When my adventure in crime fiction was still in the planning stages nine or ten years ago (pause for clichés about time flying and seems like yesterday – it’s me age, you know) something we decided to explore was the possibility of crime fiction with elements of other genres. Not cross-genre exactly; that’s a self-destruct button waiting to be pressed, since wholesalers, bookshops, libraries, Amazon etc seem to have a pressing need to stick labels on things, and if your sales outlets don’t know where to file your books, there’s a good chance they simply won’t stock them. But we decided we wouldn’t be averse to elements of other genres: a supernatural strand here, a bit of romance there, a touch of horror now and again, quite a lot of history – just enough not-crime to ring the changes and keep things interesting.
Plenty of conventional sleuthing and police work as well, of course, but to a great extent we succeeded. We discovered a brilliant author writing something we called futurecrime, a little in the J D Robb mould but edgier, and without the great sex. We developed a series set in a parallel world. On-off, will-they-won’t-they relationships figured in a lot of books. We even dabbled in erotica (albeit lesbian, not BDSM) long before the current fad raised its dubious head. And overall nearly a third of our output was set fifty or more years ago.
And every single one was totally, categorically, without question, a crime novel.
Recently, though, I’ve read several books which, sometimes literally, bore the label crime and mystery, but whose content led me to wonder why the publisher had decided to present it in that way. And that led me to wonder if, at bottom, it’s all about our old friend marketing.
Here in the UK, and I daresay in parts of the US and the rest of the world as well, crime and mystery fiction is unequivocally the best selling genre. It’s a rare bookshop that doesn’t have a dedicated crime and thriller section, and in some shops it takes up a third of the shelves. Last year it overtook romance as the most borrowed genre in libraries.
So in marketing terms, it makes sense to call a book crime and mystery if there’s the smallest justification for doing so. But here in the real world, isn’t that just a teensy bit misleading?
I won’t reiterate my feelings about S J Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep; I did all that a few weeks ago. Let’s just say that, good book though it is, I still think calling it crime is, well, stretching the definition somewhat.
A couple of years ago I was asked by a crime fiction magazine to review a book whose title now escapes me. On the cover were words like action-packed thriller and edge of the seat drama, and the cover art was dark and gloomy and involved guns. But I was told as it was handed to me, It’s not crime; it’s romance. And romance is what it turned out to be: three romances and a bit of history, woven together skilfully enough. It began with an action sequence which had no connection to the main narrative except to explain why one of the main characters wasn’t in his usual job; and a thriller element which was referred to at length on the cover finally made an appearance about fifty pages from the end and still wasn’t the main focus. Crime and mystery? Not really.
Much more recently I read a book described as a family mystery. And yes, there was a mystery – but there’s mystery in a lot of non-crime-and-mystery fiction; it’s called building narrative tension. There was even a suspicious death, and if it had ever been properly resolved, crime might have been an appropriate slot for the story. But it wasn’t, and far from being one of those obscure, unsatisfying endings you find in some modern litfic, it was exactly right in context. But that context wasn’t crime fiction.
The big question, of course, is does it really matter how a book is labelled, and if so, why?
In the great scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter at all – but I think it can matter to some people. Just one example is my mother, who is advanced in years and like many in her age group somewhat, um, fixed in her opinions. She decided long ago that crime fiction is not for her – which means that she won’t give houseroom to any book which carries that tag. She would certainly enjoy the third of that short list I’ve just described. She might well enjoy Before I Go To Sleep. She might even enjoy most of the one that turned out to be three romances. But not one of them would get past her preconceptions. Her loss, maybe, but also three lost sales.
And if you multiply that by a lot of elderly readers and a lot of mislabelled books...