction genres, mysteries are shaped by both literary and commercial forces. Science fiction editor David Hartwell talks about genre as an ongoing “conversation among texts” – especially in terms of readers and writers – but we also have to recognize how strongly publishing attitudes and practices influence not just the quality but the characteristics and, indeed, the very structure of the mystery story. Lately, those attitudes and practices have been a less than positive influence on the genre.
I fear that our industry’s leadership is losing sight of what it is that made mysteries popular in the first place, in form, shape and structure, but also in curiosity, ratiocination, heroism and morality – all of which readers expect from our genre. All of which readers are right to expect from our genre. Mysteries have made great strides in the past 20-30 years, both in literary and commercial terms, but expansion and evolution have created uncertainty, fear and fissures in what should be a powerful community of writers, readers, publishers and booksellers.
Of course we need to take full advantage of all of the opportunities today’s environment presents, and we should celebrate the diversity of a genre that’s been enriched by talented newcomers with different approaches and fresh points of view. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the basic values of the mystery story and of the community that supports the genre. These values have sustained the mystery story since it became something recognizable a century ago, and will sustain the genre long into the future – if only we stay true to them.