Thursday, May 5, 2011

Readers & Mystery Reading at the Popular Culture Association

By Barbara Fister

As I was saying, my panel at the Popular Culture Association Meeting in San Antonio focused on mystery readers.

First up, Mary Bendel-Simso and LeRoy Panek of McDaniel College in Maryland talked about an amazing project that anyone interested in the history of the mystery will want to check out: the Westminster Detective Library. They are documenting 19th century detective fiction published in the popular press, with the goal of making available online all short fiction dealing with detection published in the United States before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Crime stories were enormously popular and had a huge audience in newspapers and magazines. The trick is to find the old newspapers and comb through them for stories and poems. Their research shows that the mystery was a beloved genre long before most histories indicate, and includes some surprises such as the use of fingerprints in a story in 1861 and women detectives featuring in stories from the 1860s onward.

The second speaker was a dynamo named Katherine Clark, whose topic was “Who is the American Mystery Reader and Why Does it Matter?” For her dissertation research she surveyed more than 700 mystery readers, who she found tend to be avid readers, loyal fans of the genre, and devoted to it throughout their lives, starting in childhood. Unlike the readership for the romance genre, which tends to fall off in middle age, mystery readers are fans for life. She had fascinating things to say about readers and their tastes, as well as insights into the publishing industry. I was entrusted with keeping time for the panel, so was crushed when I had to give her the “five minute warning.” I could have listened to her for hours!

Finally, I spoke about Sisters in Crime, taking a look at its origins, reporting some of the findings of the Sisters in Crime/Bowker study of the mystery consumer, and sharing results from a member survey. I was fortunate beforehand to have the help of archivists at both Rutgers University, which houses the organization’s papers, and the Newberry Library in Chicago, which has a collection of Sara Paretsky’s papers, some of which deal with the formation of the organization. (It’s pretty exciting to get an e-mail with .pdfs of early memos and meeting minutes from our founding! Okay, I admit it, I’m a nerd.)

Looking back, I found that our mission remains remarkably consistent and that, in spite of progress, the issues that led to the founding of the group remain relevant. If you’re curious, you can read the paper here. The fact that Sara Paretsky was just about to be recognized as a Grand Master at the Edgar awards was a happy note on which to end my brief history.

At this conference, I was delighted to find a thriving and close-knit community of mystery fans who happen to be academics. Like most mystery fans, the members of the Mystery and Detective Fiction area of the association are welcoming and enthusiastic about the genre. I’ve already been unofficially declared a Sisters in Crime liaison to the group and will try to attend next year’s conference in Boston.

There will be opportunities for writers to participate, and plans are afoot for Frankie Bailey, our next president and a member of the Popular Culture Association, to be on the program. That reminds me: I suppose I should warn her.


Barbara Fister is the author of the Anni Koskinen mysteries. The most recent title in the series is Through the Cracks. She is an academic librarian and serves on the SinC board as Secretary.


NancyM said...

Terrific stuff, Barbara. I'd love to hear more about Katherine Clark's research. Might se write for our newsletter? Or is there a place we can rad her whole dissertation? (I clicked on the link--it's just the outline.) Thanks for your report--and your presentation.

Barbara said...

Actually, you can download her entire dissertation from that link - and fascinating stuff it is, too. I think she's planning to publish some articles and perhaps a book based on her research. I can't wait.