Monday, February 1, 2010

Rhys Bowen on Thrillers v. Mysteries, Noir v. Cozy

I was speaking at a bookstore the other day and a member of the audience asked me what the difference was between a mystery and a thriller. My flippant reply was, “About eight hundred thousand dollars.” This surprised my audience who tend to think that all published authors make millions of dollars (Sisters, you are allowed a gentle chuckle here). They couldn’t believe that mysteries were less highly regarded than thrillers.

“But thrillers are all about plot,” one person said. “And my favorite Rhys Bowen mysteries are wonderful character studies.”

Right. But as we all know, good books do not necessarily translate into bestselling books. When I’ve been in an airport or on a beach, I’ve been dismayed to observe that everyone is reading Dan Brown or James Patterson. Does that really mean that most people find them more enjoyable or that they are so ubiquitous that the average person can’t help stumbling upon them in the big box stores or at the airport newsagents?

The sad thing is that these people will think that this is the gold standard of mystery/thriller fiction. We’ve all heard the comment, “Oh, I never read genre fiction” by those who consider themselves cultured and educated. I always point out to these people that they have probably read no genre fiction other than the piles at the big box stores and thus can’t really judge. I ask if they have they ever read Nancy Pickard or Laura Lippman or Louise Penny or any number of distinguished women writers whose books are full of wonderfully complex characters, finely drawn settings, moral dilemmas and who write to touch the soul?

I suspect, unfortunately, that most people don’t want their souls touched. They don’t want to be involved with the books they read. They just want entertaining and titillating in the same way that they watch their TV programs. I don’t know about you, but when I read a good book, I am so involved that I am not conscious of words on the page. I am in that place and time—feeling the hot dry wind in my face with Tony Hillerman, shivering in the icy cold of Quebec with Louise Penny. I also strive for this when I write my own books. I want my reader to experience the sights, sounds and smells of New York City with my heroine Molly Murphy. The experience of the setting is as important to me as the plot. So is getting to know the characters. I come to regard series characters as old friends, to be revisited with anticipation each time a new book comes out. I know my fans feel this way, because they talk about Evan and Molly and Lady Georgie as if they are real people—which they are to me, of course.

Which brings me to a second gripe: that noir mystery fiction, usually written by men, is somehow more valid and more literary than traditional mysteries written by women. You only have to look at the Edgars or best books of the year lists to see that we women are lucky if we get a mention. Would somebody please tell me why an alcoholic and troubled loner sleuth is considered more interesting and relevant than an ordinary, likeable person trying to see that justice is done? We writers of the traditional mystery (no, I won’t use the word cozy) are used to being patted on the head, as if we are the maiden aunt who should sit quietly in the corner, knitting. Well, I’m sorry but I find the stories in traditional mysteries more shocking in many ways. If I am on the mean streets of the city, among gangs and drug dealers, I expect to find crime and violence. How much more disturbing is it if violent crime strikes the kind of place where I live and involves people that I know?

I guess I’m biased. I don’t like violence. I don’t like graphic violence on the page. I like to read a book in which justice somehow prevails and order is restored to the universe by the end of the story. I guess I really am cozy by nature.

When I first started writing I complained to my editor that all my reviews called my books “charming and delightful.” I wanted to be taken seriously, not to be charming and delightful. So I told my editor that my next book would contain Satanism, cannibalism and strewn body parts. She smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, and I bet they’ll be charming and delightful body parts too.”

So that’s it: cozy and noir are in our natures as writers and we can’t write well outside our nature however well we try. So I promise no cannibalism or strewn body parts in my next Molly and Georgie books!

Rhys Bowen writes the Agatha, Anthony and MacAvity winning Molly Murphy mysteries set in 1903 New York City and the bestselling Royal Spyness mysteries featuring a minor royal in 1930s London. The Last Illusion, her ninth Molly Murphy mystery, will be in stores on Marsh 2nd. She also looks forward to being toastmaster at this year’s Malice Domestic convention.


Deborah Lee said...

I love your comments---especially the quip about the difference between mysteries & thrillers.

I was at a wonderful independent bookstore in Atlantic Beach (NC) while on vacation over Christmas. Because I live in small community in MS, my local store usually carries the NYT best sellers in mysteries but it can be hard to get some of the newer folks---who may only have 2 or 3 titles and only in paperback. This small store at the beach focused on paperbacks and had a much better selection.

What I found so funny was that, along the left hand wall, were two sections side by side. Facing the wall, to my right, was the mystery section. To my left, the thriller section. And the breakdown by gender was very obvious---it was sort of like his and hers mysteries!

There was some cross-over. CJ Box was shelved in the mysteries. Carol O'Connell's Bone by Bone was shelved in the thrillers. But the overall gender distinction was very obvious. Having read extensively in both sections, I don't see where the division was valid, at least not in terms of the plots.

I shopped both and picked up quite a few new authors to try out. But I have never seen such a division in my local bookstores. And, of course, I don't see it when I shop online.

Tiger said...

Truer words...Check out the displays in the local supermarket or drug store. They're filled with thrillers and romances, but no mysteries. Too bad that I, like you, am opposed to graphic blood and gore. Guess I'd better keep my day job to pay the bills.

Dabble and the Mad Sow said...

"So I told my editor that my next book would contain Satanism, cannibalism and strewn body parts."
I love it! It's like the snobbery about genre fiction and "literary" fiction which totally ignores the luscious writing of PD James or Denise Mina or any of a bundle of writers who write eloquently but who actually have a traceable plot. I love wallowing in both, love cozies to Spillane, Helen Humphries poetic writing to Haaissen's hilarious characterizations. All involve characters I want to know and stories I am curious to read. It's sad that the presentation of these authors is so hidden behind the Dan Brown stuff.

P.A.Brown said...

I come from the other end of the spectrum, a female author trying to be taken seriously as a thriller novelist. I write dark noirish fiction set in the dirty dark streets of Los Angeles and I believe I'm pretty good at it. But I don't always get much respect, or all that money, for it. I wish. LOL.

Rhys Bowen said...

Unfortunately this gender division hurts us in the pocketbook as well as in recognition, reviews, Best of lists etc. And I opposte the idea that to be a contender womean have to write as dark and violent as men. Hooray for Malice Domestic that celebrates the best in "real" mysteries!

Barb Goffman said...

I love this post, Rhys. I moderated a panel at Malice Domestic a couple years ago about whether cozies are less realistic than thrillers, and the panelists made wonderful points about how it's much more realistic to have people interested in finding out who killed their friend or family member than for a certain thriller hero to travel the world without a change of clothes and only a toothbrush. (I love his books, but I gotta agree that traditional mystery writers often get the bum rush for no good reason.)

And on behalf of the Malice Domestic board, we're so pleased you'll be our toastmaster this year! See you in April!

Rhys Bowen said...

I notice my spelling has left a lot to be desired in my comment. I really am literate but the mini-sized laptop I take around with me doesn't always behave itself and the keys are just slightly too close together to type as fast as I like to.

And P.Brown--you are so right that it's hard for female thriller writers to get the same respect. A few have done it. My friend Katherine Neville sells huge numbers of books, but she has almost created her own genre. Gayle Lynds can keep up with the big boys. Maybe an androgynous name or initials might be the solution.
I'm afraid the hard truth is that many men will only read male writers while women read both male and female.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've come to hate the very word "thriller" because it's so overused and is often applied these days to books that are simply mysteries. A novel that Deborah Lee mentioned, for example -- Bone by Bone -- is NOT a thriller! It's a gothic mystery, with none of the action and relentless violence I expect in a thriller. Karin Slaughter's books are also labeled thrillers, but I don't think the label fits (and they are nowhere near as violent as a lot of people -- who probably haven't read them -- say they are). Karin writes about uncomfortable aspects of life, so her books are called thrillers.

Of course people read thrillers in airports. Nobody can concentrate on anything in such an environment, and you don't have to give a thriller your full concentration.

Karen K Brees said...

Amen, sister. I don't like graphic violence or the obligatory gratuitous sex. A solid story line and characters that I care about are what keep me reading a favorite author.

June Shaw said...

Wonderful insights. Rhys, I also look to see what people are reading (or ask if I can't see the cover.) Yep, it's usually those guys. But I love books like yours.

Anonymous said...

This posting is so perfect. I get exactly the same names in response to "What have you read?" and the same comments about "I never read genre fiction." Thanks for putting the arguments in such clear and understandable language

Rhys Bowen said...

Thank you for the kind words, everybody. Have you noticed that publishers start calling books Thrillers or novels of suspense the moment they start selling well?
Same books, same mysteries but suddenly they are "novels of suspense."
It seems that we at Sisters In Crime have a lot of work to do to persuade the average reader that we right just as well (if not better) than all those thriller guys.

Liz said...

For a short, sweet comparison: thrillers are about plot and mysteries are about character (I think I'm extrapolating a little bit) is prett accurate. I like them both (though I have to say, I must be the only reader in American who doesn't care for either Dan Brown (horribly written) or James Patterson (I disliked one of earlier books because of a gratuitous scene so much that I refuse to read him; no I can't remember what the book was called. Kiss the Girls, maybe? The offensive scene involved a snake).

Interestingly, I think I read mostly mysteries written by women: Elizabeth Peters has long been a favorite. Love Edna Buchanen, and Julia Spencer-Fleming, and others. Is JA Jance a woman? Like her, too, though sometimes hers leave me cold. I also do like men authors -- robert Parker, for instance. And I just finished a great thriller, "They Never Die Quietly, that's also by a guy: D.M. Annechino. It features a serial killer, kind of a favorite of mine in terms of plot. I know it's a cliche to say it's a page-turner, but it is! And I warn you it's not for the faint of heart -- it's graphic and it's sometimes violent. Definitely not a "cozy" mystery (though I enjoy those as well). Enjoy!