Not Your Usual Suspects | Genre Spotlight: Mystery

As LJ’s 2015 materials survey of U.S. public libraries (LJ 2/15/15) confirms, crime fiction remains one of the biggest draws for readers, with the genre continuing to dominate fiction circulation in print and ebook formats. Besides the armchair pleasures of following favorite sleuths as they solve a complex puzzle, mystery readers also enjoy exploring new territories and perspectives outside the borders of their own lives.

April15webMysteryOpener“Mysteries are meant to entertain, of course, and there’s as much delight to be had in a richly satisfying traditional as in sharply observed urban noir,” says Keith Kahla, executive editor of St. Martin’s Press and its Minotaur Books imprint. “But recently what has really grabbed my attention are those that can open up worlds as well.” In recent years, spearheaded by such projects as We Need Diverse Books (a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker), an increasing number of nontraditional literary voices (from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, for example) are claiming more attention from critics and readers. Likewise the mystery genre is undergoing a similar transformation.

Breaking the color barrier

Charlie Chan first appeared in 1925 in Earl Derr Biggers’s The House Without a Key, at a time when the Chinese were not looked upon favorably by white society, and African American protagonists debuted in Rudolph Fisher’s 1932 novel, The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Walter Mosley’s hard-boiled PI Easy Rawlins in 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Barbara Neely’s housekeeper-turned-sleuth Blanche White in Blanche on the Lam (1992) that ethnically diverse mysteries began to achieve mainstream success and opened the way for acclaimed newcomers such as Rachel Howzell Hall and Attica Locke. [For more details on Brash Books’ plans to reissue Neely’s series, see the sidebar on p. 22.—Ed.]

Hall’s Land of Shadows (2014) introduced a black female lead and placed her in the male-dominated world of the Los Angeles Police Department. Tor/Forge senior editor Kristin Sevick acquired the book, attracted not only by the strong writing and twisty plot but also by the fresh voice and accessibility of the author’s characters. “It resonated with me in a way a submission hasn’t in a long time,” Sevick explains. “Det. Lou Norton faces unique challenges as a black woman in the LAPD. Unlike the traditional devil-may-care white male hero, Lou Norton is not going to be promoted for insubordination or throwing the rule book out the window—that’s going to get her fired. By virtue of who she is, she has different, and more realistic, crime-solving tools at her disposal.” Arriving in May is the second book in the series, Skies of Ash (Forge), in which Norton investigates a fatal house fire.

Another new protagonist of color confronted with the difficulties of policing in a tough urban environment is Washington, DC, Metro detective Shelley Krieg, a 6’4″ African American woman who’s worked her way up the ranks. She stars in Martin Hill’s Never Kill a Friend (Ransom Note, Jun.). Maxwell St. John, Ransom Note Press’s director of marketing and publicity, describes this debut mystery as a noir thriller with heart. “Unlike many books that feature the political side of our nation’s capital, [this book] takes place in the neighborhoods and on the streets where people live.”

Exploring other city neighborhoods is Mosley himself, whose Big Apple foil to L.A.-based Easy Rawlins, PI Leonid McGill, returns in his fifth installment with And Sometimes I Wonder About You (Doubleday, May). Race remains a hot-button issue in a postapocalyptic New York City, where biracial Dewey Decimal, the hero of Nathan Larson’s explosive trilogy finale The Immune System (Akashic, May), must decide whether to face his past and become part of the new control system. Wally Rudolph, the Canadian-born son of Jamaican immigrants, pits two young sisters struggling to survive in Chicago against a revenge-seeking ex-cop in his gritty thriller Mighty, Mighty (Soft Skull, Oct.). And Jay Porter, the lawyer protagonist of Locke’s Black Water Rising, investigates political corruption and the case of a missing campaign worker in Houston’s African American suburb of Pleasantville (Harper, Apr.).


Diverse voices for a diverse world

Morgan Elwell, Kensington Publishing’s communications and marketing manager for mysteries and thrillers, believes that mystery and crime fiction are becoming more open to nonwhite voices. He points to Suzanne Chazin’s Land of Careful Shadows (2014), a critically praised first novel that introduced Latino homicide detective Jimmy Vega and activist Adele Figueroa, his love interest, as they probed the death of a young Hispanic woman in upstate New York.

“The fantastic feedback shows that readers can appreciate a story that contains characters from all walks of life,” explains Elwell, who assures LJ that there will be plenty of interest for its sequel, A Blossom of Bright Light (Kensington, Nov.). Tor/Forge’s Sevick agrees. “To remain aspirational and relatable, crime fiction heroes will have to shift as times and readers change, and I know that I am not the only editor looking for more diverse voices for a more diverse world.”

Indeed, Minotaur, which has long published such diverse authors as Solomon Jones, Qiu Xialong, Ed Lin, Ian Vasquez, Laura Joh Rowland, and Vikas Swarup, is continuing to expand its multicultural mystery stable with newcomers like Steph Cha, whose upcoming Juniper Song title, Dead Soon Enough (Aug.), delves into L.A.’s Armenian community. ­According to associate publicity director Hector DeJean, readers are always hungry to see something new. “Since crime fiction excels in subtly illuminating regions and societies perceived as exotic or nonmainstream, there will be a continual addition of these new voices.”

Into the genre blender

Tor/Forge editor Miriam Weinberg credits this desire for fresh stories by new writers, as well as the mainstreaming of sf/fantasy into popular culture (thanks to film and television adaptations), for the increased blurring of genre boundaries. “This allows authors who can fluidly move between or blend genres to reach greater audiences than they might have before,” she notes.

Take rising sf talent Adam Christopher, whose books have always contained an element of mystery. His Made To Kill (Tor, Nov.) kicks off an sf-noir mystery series introducing a robot private detective in an alternate history Los Angeles and deftly evoking a Philip Marlowe–meets–Philip K. Dick mood. Also crossing genre boundaries is Simon R. Green. Better known for his sf and urban fantasies, the British author brings his other­worldly sense to his first foray into crime fiction with The Dark Side of the Road (Severn House, May), a country house mystery with a supernatural twist,

In September, Polis Books will publish thriller author Grant McKenzie’s first supernatural crime novel, Speak the Dead. A young woman realizes that the strange voices she heard 25 years ago after her mother was killed are still speaking. “I see a fair amount of genre-bending submissions—supernatural thrillers, paranormal romances and mysteries, and every permutation of young adult blend you can imagine,” explains Polis publisher Jason Pinter. “The trick, of course, is that the author needs to be proficient in both genres for the book to work. Neither element can feel shoehorned in; it needs to feel like a seamless and organic integration. That’s why I felt Speak the Dead was such a terrific book to expand Grant’s readership with.”

“What we are finding at Minotaur is a growing willingness on the part of our editors to allow more of the genre-bending in what used to be a somewhat traditional acquisition,” says publisher Andrew Martin. He is particularly excited about a debut on the imprint’s fall list. “Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield (Dec.) is a novel of love and mystery and time travel à la Jack Finney.” With readers these days more than willing to be adventurous, Martin acknowledges the necessity for publishers “to be always on the lookout for fresh voices and fresh plots and to be open-minded about the possible genre twists.”

Small-town creepiness

One such genre-twisting title will be Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial, Oct.) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, creators of the very popular podcast (with its menacing librarians). Set in an odd small desert town that is home to ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies, this imaginative gothic mystery revolves around two women whose lives converge when their search for answers to the mysteries that obsess them lead them to a place called King City—if they can find it.

With 2014’s Midnight Crossroad, best-selling author Charlaine Harris introduced readers to the derelict town of Midnight, TX, home to psychic Manfred Bernardo and a host of other secretive residents. This May, Manfred heads to Dallas and danger in Day Shift (Ace: Berkley), the second volume in Harris’s trilogy. [See a Q&A with Harris on p. 24.—Ed.].

Also writing about another strange little town with its own dark side is Kelley Armstrong, whose latest entry in her popular Cainsville novels, Deceptions (Dutton), will be released this August. There are no vampires and werewolves in this burg, but the author does add a side order of the supernatural involving omens and superstitions, folklore and legend.

“Armstrong has always incorporated strong mystery elements into her novels,” explains Dutton senior publicist Liza Cassity, “but the Cainsville series is definitely a little heavier on crime and a little lighter on the paranormal.” According to Cassity, Armstrong is a writer who doesn’t confine herself to any “rules” of the genre.

Bending genre rules

Likewise the real world and mythology collide in Stefan Spjut’s Shapeshifters (Mariner: Harcourt, Jul.), which bends traditional thriller-writing rules by drawing on Swedish and Lapp folklore. A small group of people in northern Sweden are tasked with protecting the last of the trolls, which can morph between human and animal, but one young woman will do whatever it takes to reveal the truth as young children go missing. A blurb from Norweign author Karl-Ove Knausgård (My Struggle) praising the book as “fantastic…in every sense of the word” is bound to attract not only fans of Scandinavian crime fiction but readers of literary fiction who might otherwise not consider a supernatural thriller.

Dystopian fiction meets mystery in Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek (Melville House, Sept.). In a post-terrorist-attack America in which Muslims have been forced onto the West’s old Indian reservations, a 12-year-boy searches for his sister even though his parents insist she never existed. And a serial killer invades a postapocalyptic world in Rachelle Dekker’s The Choosing (Tyndale House, May). After a young woman’s disastrous Choosing ceremony places her as a Lint, in the lowest levels of society, she must uncover the truth behind the murders of her fellow Lints. The debut novelist is the daughter of New York Times best-selling author Ted Dekker.

It isn’t just the otherworldly that crosses into the mystery genre. Westerns have also mixed easily with crime fiction. Tiffany Schofield, senior acquisitions editor at Gale Cengage’s Five Star imprint, argues that the popularity of such television shows as Longmire, based on Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series (the latest, Dry Bones, arrives from Viking in May) has allowed more latitude for similar mysteries. “We believe this has also supported the growth of the emerging genre-blend of frontier mysteries,” she says. On Five Star’s fall list is the Spur Award–winning John D. Nesbitt’s latest cowboy mystery, Justice at Redwillow (Sept.).


Global crime is still hot

One of the most popular series of Prometheus Books’ Seventh Street mystery imprint is Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston novels, starring a Texas-born sleuth working in the U.S. Embassy in Paris. “Reviewers have consistently praised Pryor’s ability to make his settings come alive,” says Jill Maxick, Prometheus vice president of marketing and publicity director. “It’s clear to us that readers are still very much interested in traveling around the world from the comfort of their own homes.” Pryor’s next book, The Reluctant Matador (Jun.), follows Marston as he heads to Barcelona to solve a missing persons case.

Minotaur publicity manager Sarah Melnyk agrees, noting that the publisher’s mystery-in-translation program, which include Keigo Higashino, Nele Neuhaus, and Arnaldur Indridason, remains strong, not only because of their authors’ talent but also because American reader interest in the foreign and, to them, exotic has not waned. Devotees of Indridason’s acclaimed Inspector Erlendur series will be eager to pick up Reykjavik Nights (­Minotaur, May), a prequel that reveals how a young Icelandic beat cop gets drawn into detective work.

Among the promising writers making their U.S debuts this year is Chinese author Xiao Bai, whose French Concession (Harper, Jul.) is a literary noir tale of international espionage, set in 1931 Shanghai. Mexican journalist Héctor Aguilar Camín probes the oil cartels’ takeover of land in southern Mexico through tactics of murder and extortion in his first English-translated noir, Death in Veracruz (Schaffner, Oct.).

From the Philippines comes F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, Aug.), winner of the Philippine National Book Award and touted as the first Filipino crime novel. This dark mystery follows two Catholic priests, one of whom is a forensic anthropologist, as they search for a serial killer of young boys in one of Manila’s poorest slums. Soho’s marketing push includes giving out ARCs at BookExpo America and the American Library Association annual conference.

Off the beaten path

Europe remains a popular destination for crime writers, although they are increasingly going off the beaten path. Set in central Italy’s Sybilline Mountains National Park, Michael Gregorio’s Cry Wolf (Severn House, Apr.) launches a new series introducing park ranger Sebastiano Cangio, who must protect the park’s unspoiled landscape and endangered wolves from the predatory Mafia. Thomas Mogford’s forthcoming Spike Sanguinetti novel Sleeping Dogs (Bloomsbury USA, Jul.) has his Gilbraltarian lawyer heading to the Greek island of Corfu for a vacation only to find murder.

Northern Ireland was once off-limits to crime writers, but a recent Wall Street Journal article profiled the rise of crime fiction focusing on “The Troubles,” the 40-year violent conflict between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups. One of the first authors to explore this turbulent period is Adrian McKinty, whose “Belfast Trilogy” procedurals feature DS Sean Duffy, a Catholic on the mainly Protestant police force in a divided Belfast of the 1980s. With praise from critics for the recently released fourth Sean Duffy novel, Gun Street Girl (Seventh St., Mar.), “there’s no denying the continued love for Irish crime fiction,” says Seventh St.’s Maxick.

Addressing the problems of contemporary Belfast is Edgar Award–­nominated Stuart Neville in his second Serena Flanagan procedural, Those We Left Behind (Soho Crime, Sept.).

Scotland is also a hotbed of trouble. This month Little, Brown’s Mulholland Books imprint brings Malcolm Mackay’s gritty “Glasgow Trilogy” to American readers with the simultaneous publication of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye (which was named the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year), and The Sudden Arrival of Violence. Another Tartan noir writer is literary author Chris Dolan, who sets his first crime novel, Potter’s Field (Dufour, Jul.), in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, where the killings of two young boys send public prosecutor Maddy Shannon on a hunt for a possible serial killer. Edinburgh is represented in Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories (Little, Brown, Aug.), which includes two new DI John ­Rebus stories.

Eyes on spy fiction

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was a general belief among publishers that the espionage novel was over. But Minotaur executive editor Kahla argues that that proved to be a too simplistic analysis. “One of the most intriguing things about the reinvigoration of modern espionage fiction is that it has expanded beyond the merely political sphere: Russia isn’t merely the MVD, the Middle East isn’t just terrorist groups, and China the Communist Party. There are jihadists in China, industrial espionage in the Middle East, and some of the most interesting new espionage writers are exploring those spheres that exist outside the visible power structure.”

One such author is Ben Coes; in his new Dewey Andreas thriller, Independence Day (Minotaur, May), “the threat comes from the powerful criminal underworld, the oligarchs, ­jihadist elements, and the hackers who attack U.S. infrastructure for their own [ends]….” Houghton Harcourt’s senior publicist ­Michelle Bonanno is seeing more novels inspired by real-life acts of espionage, cybersecurity breaches, and war. A prime example is Ghost Fleet (Jul.), a thriller debut from nonfiction writers Peter Singer and August Cole that imagines what would happen if the brewing Cold War between the United States and China/­Russia ever turned hot. Melding fiction with nonfiction research techniques, the book features over 500 endnotes.

Other spy titles on the summer/fall radar include Terrence McCauley’s Sympathy for the Devil (Polis, Jul.), a contemporary spy/espionage novel that merges the brilliant old school spycraft of Charles Cumming and John le Carré with the technology and contemporary feel of Alex Berenson; Charles McCarry’s The Mulberry Bush (Mysterious, Nov.), a new masterpiece from one of the genre’s finest writers; Adam Brookes’s Spy Games (Redhook: ­Hachette, Jul.), a suspenseful sequel to the author’s acclaimed debut, Night Heron; and Ted Bell’s latest novel about counterspy Alex Hawke, ­Patriot (Morrow, Sept.).

History through mysteries

England’s Tudor period has always fascinated historical fiction readers, but the popularity of such television programs as Showtime’s The Tudors and the BBC’s Wolf Hall has stirred further interest among mystery writers. “This has been a fantastic time period for dramas and women’s fiction, and now mysteries are joining the fun,” says Kensington’s Elwell. On Kensington’s spring list is Mary Lawrence’s debut, The Alchemist’s Daughter (May), about a young alchemist suspected of murder during the final years of Henry VIII’s reign.

Elwell also sees the Gilded Age gaining traction, explaining that the early 1900s are the perfect setting for layered family mysteries set in beautiful historic homes, like Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder at Beechwood (Jun.). This trend is bound to grow when Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes offers his own take on the American aristocracy in a proposed series titled The Gilded Age for NBC.

Historical mysteries have long been strong for Minotaur, and publicity manager Melnyk is especially excited about one of the imprint’s lead debuts for the fall. She describes Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain (Sept.) as “a stunning, lyrical mystery about an exiled librarian traveling through the 18th-century Chinese/Tibetan borderlands.” Another notable launch from Minotaur is Sean Haldane’s Arthur Ellis Award–winning The Devil’s Making (May), about the sometimes deadly clash of cultures in 1869 British Columbia.


Nifty 50s and 60s

Fast forward into the 20th century as Elly Griffiths, the author of the award-winning Ruth Galloway novels, switches genre gears and time periods with The Zig Zag Girl (Houghton Harcourt, Sept.), the first volume in a new series set in 1950s Britain. Drawing on her grandfather’s experiences as a magician, Griffiths introduces the Magic Men, a band of illusionists who served together during World War II, as they hunt a killer who is using a magic trick to commit his crimes.

For Seventh Street, books set in the early 1960s are hot. May brings James W. Ziskin’s Stone Cold Dead and its “girl reporter” protagonist, Ellie Stone, who “melds the gender-busting career aspirations of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson with the supersleuthing of Nancy Drew.” The 1960s is also the time for James Runcie’s priest and amateur sleuth Sidney Chambers, who returns in six short stories in Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (Bloomsbury USA, May).

Cozy up

Today’s cozies and their sleuths are definitely in the modern world. “I’m seeing the genre opening up to a diverse range of sleuths with social agendas,” says Greg Lilly, publisher of indie press Cherokee McGhee. He will be promoting at this May’s Malice Domestic convention The Brand Demand (Mar.), a debut adult mystery by horror and YA author Johnny Worthen, in which a self-styled Robin Hood—and blackmailer—takes on corporate greed. “I love the ‘mystery with a social conscience’ theme that tests the limits of the idealistic character.”

Cozies are also keeping up with social media. In Wendy Sand Eckel’s Murder at Barclay Meadow (Minotaur, Jul.), a bread-baking heroine finds a body and teams up with her creative writing class to solve a crime, communicating with her classmates through Facebook.

Food, of course, remains a tasty high point of cozy mysteries, especially when recipes are included. Cook Rita Lafitte is preparing sugar skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for Sante Fe’s Day of the Dead celebrations when her landlord is killed in Ann Myers’s Bread of the Dead (Avon, Sept.). Meera Lester’s engaging debut, A Beeline to Murder (Kensington, Oct.), offers beekeeping, organic gardening, pastry ­baking—and an engaging mystery.

There is a clear interest from readers in cozy mystery series that feature a romantic subplot. This subplot, Kensington’s Elwell explains, is seen more often in cozy mysteries targeted at younger adult audiences, in which the lead character hasn’t fully settled down yet and is still in the process of “finding themselves.” One example is Kate Dyer-Seeley’s Slayed on the Slopes (Kensington, Apr.); protagonist Meg Reed is just starting out in life and taking on a new career path. Along the way she discovers romance and the occasional murder mystery to solve.

Plus ça change

The mystery genre is ever-evolving, attracting new voices and new readers. Yet it is also remains unchanged in the way its writers always embed pieces of themselves in their work. Says Minotaur’s Kahla, “One of the great aspects about crime fiction is that, over the years and decades, it’s been used in so many interesting ways by talented writers to illuminate, explicate, and comment upon their lives, their cultures, their concerns, and their times.”

Mystery Lineup

Below are the forthcoming titles mentioned in this article.
Aguilar Camín, Héctor Death in Veracruz Schaffner Oct.
Armstrong, Kelley Deceptions Dutton Aug.
Batacan, F.H. Smaller and Smaller Circles Soho Crime Aug.
Bell, Ted Patriot Morrow Sept.
Brookes, Adam Spy Games Redhook: Hachette Jul.
Cha, Steph Dead Soon Enough Minotaur: St. Martin’s Aug.
Chazin, Suzanne Blossom of Bright Light Kensington Nov.
Christopher, Adam Made To Kill Tor Nov.
Coes, Ben Independence Day Minotaur: St. Martin’s May
Dekker, Rachelle The Choosing Tyndale House May
Dolan, Chris Potter’s Field Dufour Jul.
Dyer-Seeley, Kate Slayed on the Slopes Kensington Apr.
Eckel, Wendy Sand Murder at Barclay Meadow Minotaur: St. Martin’s Jul.
Fink, Joseph & Jeffrey Cranor Welcome to Night Vale Harper Perennial Oct.
Green, Simon R. The Dark Side of the Road Severn House May
Gregorio, Michael Cry Wolf Severn House Apr.
Griffiths, Elly The Zig Zag Girl Houghton Harcourt Sept.
Haldane, Sean The Devil’s Making Minotaur: St. Martin’s May
Hall, Rachel Howzell Skies of Ash Forge May
Harris, Charlaine Day Shift Ace: Berkley May
Hart, Elsa Jade Dragon Mountain Minotaur: St. Martin’s Sept.
Hill, Martin Never Kill a Friend Ransom Note Jun.
Hrbek, Greg Not on Fire, but Burning Melville House Sept.
Indridason, Arnaldur Reykjavik Nights Minotaur: St. Martin’s May
Johnson, Craig Dry Bones Viking May
Larson, Nathan The Immune System Akashic May
Lawrence, Mary The Alchemist’s Daughter Kensington May
Lester, Meera A Beeline to Murder Kensington Oct.
Locke, Attica Pleasantville Harper Apr.
McCarry, Charles The Mulberry Bush Mysterious Nov.
McCauley, Terrence Sympathy for the Devil Polis Jul.
Mackay, Malcolm How a Gunman Says Goodbye Mulholland: Little Brown Apr.
Mackay, Malcolm The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter Mulholland: Little, Brown Apr.
Mackay, Malcolm The Sudden Arrival of Violence Mulholland: Little, Brown Apr.
McKenzie, Grant Speak the Dead Polis Sept.
McKinty, Adrian Gun Street Girl Seventh St: Prometheus Mar.
Maxwell, Alyssa Murder at Beechwood Kensington Jun.
Mogford, Thomas Sleeping Dogs Bloomsbury USA Jul.
Mosley, Walter And Sometimes I Wonder About You Doubleday May
Myers, Ann Bread of the Dead Avon Sept.
Neely, Barbara Blanche Cleans Up Brash May
Nesbitt, John D. Justice at Redwillow Five Star: Gale Cengage Sept.
Neville, Stuart Those We Left Behind Soho Crime Sept.
Pryor, Mark The Reluctant Matador Seventh St: Prometheus Jun.
Rankin, Ian The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories Little, Brown Aug.
Rudolph, Wally Mighty, Mighty Soft Skull Oct.
Runcie, James Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins Bloomsbury USA May
Schofield, Douglas Time of Departure Minotaur: St. Martin’s Dec.
Singer, Peter & August Cole Ghost Fleet Houghton Harcourt Jul.
Spjut, Stefan Shapeshifters Mariner Jul.
Weston, Carolyn Susannah Screaming Brash May
Worthen, Johnny The Brand Demand Cherokee McGhee Mar.
Xiao Bai French Concession Harper Jul.
Ziskin, James W. Stone Cold Dead Seventh St: Prometheus May

Kristi Chadwick is Advisor–Small Libraries for the Massachusetts Library System, South Deerfield. A longtime LJ reviewer who was a 2013 Reviewer of the Year, Chadwick is also a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker. She can be found on Twitter @booksNyarn

This article was published in Library Journal's April 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.