Sun
May 22 2011 2:00pm

When Is a Mystery Too Fantastic?

Recently, I overheard two women in the mystery section in a bookstore:

“Oh my gawd, I can’t believe it, they have this in the mysteries! It has spells and magic and everything!!!”

“Oh gawd, that’s so stupid!!!”

I moved away before my inner librarian erupted to explain to the shocked duo that the books had to go somewhere, right? And you found them, right? So shut up. (My inner librarian is helpful that way.) 

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah BerryBut in truth, this got me to thinking about the nature of mysteries. Let me give an example. I recently finished reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, which was a very different sort of mystery. It takes place in an unnamed city in an unspecified time.

There’s a noirish, forties feel to the setting: all the men wear hats, office clerks use typewriters, and there’s no reference to any sort of modern technology. But it also has a weird Alice in Wonderland quality, where outlandish things happen and people behave in bizarre ways, and all of it is treated as, well, maybe not normal exactly, but to be taken in stride.

It eventually becomes clear you’re in a dream world where almost anything is possible. A man is nearly suffocated by his own hat. A criminal mastermind excises a whole day from the calendar. And in one of my favorite scenes, a host of sleepwalkers converges on a club called the Cat and Tonic (get it?) where they drink milk cocktails and gamble with alarm clocks.

The oddness of this book, coupled with the previously mentioned conversation, made me consider if there are boundaries to the mystery story. Is there a tacit requirement that a mystery has to exist in the world as we know it, either the past or the present, or in a future that’s in close proximity to our reality like the J.D. Robb Eve Dallas novels? How much magic/weirdness/otherworldliness is necessary before it slips over into fantasy?

The Eyre Affair by Jasper FfordeExhibit A: Jasper Fforde, the Thursday Next series.

When The Eyre Affair, the first novel in this series came out, I would swear on a stack of Doyles that it was shelved as a mystery by the big book chains. It features one of the weirdest realities I’ve seen in a mystery, taking place in an alternate past, with time travel, cloned dodos, and the literal ability to get lost in a good book. Jasper Fforde is included at the Stop, You’re Killing Me! web site, where I noted that The Eyre Affair was nominated for the Dilys award, which is given to the book that mystery booksellers most enjoyed selling. (If you aren’t familiar with SYKM, it’s a great site, especially for answering series questions.) So at one time, at any rate, Thursday Next was embraced by the mystery crowd. Now it seems opinions differ. My library decided to classify the series as fantasy, and Borders and Barnes & Noble have shelved the series in fiction.       

Dresden Files Harry DresdenExhibit B: Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files.

There’s no dispute here. Everyone considers this series about a Chicago-based wizard who makes a living as a private investigator, and who helps the police solves crimes, to be fantasy. As a clincher, it’s published by Roc, a sci-fi imprint of Penguin. But why is it fantasy and not mystery? Does it really matter that there’s magic involved? Aren’t we trying to find out whodunnit, the classic definition of a mystery?

In the end, I can’t answer my own questions. My library used to have a requirement that a book had to have a dead body to be a mystery. We’ve gotten a little more flexible over the years, in large part to accommodate the vagaries of genre borders. So if you have a book with a romance between a vampire and a private investigator set in an alternate Old West. . .well, good luck.


Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and totally addicted to true crime television programs.

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8 comments
1. Lisa Hartjes
I'm a fan of Jim Butcher's books, and I'd have to say I would classify them paranormal mystery (if you could do cross-genre shelvings), but if I had to pick just one, I'd go with fantasy (as opposed to mystery) because he's a wizard who does wizardy things. It's his day job. The private detective gig is just what he does to pay his bills. It serves as the vehicle through which the stories can happen.

Ideally, I'd put the books in both the mystery and the fantasy sections, but they don't let you do that. Meanies.

:)

Lisa Hartjes
www.lisahartjes.com
2. Chris F. Holm
These questions are close to my heart, 'cause I write novels I consider to be mysteries, although the rest of the world seems pretty sure they're fantasy (not least my publisher, Angry Robot, who're all about the fantasy, and don't truck in straight mystery at all). Honestly, though, I'd have no idea how to write a story that wasn't at least in part a mystery, and whatever you call the above books (whether cross-genre or just plain weird), they represent a club I'm more than happy to be a part of.
3. Harry Connolly
Here via a Twitter link:

My own books are supernatural crime novels, but it has been very very tough to get the interest of mystery readers.

In part that's because some genres are defined by what they include, and some by what they don't. If you mix science fiction and fantasy, it's not science fiction any more. If you set a mystery in the old west, it's a mystery western.

Fantasy is one of those genres that, as soon as fantasy elements are introduced to the story, the story becomes a fantasy and fantasy haters turn on their hate.
Clare 2e
4. clare2e
Many readers of the fantastic (like many readers of romance, as it happens) are wide-ranging in their tastes, and enjoy things with different proportions of their favorite ingredients. But there are plenty of straight-ahead readers of crime, for example, that don't want any elements of the fantastic or major romance. They're so resistant to those aspects that it's only fair to warn them, like the chili peppers flagging the side of an Asian food menu. Me, I'll read anything that I think's good in any form (so far).
Ron Hogan
5. RonHogan
"My library used to have a requirement that a book had to have a dead body to be a mystery."

Where would they put the heist novels?

(Adding to the complexities of classification, I'm pretty sure Jedediah Berry was marketed as literary fiction, at least in hardcover.)
6. Angelica Jade
Genre is such a funny thing especially when talking about science fiction and fantasy. Like Harry said the moment a fantasy element crops up in a story it will be classified as fantasy. As a screenwriter, I often create a mash of science fiction and noir or add fantasy elements to dramas. I don't know if it is entirely a conscious effort but it puts me in an odd place when being asked what genre my work falls.

I really loved The Manual of Detection. Such a heady, fun and odd read. It felt like a mystery especially since I started imagining favorite actors from '40s noirs in the main roles. It was especially interesting to read since I struggled to write a script where time and place were unspecified.

This article was great!
7. Angelica Jade
Genre is such a funny thing especially when talking about science fiction and fantasy. Like Harry said the moment a fantasy element crops up in a story it will be classified as fantasy. As a screenwriter, I often create a mash of science fiction and noir or add fantasy elements to dramas. I don't know if it is entirely a conscious effort but it puts me in an odd place when being asked what genre my work falls.

I really loved The Manual of Detection. Such a heady, fun and odd read. It felt like a mystery especially since I started imagining favorite actors from '40s noirs in the main roles. It was especially interesting to read since I struggled to write a script where time and place were unspecified.

This article was great!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
8.
A piece that grew out of trying to explain how marketing categories work, and why a book's category isn't solely determined by its costumes, props, and sets: A digression on publishing categories.

As a publisher explained it to me: the point of all the packaging, cover art, cover copy, and other mating signals we put on books is to make it easier for readers to find books they're going to like. The basis of marketing categories is, "If you liked other books with this same label on them, there's a good chance you'll like this one too." Thus, the Harry Dresden books are fantasy, not mystery, because they're likelier to be congenial to fantasy fans than to mystery fans.
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