March 23, 2018

Genre Spotlight 2007 “Mystery”: The Killer Genre

By Wilda W. Williams

New talent and publishing initiativesfor mystery readers

Start-up Colorado publisher Capital Crime Press found rousing success in 2006. “In our first year [of business], we had six new authors making a splash,” says senior editor Alex Cole. Robert Fate’s Baby Shark, a gritty noir crime novel set in 1950s Texas that is a finalist for Foreword magazine’s 2006 Book of the Year, got the biggest bites, along with Troy Cook’s comic crime caper, 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers, named a “Killer Book” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA) and nominated for a Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery at this year’s Left Coast Crime convention in Seattle.

Cole, a former film producer, likens publishing to the movie business, pointing out that independent production companies more often discover new talent than the big conglomerates because it is easier for them to take risks. “We want to do the same thing in publishing,” he states. “We want to be the ones who discover the amazing new talents of today.”

New voices, new presses

Midnight Ink editor Barbara Moore agrees, observing that “the library and mystery communities really appreciate that we provide such a great opportunity for fresh voices in the mystery field.” New writers introduced by the two-year-old Minnesota-based imprint of New Age publisher Llewellyn include Tim Maleeny, whose hard-boiled Stealing the Dragon “knocked…the socks off of everyone who’s read it” (including IMBA booksellers who picked it as a March 2007 Killer Book). October brings Maleeny’s Beating the Babushka, the second entry in his Cape Weathers Investigation Series. And Julia Buckley, whose 2006 debut psychological thriller, The Dark Backward, riveted readers with a touch of the paranormal, returns this August with Madeline Mann, a new amateur sleuthing series that Moore says will appeal to women who grew up reading Nancy Drew.

Bleak House of Madison, WI, has even bigger ambitions. “We want to grow to the size of Poisoned Pen,” says publisher Benjamin LeRoy, referring to the Arizona “small” press that is the second largest publisher of mysteries after St. Martin’s. “But in steps we can manage,” he adds. Started in 2003 and acquired by Big Earth Publishing in 2005, the company has seen its list of dark, literary crime fiction grow from an initial four to six titles a year to 23 books in 2007.

In looking for original voices, Bleak House avoids jumping on trend bandwagons. “We don’t do thrillers or paranormal mysteries,” explains LeRoy. “We primarily stick with character-driven crime novels featuring flawed protagonists trying to make it to the end of the day.” One such title that LeRoy lately acquired is Craig McDonald’s Head Games. Scheduled for a September release, this debut revolves around the urban legend of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s skull, rumored to have been stolen and sent to Yale University’s secretive Skull and Bones Society on the orders of Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the current U.S. President. “It’s one of the top three crime novels I have read in recent years,” raves LeRoy.

Reaping what you sow

Andrew Martin, VP and publisher of St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint, calls publishing trends “fool’s gold in a genre where the range is broad and the hot trend is the latest great book.” Instead, argues Martin, the strength of Minotaur’s program lies in the breadth and depth of the 130 titles it publishes annually. “What we pay attention to is the quality of the imagination and the writing.”

This strategy paid off in 2006 when Minotaur titles made the Best Mysteries lists of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and the Chicago Tribune; for the first time in the imprint’s nine-year history, three novels—Dana Stabenow’s Blindfold Game, John Hart’s The King of Lies, and M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies, and Liquor—hit the New York Times best sellers list. And Louise Penny, last year’s big discovery, was honored with the Dilys Award at February’s Left Coast Crime conference. “That the booksellers chose her debut mystery, Still Life, as the one they had the most pleasure selling made it an emotional moment for Louise,” comments Martin.

Plans are afoot to grow Penny further. A Fatal Grace (LJ 3/1/07), the second entry in her intelligent cozy series, is the lead May title, and Minotaur has bought Penny’s next three mysteries. This serious commitment is part of the company’s expanding mandate to break out key authors it has been nurturing for several years. “We will continue to have a broad core of titles, but we are also moving quickly to build bigger books that sell deeper and stronger,” explains Martin, the former Sterling publishing director and 20-year Crown publishing executive who came aboard last summer to help rev up Minotaur’s efforts in this area.

Among the titles Minotaur is concentrating on is June’s lead title, City of Fire, which marks Robert Ellis’s hardcover debut after three successful mass-market thrillers. “He has written a very commercial book,” says Martin. And the house is heavily pushing HeartSick, a “brilliantly written and crafted” September debut thriller about a cop on the hunt for a female serial killer. Although a newcomer in the thriller genre, author Chelsea Cain is already well known for her hilarious Nancy Drew parody, Confessions of a Teenage Sleuth, and Dharma Girl, her memoir of growing up on a commune. To help launch the novel, Cain will appear at this summer’s American Library Association conference in Washington, DC.

Building authors

Like Minotaur, Putnam is aiming to taking its core authors to the next level with bigger print runs and promotions. Of the 19 to 20 mysteries and thrillers on the summer and fall lists, editor in chief Neil Nyren is especially strong on Mark Mills’s second novel, The Savage Garden (May; LJ 3/1/07), in which a young scholar visits a Tuscan garden and gets involved with two murders 400 years apart. “The writing is just as great as in Amagansett,” says Nyren, citing Mills’s first book.

In July, Ridley Pearson makes his Putnam debut with Killer Weekend, the start of a new series set in Sun Valley, ID. “I don’t know if his other thrillers have cracked the Times list, but we’re trying to do it,” comments Nyren. “Sometimes you have to start out fresh with something like this in order to break out.”

Other promising Putnam authors whose sales Nyren says are growing by “leaps and bounds” include Daniel Silva and Barry Eisler. Both Silva’s latest international thriller featuring Israeli operative Gabriel Allon, The Secret Servant, and Eisler’s new entry in his series about a Japanese American assassin, Requiem for an Assassin, arrive this July. November marks Clive Cussler’s first standalone. The Chase, a historical adventure thriller, revolves around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. “It will also be the first book Cussler has not cowritten with another writer in four years,” adds Nyren.

Going in new directions

Other publishers are strengthening their mystery programs or taking them into new directions. Soho Press’s focus this year is on building up its Soho Crime series of international mysteries as “something very special,” with new entries like Leighton Gage’s Blood of the Wicked (January 2008), set in Brazil’s interior. And Farrar, Straus & Giroux is snapping up literary mysteries like Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore (July). When he presented this title from one of Australia’s best-known crime novelists to FSG’s sales team, publisher Jonathan Galassi described how “blown away” he was by the book.

Meanwhile, Henry Holt recently hired editor Sarah Knight to beef up its list with more commercial and higher-octane thrillers, including Brent Ghelfi’s Volk’s Game (LJ 3/1/07), which this June threatens to give Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective Arkady Renko a run for his money. “This was a case where the voice and a certain style of writing leapt off the page,” explains Knight. “Brent also has that rare combination of commercial thriller plotting and pacing with a literary flair.”

Best known for its romantic suspense, Harlequin’s Mira Books imprint has also been rapidly expanding into the mystery genre. “We have actually bought more mysteries and suspense so that they now dominate our list,” says Mira executive editor Margaret Marbury. She credits the 2004 creation of Harlequin’s HQN imprint to publish big single-title romances and romantic suspense with freeing Mira to branch out into new territory. “It is a bit risky because a lot of our romance writers are big moneymakers,” explains Marbury, “but general commercial fiction was where we felt we could grow and spread our wings.”

This summer Mira launches “The Deadly Seven”, a new marketing campaign that bundles seven debut and known suspense authors: Alex Kava, Michelle Gagnon, Paul Johnston, Jason Pinter, Chris Jordan, M.J. Rose, and J.T. Ellison. Promotional efforts include a Deadly Seven signing at BookExpo America and extensive galley and press kit mailings. “We are really strong as a company about committing to our authors and building them,” says Marbury, acknowledging that Mira is putting a lot of money behind Pinter’s mass-market debut, The Mark (July; see review on p. 76), and Rose’s The Reincarnationist (September). Marbury praises Pinter (see Q&A on p. 39) as a “phenomenal new talent” and calls the new psychological/historical mystery about past life experiences a total departure for the author of the erotic Lip Service. “It’s one of our biggest books of the year and totally original,” she adds.

The power of the blog

One traditional tool that Marbury won’t be relying on to promote The Deadly Seven is the author tour. “I won’t say it is dead in the water, but unless you are one of the top 15 best-selling authors with a huge audience, this is not the best place to spend publicity money.” Instead, she views the Internet as an inexpensive and more productive place to pick up new readers. The Mira editor tries to look at as many mystery book blogs as she can, including many of her authors’ blogs. “I find that really good author web sites make a difference in reaching and maintaining readers, which is increasingly important,” she says.

Many publishers are either creating web sites for their authors or encouraging their writers to guest blog on other sites. Says Bleak House’s LeRoy, “Our philosophy is that a direct relationship between author and reader is one of the most important catalysts in developing organic buzz.” Not surprising, for a young cutting-edge publisher, Bleak House is also developing a weekly podcast series, “The Future Is Bleak,” to provide interviews with its authors and other guests. “We believe the mystery community is fairly tight knit,” explains LeRoy, “and that building interest in any crime fiction writer is beneficial to the house.”

No more online ghetto

As print newspapers and magazines cut pages for book reviews, online reviews gain status with publishers who had once complained that such reviews “ghettoized” their books. Many houses now target review web sites like Stacy Alesi’s (Disclosure: Alesi reviews for Library Journal.) Florida librarian Alesi started her site ten years ago as a way to keep track of the books she had read. It snowballed, she says, when Time Warner Books (now the Hachette Book Group) featured her site on its web site and asked her to give away the company’s books. Then Random House contacted Alesi, and last year she hooked up with International Thriller Writers and does monthly promotions for them. She receives between 25 and 50 books a week for review, which she assigns to a tag team including librarians, an ex-bookseller, and a former Random House marketing manager–turned–MLS candidate. Among her top discoveries: Baby Shark and 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers. (See “The Usual Suspects,” above, for more online mystery review sources.)

If new presses are finding the crime fiction stars of tomorrow and established publishers are renewing their commitment to the rising stars of today, writers themselves are playing a major role in their own success. Last year, an enterprising group of first-time thriller authors banded together as a group called Killer Year to promote and market themselves. Members of the Class of 2007 include Marcus Sakey (The Blade Itself), Marc Lecard (Vinnie’s Head), J.T. Ellison (All the Pretty Girls), and Jason Pinter. “A lot of writers want the instant fame and shoot up to the top of the market,” says Mira’s Marbury. But in a tough market, there are only a handful of big debut successes every year. “It is not just the publisher’s responsibility to do everything,” adds Marbury. “The writers have to put themselves out there.”


Also see the Q&A with author Troy Cook.

Q&A: Jason Pinter

What inspired The Mark?

I’ve always been a voracious thriller and mystery reader and knew that genre was where I wanted to make my mark (no pun intended). At the same time, I wanted to stand out on a shelf where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to get noticed. In the thriller genre I saw that few characters were relatable to a younger generation. I’m now 27, but it seemed that most characters under the age of 30 in thrillers were slackers, degenerates, drug dealers, addicts, or drains on society. That’s how my protagonist, Henry Parker, was born.

I also wanted Henry to be emblematic of the struggle between the old world and the new and their reluctance to mesh. Henry needed to work in an industry facing those challenges, so it was only natural he be a newspaper reporter. Henry tries to buck the trend of young journalists becoming bigger than their stories. Of course, as in any good thriller, things don’t go exactly as he hopes.

What is your take on the increasing role of the Internet as a source for book reviews?

It’s no secret that space for print coverage of books is dwindling. Apparently 25 pages a day simply isn’t enough to cover Britney Spears’s shaved head. It’s both sad and appalling to me, since a newspaper or magazine review can help a deserving book find an audience. Book reviews aren’t merely an aid to help develop opinions; they’re an important aspect of promotion. Any publisher would prefer a negative review to no review since that many more people will know the book exists.

There is a wonderful online community of book lovers who champion books that never receive major review or publicity attention, though there is still a large gulf between the Internet and the majority of the reading population. In print, there simply isn’t enough room to promote every book properly, but the net enables authors and readers to take matters into their own hands to a degree that was impossible just a few years ago.

Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin, is known for romantic suspense. Why did you decide to publish with them?

They expressed a desire not only to publish The Mark but to support it to a high degree. And they’ve made me feel like part of their family, even if it is as a son with a whole lot of sisters!

You are a founding member of Killer Year. How did it get started?

The seed was planted when several authors whose debut novels were publishing in 2007 began commenting on various web sites and blogs. Within days three other writers and I founded Killer Year, a group of 13 debut crime novelists with books coming out in 2007 who have banded together to help promote one another’s work and raise awareness of their debuts. It’s led to some pretty amazing things, not the least of which is the first Killer Year anthology, edited by Lee Child, to be published by St. Martin’s in early 2008. We’ve accomplished far more together than we ever could have individually. There is also an early demand for our books, so we have a head start.

What’s next?

The second Henry Parker novel, The Regulator, comes out in January 2008, and I’m at work on the third.—Jeff Ayers, Seattle PL

Q&A: Robert Fate

Kristin, the pool-playing protagonist of Baby Shark, reminded me of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, but in a nonmisogynistic, good way. Were you influenced by Spillane, or any other writers?

Mickey Spillane’s no-nonsense approach helped me with tone, and I took to heart Elmore Leonard’s and Stephen King’s advice to kill my darlings and excise adverbs. And if I can ever learn to turn a phrase as well as Joe Lansdale, I will die a happy man. Add to that Barbara Seranella, Janet Dawson, Barbara Fister, Noreen Ayres, my mother, my wife, two sisters, and a daughter who all have taught me how strong women behave, and you have it. I also wished for a protagonist who reaches beyond what is commonly expected of a normal woman while staying within the bounds of the realism required by traditional crime fiction. Kristin bleeds the same as the rest of us, but you have to be tough to make her bleed.

Your sequel, Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues (LJ 2/15/07), debuts in May. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone has had a long run as a private investigator and hasn’t aged much at all. Do you foresee a similar fate for Kristin?

Kristin is 17 on the first page of Baby Shark and 19 at the end. She is 21 in the second book. The plan, if Kristin agrees to it, is for her to age slowly—wouldn’t we all like that? I think she will get tougher as she goes along, if only to survive. But how Kristin resolves her emotional wounds only time will tell.

Baby Shark was the talk of the Internet, touted on mystery discussion lists like DorothyL and Yahoo groups like 4-Mystery-Addicts. Were you surprised by the response, and how do you think the Internet affects book sales?

It was a test, really, asking to be read on sites inhabited by serious readers and writers who discuss crime fiction without holding back their opinions. I jumped in because I wanted to learn if my debut novel was going to be accepted by an audience larger than my family, friends, and publisher. Internet mystery sites—blogs and online magazines with reviewers and large followings—are important, too. I believe the net affects book sales in a meaningful way. Readers who email me and approach me at book conventions and festivals come from all over the world. If that’s not an example of the power of the Internet’s word of mouth, I’m not sure what is. And was I surprised by the positive reaction to Baby Shark? You bet I was, and delighted, too.

Not many writers can boast of winning an Academy Award for Technical Achievement, or of being a model or a chef. You’ve obviously taken the long and winding road to writing a book. What led you to crime fiction?

We’re the result of many influences, aren’t we? Where and how we are raised and all that time out in the world. So, sure, eight years as a marine, then studying at universities here and in Europe, working as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oilfields and a fashion model in New York, being a chef in L.A. and a sales exec in Las Vegas, writing and producing films, working in motion picture special effects—to anyone paying attention, this means stories to tell. Why a crime thriller series? I like to read it, so that is why I chose to write it.—Stacy Alesi, Boca Raton, FL

The Usual Suspects: Eight Top Mystery Blogs

  1. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind The must-read for industry folks, authors, and mystery fans. Insightful commentary from the Baltimore Sun’s crime fiction columnist on the latest book deals, awards, people, and trends.
  2. Crime Fiction Dossier Critic David Montgomery on publishing, authors, and reviews. He also edits Mystery Ink, which has mystery and thriller reviews, as well as author interviews, and sponsors the Gumshoe Awards.
  3. Euro Crime Keep up with the latest UK and European mysteries on this blog run by a British librarian. Also check out Detectives Beyond Borders and International Noir Fiction.
  4. Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in My Living Room “Mystery publishing from idea to bookshelf,” with comments from authors, editors, publishers, and publicists.
  5. KillerYear Look for the up-and-coming thriller writers here.
  6. The Man in Black As a St. Martin’s editor and soon-to-be-published author, Jason Pinter knows both sides of the mystery fence.
  7. Poe’s Deadly Daughters Writers Julia Buckley, Lonnie Cruse, Sandra Parshall, Sharon Wildwind, and Elizabeth Zelvin give their take on the mystery scene. For a cozy perspective, look at The Cozy Chicks or the Cozy Library.
  8. Reviewing the Evidence Created in 2001, this mystery review site archives thousands of online reviews, searchable by author, title, reviewer, or keyword. Nice links to authors’ web sites.

Author Information
Wilda W. Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ Book Review