Saturday, December 29, 2012

Crime fiction v. Mysteries

I would really like to return to calling crime fiction mysteries. It saves typing or saying two words. And also the general public often thinks I am talking about true crime when I say crime fiction despite the word fiction.

And truthfully doesn't all crime fiction have a mystery in it. It may not be a puzzle to solve.But there is always a mystery as to why someone did it, how will they be caught, where they are, what led to the crime, etc.

Mysteries carries the whole genre with it--it embraces different stories. Crime fiction seems to want to cut off what came earlier.

What do you think?

51 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Oh, that's an interesting argument! I especially agree with your point that the word mystery includes the whole of the genre, even those novels where there isn't (or isn't yet) a crime. Intriguing.

Anonymous-9 said...

I wonder how the term "crime fiction" evolved? There most have been a reason why writers and readers got away from the mystery term in the first place. Can you enlighten us?

Evil Maximus said...

For me, Crime Fiction represents noir and the wealth of stories starring the "villains"; the heist stories, vengeance tales, stories about hoods and thugs and lowlives. There doesn't have to be mystery elements, and they are frequently not present. Suspense, yes, but mystery? Not in much of the crime Fiction that I read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think newer writers wanted to get away from the idea that their stories were based on the question of who did it? They did not like the idea of a puzzle being the main thrust of their book. They wanted their work to be seen as closer to mainstream fiction--not old-fashioned genre writing.
I read very few books too that are about who the murderer is. Or at least who it is in the traditional sense--with suspects lined up and shot down. But since there is always a mystery of some sort-even in the loosest sense, why not use it? You can call Burma Myanmar, but everyone knows the country you mean when you say Burma. I suppose that is more about British imperialism but you get the drift.

Monson said...

Posthumous Man, which I just finished would probably be called crime or noir and not a mystery but the mystery that really propels the book and keeps one turning the pages is why the main character attempted suicide and wound up briefly dead.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

This is an old argument (which is the genre and which is the sub-genre) that has no clear cut answer. Plus other parts of the world use each term.

I have no easy answer only a personal one. For me there are three distinct groups of fiction in this genre we love: mystery, crime fiction, and thriller. The three are not the same though they may carry some aspects of the other.

I think the split goes back to Hammett, whose fiction was clearly something else. This split is exactly what Chandler was writing about in his essay The Simple Art of Murder.

Look at it this way using modern examples: George Higgins, Elmore Leonard, and James Ellroy do not write mysteries.

Anonymous said...

I know in Britain they tend to talk about "crime fiction" but I've always called it mysteries and always will. And yes, I include thrillers and other sub-genres in that.


Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Elmore Leonard certainly does write mysteries and James Ellroy has as well, at least at the beginning.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess it depends on how specific you want to make it. I can certainly see the differences Brian makes. And I have been calling it aloud crime fiction for years. But in my head I still think of the books as mysteries. Except for some thrillers. Although even that can get murky if most of the book involves someone trying to figure something out. TRUST YOUR EYES (nice book) which I just read is surely a thriller. There is very little interest in tracking down the bad guys--more in evading them.

George said...

I consider this a "truth in labeling" issue. When I pick up a "mystery" I'm expecting a puzzle. When I pick up a "crime" novel, I'm expecting some gritty action. Sure, some mysteries have gritty action and some crime novels have mysteries in them, but depending on my mood I want Agatha Christie and not George V. Higgins (or vice versa).

Kevin R. Tipple said...

It happened just like some writers do not want to admit they are self published and instead started claiming to be "indie writers."

For me, crime fiction is covered and included by the mystery umbrella.

I see thrillers as something else entirely.

Todd Mason said...

This is very akin to mislabeling all fantasticated fiction as "science fiction" (which some used to do for nothing other than marketing purposes, and yet some bubbleheads will still refer to Tokien's science fiction...certainly at least one television listings service does so). Fantasy as a term can be similarly abused.

When one admits that nothing, and I've never been remotely kidding about this, escapes genre, one is more ready to make a good argument...but that "crime fiction" = "mystery" isn't a good one. As Otto Penzler correctly notes, crime fiction is fiction about crime. There's not a mystery to be solved in much suspense fiction, except how might the characters survive and/or get away from or with the situations they've made for themselves...and if that's a mystery, then nearly all fiction is a mystery. I have no probably calling mystery fiction, which to me as well is at some level about puzzling out questions of crime (and in an "open" mystery, how that crime will be found out)
"mystery fiction" without needing to include all of suspense including most espionage fiction and the various things that can be called by that exceedingly broad term "thriller" as mysteries.

There's no really snobbery in it at all.

Todd Mason said...

Ha. Falling between the stools of Not Really Any and No Real snobbery in it.

One could insist that "speculative fiction" was also an attempt at snobbery, when it, too, was at least by first intent an attempt at greater clarity and reasonable inclusion without distortion of similar but not identical material.

Todd Mason said...

Made for themselves, or found themselves in...

Charles Gramlich said...

"Mystery" is kind of an unfortunate word for a whole genre because pretty much "all" fiction has a mystery in it or it wouldn't keep the reader reading. In my "Under the Ember Star," I deliberately put in a mystery to try and pull the reader along. I don't read a lot of straight mysteries as the genre is defined, and hardboiled seems to me to be an adequate term for that is often labelled Crime fiction. As for the appearance of the term "Crime Fiction," I suspect it has to do with "Mysteries" becoming associated with a kind of "cozy" element, or cozier at least.

Deb said...

I go back to Jane Smiley's assertion in her book 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NOVEL where she says that every novel, regardless of genre, is at heart a mystery becase something that is unknown is always being uncovered. I don't have a problem with the word "mystery" being used to cover a wide variety of fiction that might involve murder, crime, gritty police procedurals, sedate village cozies, etc.

David Cranmer said...

Good points, Patti. I'm enjoying the conversation here.

Monson, Thank you for reading the latest from BEAT to a PULP. And we really wanted noir first with THE POSTHUMOUS MAN but Amazon/KDP, of course, doesn't recognize that as a main. So it becomes a crime offering.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, my understanding is that Crime and Mystery are one and the same which explains why most lists club them together under one head — "Crime/Mystery" books. A relatively new addition is "Detective Crime" or "Detective Mystery" or "Detective Fiction."

Todd Mason said...

Prashant--"detective fiction" is actually a pretty old term that is not inaccurate...as long as there's some sort of detective involved. DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY was among the first all-crime-fiction pulp magazines, for example, going to that title (from FLYNN'S, after the editor's name) in 1928.

See the covers here:
http://www.philsp.com/mags/flynns.html

Todd Mason said...

Oddly enough, in Me-type (just after arising), "I have no probably" means "I have no problem"...type-ahead correction haunts my palsied fingers!

Todd Mason said...

And "Myanmar" is about the current regime's own sort of imperialism...a bit as how "Thailand" is a less useful term than "Siam" in many ways...

John said...

I really hated when crime fiction came to be the preferred term. It is sort of pretentious way of making the much maligned mystery genre more palatable to people too snobby to admit they like to read mysteries. I also dislike the current trend to describe nearly any new crime novel with dark themes and overt violence as noir.

I still distinguish between detective fiction and crime fiction when reviewing certain types of books because so much of crime fiction has no detection in it at all these days. But I will always say I read and sell mysteries. In fact I often use the term "murder mystery" more often than any other term.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I stand corrected on "Detective Fiction" and you were right to mention the vintage "Detective Fiction Weekly." I was referring to the term being used rather widely these days to describe modern-day "crime fiction" with a detective in it. I suppose the crime fiction vs. mystery argument can, indeed, stretch to thriller and horror or sf and fantasy...there's a lot of overlap there.

Chris said...

When I hear "Mystery" it reminds me of a section of the bookstore I never wanted to visit, and of books I didn't want to read. I still kind of carry that baggage with me, even though I venture there sometimes. Most of the "crime fiction" I read needs special ordered, it seems, because no one seems to actually carry it on their shelves unless it is a specialty store.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Back in the late 80s when I worked for the independent bookseller BOOKSTOP before it was gobbled up by Barnes and Noble, one of the company bigshots told me we had to break up the mystery section into detective fiction, cozy mysteries, crime fiction, etc. Fortunately I had a store manager that read mysteries and saw the obvious problems.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like the Smiley point very much. And why isn't mainstream fiction broken up more if crime fiction has to be? Nobody looks for the differences between Canada and Freedom although since both deal with family angst perhaps there aren't many after all. Does calling something historical fiction have any real purpose if a book is just set in another time without using figures from history in it?

Kevin R. Tipple said...

There was yet another attempt a few years back to try and divide up fiction into literary, general, and period fiction.

It didn't take because nobody could see the point or make it to the end of any of the arguments.

Rob Kitchin said...

For some reason I always associate the word 'mystery' with Scooby Do! I think mystery is more of a US designation. In the UK/Ireland "crime/thriller" is the usual designation in a bookstore, rather than "crime/mystery". I really don't think it matters how it's labelled to be honest as long as I can find and read the books I want.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Every mystery is part of crime fiction, but not every work of crime fiction is a mystery. A mystery specifically indicates a whodunnit, or a how or why dunnit. There is a question to be answered; the most common is the whodunnit. To use an example, there could be a book where someone is presumed guilty of a crime, and the police are trying to charge them, but they can't figure out how the person committed the crime, and have to work that out before charging the person.

A work can be crime fiction without putting emphasis on any of those questions.

In the UK there are crime fiction sections in stores. In Canada, they have mystery sections, but thrillers are split out from those and shelved in general fiction. I find crime fiction to be a more general term that's all-encompassing, and can include thrillers and mysteries and suspense. If someone uses the term mystery, it limits the scope of my expectation; I would not expect a thriller to be called a mystery, for example.

The Passing Tramp said...

I think "crime fiction" often is considered much more prestigious sounding than "mystery." A novel that just happens to involve a crime! It's really more like the old term sensation novel, without the melodramatic association.

However, a lot of crime novels are really like what they use to call thrillers, shockers, or (psychological) suspense.

I love the term detective fiction, but that only works for fiction that has a detective who actually detects. There has got to be real ratiocination.

Mystery is a good catch-all (it's generic enough to include other things besides pure detective fiction), but I think a lot of crime writers feel that term casts them into the supposed "ghetto" of genre fiction. Though I'm not sure they actually escape it with "crime fiction" either (not as far as the Booker Prize is concerned anyway, eh?).

And, the fact is, I think, some "crime novels" I have read like those by Ian Rankin and some of the much admired modern Scandinavian authors, are, in fact, mysteries, in the sense that they are centered around mysteries to be solved. But I'm sure Ian Rankin, for example, would much rather be called a crime novelist than a mystery writer!

In reference to someone like Rankin there's also the term "police procedural," which used to be used a lot.

Another one people love today is "noir" of course, but I think this term is so over-used now. As Otto Penzler has pointed out, there's actually a quite specific set of criteria for a book to meet to really be noir.

I personally don't think Rankin (once again) is noir myself, though he's often said not only to be noir but to have founded the school of "Tartan Noir" no less! Sure, Rankin is gritty, but I don't believe merely being gritty and "realistic" makes a book noir.

Todd Mason said...

"Mainstream" fiction is indeed broken up...into "crime fiction," "speculative fiction," "romance fiction," etc.

And, yes, why would you need famous figures from history to tell a story about another time? That's a bit like needing to write crime fiction about actual criminals.

Wow, for all my grumpiness, I seem to be carrying a Lot less baggage than almost everyone else in this discussion...when I come across terms like "crime fiction" or "mystery" no particular positive nor negative charge hits me...I'll admit that I don't like thriller as a category (as opposed to the title of a tv series) since it is so vague...the attempts, particularly in England, to make it mean particularly the Edgar Wallace sort of melodramatic crime fiction (and some extentions from that) has been seriously diluted almost everywhere else...and I'm not prescriptive enough to find it as useful a term as, say, "suspense fiction," which, while vague, is at least still rather easy to approach a consensus definition of.

Getting back to the original question, why would we try to shoehorn, say, THE EXECUTIONERS by John D. MacDonald into the "mystery" category in anything but a sloppy (and not terribly worried about matters of finesse) bookstore shelving decision?

The Passing Tramp said...

Anonymous Deb said...

"....I don't have a problem with the word "mystery" being used to cover a wide variety of fiction that might involve murder, crime, gritty police procedurals, sedate village cozies, etc."

Yes, Ian Rankin's The Falls, say, is a "mystery," like Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage, though obviously there's a tremendous difference in tone, the one being a gritty police procedural, the other more what a lot of people think of as a village cozy (with a lot of satire, however).

Todd Mason said...

'I don't believe merely being gritty and "realistic" makes a book noir.'

Agree. Though of course what does or doesn't became an almost comically continuous argument on the mailing list Rara-Avis.

"Every mystery is part of crime fiction, but not every work of crime fiction is a mystery."

Also true, and rather sad it had to be stated so baldly when it seems so self-evident...but apparently it isn't.

The Passing Tramp said...

Todd Mason said...

"...Wow, for all my grumpiness, I seem to be carrying a Lot less baggage than almost everyone else in this discussion...when I come across terms like "crime fiction" or "mystery" no particular positive nor negative charge hits me."

I feel the same way as you, but I think for a lot of people the terms do carry those connotations.

Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Mason said...

I think they should reassess their discomfort then, and consider that not a few of them might be assuming things about how others see those terms that simply aren't correct.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"'Every mystery is part of crime fiction, but not every work of crime fiction is a mystery.'

"Also true, and rather sad it had to be stated so baldly when it seems so self-evident...but apparently it isn't."

That speaks to the focus of this discussion. If the lines were clear, we'd all be talking about how much snow has fallen instead. ;)

Todd Mason said...

But unless one is the kind of person unwilling to pay attention to another who says "crime fiction" without assuming they mean "true crime" reportage, the lines are clear. Bringing all this insistence on the snobbery of others to the table is broken in at least two ways...it assumes that the notion that crime fiction or mysteries are usefully a Genre somehow Very different from all the other genres that make up fiction (such as the Bildungsroman or the novel of manners), and that it's a bad thing when, say, a writer suggests that their story of crime that is not devoted to detection per se is not a story that should be labeled that way. A give writer might be a snob; that writer's nonindulgence of the sloppy usage of the label doesn't make them so. I doesn't even mean that the writer in question has no interest in spending some time in the clubhouse, particularly if they're not required to live there exclusively.

A lot of ignorant people will sneer at mysteries, but a lot of ignorant people sneer at a lot of things, and deciding to lump others in with them for preferring a more correct term is not helpful.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think historical fiction is a useless term if the only thing that makes it historical is the year it is set in. If it comments on historic events in that era or utilizes historic figures in the story then it might be called historical fiction. But if I set a story in 1956 and never mention events going on then (the Soviets in Hungary for example) or President Eisenhower, I fail to see why it would be called historical fiction.

Todd Mason said...

Well, presumably a story set in 1956 has some particular resonance with the mores or circumstances of 1956...if it could just as easily have happened in 1972 or 2008, that might seem an odd stress, making a big point of mentioning the year...but a person writing in 2013 might want to mention how much it meant to the character to wear white gloves to the downtown cinema, which would be improbable in 2008 or even in most circumstances in 1972, or at least certainly might have a much different resonance.

And, occasionally, the point is to show how little has changed...perhaps in the matter of, say, making a BLT sandwich. Or how bleak life in the slums, or suburbia, could be.

But, sure, there's going to be bad historical fiction for any number of reasons...that doesn't invalidate historical fiction as a whole.

Mike Dennis said...

Great question, Patti! Really great! I've been waiting for someone to bring this up.

I vote for "crime fiction". "Mysteries" is an antiquated term, having had its heyday in the early part of the 20th century when whodunits were in fashion. In fact, "mysteries" almost always (I believe) referred to whodunits. Mysteries were to be "solved" by someone, a police official, a private eye, an amateur sleuth, whatever. But the term always had a strong connotation of a puzzle that needed "solving". And it carries that connotation to this day.

"Crime fiction", on the other hand, usually emphasizes the crime and often the criminal, not really begging a "solution" at all. Instead of "whodunit", it might by "why they dunit" or "what happened after they dunit".

First-person criminal novels by Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy, and others can't possibly fit into a "mysteries" category, no matter how broadly you define it, but they would be right at home in "crime fiction".

Hardboiled, heist tales, noir...many other subgenres which are awkwardly shoehorned into "Mysteries" are much more amenable to a "crime fiction" label.

Jerry House said...

I really don't care what they call it; somehow I am able to figure out whether I want to read it. And since I'm not the brightest bulb in the pack, I figure most other folks can as well.

There is one label gaining use these days that gives me a fingernails-on-the-blackboard reaction: "literary fiction" -- pretentious, meaningless, and demeaning all at the same time. Ugh.

The Passing Tramp said...

Raymond Chandler's and Ross Macdonald's novels are "hard-boiled" but they are all mysteries too (well, some of the earlier Macdonalds without Archer are more thrillers, I believe). They all offer murder problems to be solved and a detective who solves them. A "mystery" is central to the narrative. One can argue they more "literary" mysteries or what have you, but they are still mysteries. Personally, I don't believe that this diminishes in any way to recognize this.

The Passing Tramp said...

They used to have the term "inverted mystery" for novels like Jim Thompson's (books where you know who the murderer is and watch him/her committing the crimes, waiting to see what happens to him/her). "Psychological suspense" caught on for a while too. But I think crime novel or noir better terms for Thompson's books (they are as bleak as you can get!).

Todd Mason said...

"Open mystery" as well, for the likes of Doestoyevski and Columbo. All, or essentially all, of these terms are still in use, to one degree or another. Boy, it used to annoy Fyodor when he'd lose an Edgar or a Queen award to Manly Wade Wellman or William Faulkner.

Todd Mason said...

(Apologies all around...I can't seem to type worth a damn today.)

The Passing Tramp said...

http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/05/faulkner-vs-wellman-ellery-queens.html

I found that whole Faulkner-Wellman smackdown amusing.

Julian Symons finally decided of Dostoevsky that "in his case the [literary] results far transcend anything the crime novelist achieves or even aims at." I think this conclusion chagrined some of Symons admirers twenty years ago.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I've understood "Crime" simply as an umbrella term for material dealing with criminal activity and detection. It covers numerous subgenres such as mysteries and police procedurals. There are mystery subcategories, such as cozies and hard-boiled. I don't see any controversy in any of this; it is simply categorization intended to help readers pick and choose.

The Passing Tramp said...

I think crime novel or mystery is fine, really. Frankly, I often use the terms interchangeably, simply for variety's sake!

But it does seem some people find the term "mystery" limiting, like if it's a mystery people are "merely" trying to solve a puzzle of some sort, where if it's "crime fiction" people are reading serious analyses of characters, social conditions, the true meaning of life, etc.

But I think a mystery can have these more serious aspects as well (like I said, Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries, but he also is a first-class literary stylist). Call it mystery or crime fiction, the genre can absorb a splendid variety of writing.

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

"Crime fiction" is more inclusive than "mysteries," but I don't care much what term one uses any more than I would care if one supermarket called my spinach and pears "produce" and another called them "fruits and vegetables."