A Duck is a Duck and a Mystery isn't...

Commentary by Cherie Jung

8 March, 1998

Everyone has his or her own idea of what a mystery is, or to be more precise, what isn't a mystery. Heated arguments have erupted, even among friends, as to what should and shouldn't be called a mystery. For some purists, there are only two kinds of mysteries...hardboiled detective mysteries and little old lady cozies. For others, only the "whodunit" counts as a mystery.

For the rest of us, the line is somewhat blurred. While I might include romantic suspense and political thrillers in the mystery grab bag, others would fight nearly to the death to rule out romantic suspense as anything but...well, romance. While at the same time, slipping techno-thrillers into their mystery bag.

And the publishers are no help. They call things by what they think might sell. Suspense. Psychological suspense. Women in jeopardy. What's "women in jeopardy" to one, is plain old "suspense" to another.

Bookstores arrange the books on shelves, pretty much however they choose. Books clearly marked "mystery" on the spine are often placed in the general fiction section, alphabetically, according to author. Some stores will place books in both categories (general and mystery) while others stock books in one or the other category, not both.

Where do medical thrillers fit in? Do they have too much scientific and technical jargon to be mysteries? If they have a recurring character such as a crime-solving doctor or nurse, or pathologist, can they be called mysteries instead of medical thrillers?

If there isn't a true crime shelf, then should the true crime books be in the sociology section or in the mystery section?

Romance, science, psychology, sociology, medicine, horror, history, westerns...all have touched the pages of mysteries, both traditional and nontraditional. So have art, music, astronomy, gardening, and religion. Creating a sub-category of mysteries and calling it, say...cross-over mysteries, might solve the problem for some, but just creates another problem. Or re-invents the original problem. What is or isn't a cross-over mystery? And who decides?

I suppose in the long run it doesn't really matter what we label as mystery or not, just as long as we can find a copy when we want to buy one. But will we ever have a single definition of what a mystery is? I doubt it.

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