Can’t We All Just Get Along? Categories in Crime Fiction by Julia Spencer-Fleming

At a recent mystery conference, someone asked me if my books were cozies. “Um…um…” I said (in part because my mouth was full of a Krispy Kreme donut at the time) “I prefer to think of them as traditional mysteries.” Categories. The world of commercial fiction is full of sturm und drang over categories. Romance writers divide themselves up into specialties as narrow as PhD candidates: Time travel-Paranormal (werewolf). Military speculative fiction arm wrestles with contemporary fantasy for shelf space. And mystery writers–and their fans–rumble like the Jets and Sharks over the merits of “cozy” versus “hard-edged.”

Why are we so anxious to label and categorize? By and large, when you walk into a general-interest bookstore, the finest divisions you’ll find are by whole genre: Literature, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction. Look on the shelf and you’ll find my books between Julie Smith (PI/Performance poet) and Jessica Speart (Game Warden). Or, if the staff is dense on how hyphenated names work, you might find me keeping company with Sharon Fiffer (Antiques picker) and Charles Fleming (50’s Vegas casino caper). At any rate, you’re not going to find me in the Female Episcopal Priest-Action (Unresolved Relationship with Cop) section.

Part of the reason we categorize is so that readers can find what we all want in our reading: more of the same, only different. You may not consciously say to yourself, “I like amateur sleuth mysteries with lots of characterization, no graphic violence, and maybe a hint of romance.” What you do is go to your local bookstore and tell the owner, “I liked Julia Spencer-Fleming’s book. What do you have that’s similar?” (And the wonderful thing about a good independent bookseller is that she gets to know you, she’ll know the next book you want to read before you do.) Part of the reason is so that reviewers and awards committees can compare apples with apples. It’s much easier to look objectively at writing and characterization when both books feature ethically tormented P.I.s, explosive violence, and “gritty”–everyone’s favorite description–urban settings. It’s harder to weigh the relative merits of, say, George Pelecanos versus Janet Evanovitch.

The problem with the cozy-versus-hard-edged divide is that good people are, to use the modern term, dissing cozies. The traditional amateur sleuth has been, up until recently, so successful that writers who want to make their mark in the mystery world have filled every conceivable occupation and location with crime fighting, puzzle-solving men and women. The only profession I can think of that’s not represented in a book somewhere are shrimpers, and as I type this, there are no doubt two writers, one in Alaska and one in Louisiana, laboring away at their Shrimper mysteries. After a while, it becomes easy to see this profusion of knitters/arborists/tombstone cutters/dog grooming sleuths as parodies of one another, and to accuse lighthearted, puzzle-oriented mysteries of trivializing violence and death. From the opposite side of the aisle, hard-edged writers are accused of exploiting violence for the sake of titillation. And amateur-sleuth writers are happy to point out that reporters, P.I.s and attorneys rarely get involved with murder, gunplay and danger in the course of their average workday.

So, are my books cozies? Well, they take place in a small, rural area, involve a priest as the crime-solver, and take time to explore what else, besides murder and mayhem, make up the Rev. Clare Fergusson’s day–vestry meetings, counseling, her daily run, parish dinners. On the other hand, the books take an unsentimental look at the hardscrabble existence in an economically depressed Adirondack town, explore the life-altering effect of violence on people’s lives, and include what I hope is heart-pounding, adrenalin-inducing action. Publisher’s Weekly called one of my novels a “cozy-cum-thriller,” and I rather liked that. For me, ultimately, what’s important about the books I write and the books I read are that they create a recognizable, believable world with characters I want to spend time with. I’ve always wanted to spend some time on a shrimp boat…

Coexistence is not only possible, but tasty: the hardboiled cozy.

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4 Responses to Can’t We All Just Get Along? Categories in Crime Fiction by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. Terrific post, Julia. I think many of us struggle with “the labels” when we start out. Someone I trust told me he thought my first novel was chick-lit, so I started adding comedy… Bad move! Seems I’m far more skilled at suspense.

    I love what you say here:
    “For me, ultimately, what’s important about the books I write and the books I read are that they create a recognizable, believable world with characters I want to spend time with. I’ve always wanted to spend some time on a shrimp boat…” Sums it up in my book! (No pun intended. ;))

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  2. I don’t think the debate is going to go away, but I loved your summary–a recognized and believable world, and characters who become friends.

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  3. MCWriTers says:

    I call mine “medium-boiled.” Amateur sleuth, but strong woman. Concerned with people and the consequences of violence, often in family settings, but where the violence is not so graphic and the body count doesn’t pile up.

    I’ve always found those discussions tiresome, and the higher value placed on “big issue” books or “dark and gritty” stories misplaced. I think our readers really like the human focus, the depth of character, the way the stories play out in lives that our readers can imagine and relate to.

    But whatever category they try to stick you in, Julia…something that’s undeniable is that you’re a really wonderful writer, and the worlds you create are ones we can imagine and inhabit, and your characters are people we will follow through all your books because they matter.

    Kate Flora

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  4. Barb Ross says:

    Julia

    I’ve always thought you “had it all.” An amateur sleuth and a professional, a small town but a gritty one, romance and sizzling sexual tension. No wonder you’re so hard to pin down.

    It’s frustrating to me because as a reader, I read across all these categories. The way I express it is that I need a certain level of complexity–of language, character, setting and plot to be truly transported into a book. Formulaic plot, and simple character tags just doesn’t distract me enough from day to day concerns to do the job. But I also do understand why people like and read those books.

    So, as you say, why can’t we all respect one another and get along. Writing is hard enough no matter what you’re doing.

    Barb

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