“I don’t usually like mysteries, but…”

by Alafair Burke

It’s that time of year – about six months out from the next publication date – when the conversations around Team Burke become dominated by marketing talk.  Some authors thrive on marketing, speaking openly about the “brand” they are trying to create, the value they place in their “product,” the placement of their product in the “market.”

I’m not one of those writers.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no precious, anti-commerce, purist hippie.  I like four-star dining and fancy shoes way too much to try to pull off any kind of starving artist persona.  I’m all for the selling of the books.

My only complaint is that the rest of Team Burke – editor, publicist, marketing people, special online marketing people, the whole lot of them – look across the table at me as if I might be of some use.  As if I might actually know how to get my books into the hands of the people who might enjoy them.  As if I might know how to get those same people to then carry the book to a cash register.  As if I have the remotest clue about why anyone likes what she likes, or buys what she buys.

If I knew any of that, I’d be the genius who came up with this:

Or perhaps this:

Plenty of sales there to support a woman’s restaurant and shoe preferences, without having to type out all those pesky words.

I do try, though.  I make suggestions.  Some of them actually go into the plan.  Luckily, I enjoy some of the biggest parts of the plan – the touring, the facebooking, the blogging.  In my academic life, I’m lucky if ten other academics read my writing, so talking with people who read my books is heaven as far as I’m concerned.

But, this time around, Team Burke has added a new layer to the usual plan: “We want to get 212 to people who don’t usually read crime fiction.”

Say what?

“So many people here love your books even though they don’t usually like mysteries or thrillers.”

Read that previous sentence again.  There are so many things wrong with that sentence, I don’t know where to start.

Okay, I’ll start here.

1.    Who the heck doesn’t like mysteries and thrillers?

Given that you’re reading this particular website, my guess is you’re not one of these people.   Well, whoever they are, I don’t know whether to loathe or pity them.  I guess it depends on whether they think they’re too good for the genre or just don’t know what they’re missing.

There’s no question, though, that these people exist.  My pilates trainer just told me that she loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even though she didn’t “usually like mysteries.” 

“You don’t usually like what?”

I’m sorry.  I don’t understand.

Which brings me to…

2.    WHY would anyone not like mysteries and thrillers?

To get some insight into this phenomenon, I did what anyone seeking to conduct serious empirical research would do: I Googled.  

An initial observation: The quantitative data support the claim that there are actually people who claim they don’t like crime fiction, as evidenced by the number of results for the following searches:

23,100 “don’t like thrillers”
667 “don’t like mysteries”
22,400 “don’t read mysteries”
6,190 “don’t read thrillers”

On the qualitative side, I did find some explanations for these dislikes in my casual perusal of the search results (okay, not very scientific – whatevs):

Too much violence and death
Too suspenseful
Too improbable
Too predictable
Not enough character development
Bad writing

Now, that first reason is defensible, I suppose.  If someone doesn’t like to think about the bad things that happen to people, well – first of all, they should never spend time with me.  And they might justifiably stay away from the mystery shelves.  

The second one?  I won’t even pretend to understand.

“The suspense is making my eyes wide!”

And the rest?  They strike me as complaints that there’s too many bad books in the genre.  But there are bad books in all genres.  There are bad books pawned off as so-called “literary” fiction.  There are bad books.  Don’t read them.  Read good ones instead.

3.    Now here’s where it gets interesting: Why does a person who doesn’t usually read mysteries or thrillers suddenly decide to like a mystery or thriller?

Back to the Google data:
12,300 “don’t usually like mysteries”
38,500 “don’t usually read mysteries”
22,700 “don’t usually read thrillers”
2,040 “don’t usually like thrillers”

And almost always, these phrases are followed by the word “but:”

“but this one kept me on the edge of my seat.”  I’m sorry, but if you want your books to put you on the edge of your seat, we’re your people. 

“but this book was so warped, convoluted, I just couldn’t help but be entranced.”  Um…warped and convoluted?  We are totally your people.  (P.S. Kudos, Christopher Rice. That’s a review to be proud of!)  

Here are some more typical buts (shame on you if you just snickered): but this one was very entertaining, but this book is awesome, but this one is killer, but I absolutely love this one. 

Do you see a trend?  Basically, people don’t usually like crime fiction, but then sometimes they suddenly like crime fiction.  And if you think all these “buts” are for Michael Chabon and Stieg Larsson, you’ve got another thing coming.  People who think they don’t like crime fiction like Jonathon Kellerman, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, and James Patterson.  That’s some pretty genre-y genre fiction (and I mean that in the very best way as a person who loves the genre).

4.    And, on the more personal side, why does a person who doesn’t usually like mysteries or thrillers like my books?  

As I understand it, my new fans at the publishing house are young people living their lives in Manhattan, just like the characters in my Ellie Hatcher series.  The books reflect their reality.  The characters sound like them, watch the same TV shows, and share the same worries.  

That’s all well and good, but these new readers of mine got the book for free from their employer.  If they saw it on the mystery table at Barnes & Noble, would they even pick it up, let alone buy it?   

5.  Now, my fellow ‘Ratis, here’s the question for group discussion: 

How do you get a person who thinks he or she “doesn’t like” mysteries and thrillers to give a book a try?  Must it be a personal recommendation from a friend: “Trust me, it’s good”?  Does it have to be the water-cooler book of the season?  Must it appeal to some other interest?

Why does the non-genre reader read a book in the genre?   

32 thoughts on ““I don’t usually like mysteries, but…”

  1. toni mcgee causey

    I’ve always thought the category "mystery" a bit useless, really, because every book worth ready has something of a mystery to it. Why is he doing this? Why is she doing that? Will it end well? Will it matter in the end how they felt? (etc.) This applies to every genre, so no matter what they do like to read, they’re also reading a mystery in some form or other.

    That said, people who don’t normally read "mysteries" probably don’t really know how wide open the mystery field is. Best way to introduce them to it, I think, is to tell them why’d they care about this particular book. What is the underlying issue? What about the characters make them unique? Identifiable? Iconic? Why, in other words, do we care about what happens to them. (Not why should we care about unraveling the mystery, but why should we care about the person going through the story.) I think when we can communicate that, the story transcends its genre and the mere labels no longer matter.

  2. Jen Forbus

    This post is wonderful, Alafair. I have to admit that I get many people to try mysteries they may not have otherwise read simply by talking about them. At work I keep a pile of books to loan out to co-workers. One co-worker who typically only reads "non-fiction" has been reading a mystery non-stop for the past three months. Every time he finishes one I hand him another. And his response has been, "I’m really enjoying reading these books. They’re fun." Another colleague and I banter about different books all the time and then people overhear us and want to know about the books.

    I honestly don’t think book jackets and store placement and titles will go far with people who have already closed their minds to the idea of the "mystery." It will take some human interaction to battle that dam.

    Regardless, go Team Burke! Knock ’em dead!!

  3. Jessica Scott

    People say the same thing about romance. Oh they don’t read romance because of x, y, or z reasons. But at the heart of a romance is a relationship, just like the heart of a mystery is the revealing. Both are elements in EVERY story. Every book is about a relationship, every book is a journey of discovery. Challenge people who like the familiar to step outside their comfort box and try something new. They might just discover something they never knew they were missing.

  4. Cornelia Read

    It sounds like you’ve got a great team behind you in Team Burke, Alafair. And I don’t know how to get people to read mysteries who don’t think they like them. I didn’t think I liked them, a while back, because I was thinking of the genre as being pretty much exclusively Agatha Christie rather than something that included her AND Jim Thompson AND Poe and and and.

  5. Oline Cogdill

    Good post. I don’t understand why people don’t read mysteries/thrillers, either. Have they read the Bible or Shakespeare or Dickens? Did the mystery/thriller/violence aspect of those work just go over their heads. People have asked me if I will ever start reviewing real books. Jeez. If people can’t find a mystery/thriller they like they are not reading the right books.

  6. Karen Olson

    I was actually like Cornelia for a long time, thinking that mysteries meant Agatha Christie. And I really didn’t like her work. But then a friend lent me two books to take on vacation: Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller. I couldn’t stop reading. It was like someone had opened a door and there was a huge party going on inside that I hadn’t even known about.

    Word of mouth does it every time.

  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    I have posed this question to a non-mystery reading friend so I’ll see what answer I get later today. In the meantime, the first follow-up question I have is: Is the target person a reader in the first place? THAT would be an up-hill battle right there is the answer is no. (Believe me, somehow I married one). Next if the person is a some-time reader, how do break through the first line of defense which is typically, I don’t have time? (I assume the only reading time they have they are devoting to their book club reads therefore time and the "have to read this" syndrome kicks in. Next, if they ARE readers, even avid ones, those readers are sometimes locked into what they love — romance, procedurals, historical mysteries (me), contemporary/award winners, etc. — and pretty much have their reading agenda mapped out with not a lot of room to try something new.
    Overall, I suppose it is the last group with whom you’d have the most success. They make time for reading in general. Sadly, I don’t have a solution for the original problem. What would make me read someone I don’t know, I may not really like the type of book and so forth? A free book maybe (online is a fairly cheap way to go), a contest where the new readers "win" something, a deadline for something and the temporary diversion if offers (like the Ashton Kutcher Facebook thingy) ….
    I’ll report what my friend says about the question. She reads frequently but it’s mostly classics and nonfiction.

  8. Tom

    Corey Doctorow and Joe Konrath are big on giving away their e-books for the sake of getting new people to try them. They’ve had success. Baen books has done well with this strategy, too. Newcomers try a freebie, no risk but lost time, they get a taste and after that they may invest. "Here, kid, try this; the first one’s ffffrrrreeeeee." It’s a time-tested model.

    On behalf of precious anti-commerce purist hippies everywhere (‘cuz I’m today’s delegate from the autonomous collective), good luck.

  9. Gayle Carline

    In one sense, you could point out that every book is a mystery of some kind – either in that "what happens next?" or "why am I reading this crap?" way. My best review so far (for FREEZER BURN) has come from my sister-in-law’s mother, Marilyn. She told me MANY times that she doesn’t read mystery, she reads historical fiction, but she’d read my book, I guess because I’m family. The next morning we had breakfast with her and she told me she’d been up till 1:30 a.m. reading my book – she couldn’t put it down. She loved the style of it, particularly the humor. Then she said, "The only problem was, after I finished it, I had to find something boring to read so I could go to sleep." HA! I’m not boring!

  10. Louise Ure

    I have a number of friends who say they don’t read mysteries, and yet who have read most of the NY Times Best Seller list of books. According to them, "if I like it, it must not be a mystery." Self-fulfilling prophecies abound.

    But where does the number 212 come from?

    And yes, I’ve heard about your devotion to cool shoes.

  11. Becky LeJeune

    There are so many different kinds of mysteries and thrillers out there. I came across customers everyday who were like Karen and Cornelia, under the impression that the traditional British mysteries were the entire genre.

    I think a personal recommendation is definitely the best way to go. If you can find something they have read or seen and enjoyed and compare to that, I would bet they would be willing to try it. Again, that’s been my experience.

    And you have to feel them out, choosing key words carefully. If they tell you they don’t like mystery, don’t call the book a mystery when you’re talking about it. Trick them into trying it!

  12. Ruth M.

    As a person "who really doesn’t read mysteries" and used to be in the book marketing biz I had a good ponder today why. I absolutely loathe most crime and forensic shows on TV (they are so STUPID). A lot of mysteries — probably most mysteries — absolutely ARE crap (SF writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90% of Science Fiction is crap because 90% of EVERYTHING is crap). But really it all comes down to laziness. I fully believe that there is 10% mystery/thriller out there I would absolutely love. But it seems like way too much work to figure out what it is.

    I have come to believe genre preferences solidify relatively early in life along three primary axes: relationship (romance genre) — imagination (SF genre) — justice (mystery genre). Whichever interests you the most when you’re in middle school… will probably be the genre you choose primarily for the rest of your life. I can’t remember which author said it, but it is absolutely true that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 13. Interesting that very very little robust mystery fiction is marketed to YA. That’s the age when kids start to react powerfully to injustice and would probably be very interested in mystery/thriller/crime novels.

  13. Dana King

    You could split hairs and tell them, "It’s not a mystery; it’s crime fiction." That may be too subtle for most folks, so I might try reverse psychology.

    "You don’t like mysteries. Then, for God’s sake don’t read this! I mean it. It has a compelling story, interesting characters who are more than a collection of neuroses intended to show the decay of contemporary society, humor, pathos, and–if you’re lucky–sex. It has all that stuff. You’d hate it. Go away. I’m not going to LET you buy the damn book, because I respect your time and money too much."

    Got to work better than some other advice I’ve read on the web. (not here.)

  14. Cara

    Great post, Alafair. Thanks for bringing this up. I heard the same comment from a women this weekend at the Carmel book festival. She actually took me aside, leaned forward as if in confidence, and said, ‘I don’t read mysteries but well, I love Paris and your books sound like there’s a lot of history in them’. ‘Tons’ I nodded, ‘How can you get away from history writing about Paris? Or even want to? It was as if she needed validiation for reading ‘genre’ as opposed to all the ‘self-help’ and ‘memoirs’ on the book table. Are they more serious, weighty and important? To me, it’s about telling a good story that touches people and relates in a universal way.

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Sometimes lately I’ve said I’m a novelist rather than a "mystery writer" per se. To me, every good story has a mystery or conflict at its heart. So the labels are stupid when you’re dealing with people who ARE fiction readers but who have the biases you outlined in your wonderful post.

    What gets me are the people who say they don’t read fiction. I was a speaker at a book festival this weekend and recounted a story about a woman at a store where I had a booksigning. She actually said to me, "Why would I ever read fiction?’

    Sick and tired of that kind of snobbery, I replied, "Well. Some people might claim The Bible is fiction."

    I didn’t make the sale <g>.

  16. Fran

    We have people who wander into our shop, wander around and then observe that they don’t read mysteries. Almost inevitably, they find a book they’ve read and they’re puzzled. I think it’s the public perception that mystery writing is somehow lesser, inferior. I love it when they’re pleasantly surprised.

  17. kit

    you could always create a quiz on facebook…with every answer leading back to your book…..good post…good question.GO TEAM BURKE

  18. Eika

    My hated genre is romance. I avoid romances at all costs. If it’s there as a subplot, it’s generally barely tolerable; I literally laughed when one love interest died in a book this summer, because I felt absolutely no connection to her.


    The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins feature a very intense romance subplot. In the first book, it’s not introduced until a bit under halfway through; in the second book, it’s key to the overall plot. And I freaking adored every bit of it.

    1. I picked up the first because of a recommendation. Three seperate friends who know my tastes thought I would love it. That had the most weight.
    2. Romance? Unmentioned in the side bar. In the second one, I knew it’d play a big role, but I was so caught up in the dystopia and the rest of the plot that I went with it.
    3. The sheer contrivance of it. This was not your normal we-love-each-other-but-fate-keeps-us-apart romance, or even an I-can’t-stand-you-let’s-fall-in-love romance. It was a reality show where contestants literally have to fight to the death and the boy confesses his undying love to her and it gives them both a major advantage, and you’re not sure until the very end of the first book if he’s faking it or not. And then it’s so popular that whoever’s left alive that was involved in any way (their families, their mentors) have to run with it to prevent a civil war in the second book. Again, not giving much away, but sheerly awesome.

    The other book I liked romance in? Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. It was a fantasy, and I like fantasy. It had a world I could sink my teeth into. I enjoyed past books by the author. And I literally didn’t realize it was a romance for a good 3/4 of the book. It was a ‘Our species have been at war for centuries, but they’ll stop if we marry’ deal, and they each spend so much of their time acting however they’re supposed to act for their people that the actual falling-in-love deal comes second to everything else.

    Not sure if those explanations help any. But, in short… I guess people like things they don’t normally like when it’s A: entirely surrounded by things they really, really, REALLY like; B: Done exceptionally well, so much so that it’s binding the plot and can’t be seperated; C: doesn’t include most or all of whatever elements the reader hates; D: can be ignored. Pick your favorite(s) based on each circumstance.

    Hope that helps.

  19. Gef

    Personally speaking, I’m one of the guilty who don’t particularly gravitate towards detective mysteries. I’m not opposed to them, but my preferences take me elsewhere.

    I have, over the past couple of years, sampled some titles. I tried a Jack Higgins novel because it was obscenely short. I tried a J.A. Konrath novel after discovering he also wrote "Afraid," so I read a Jack Daniels mystery. And there have been a few others with mystery mixed into other genres. I can’t say I’ve come across a mystery novel I haven’t found some measure of enjoyment from, but I still find myself steering towards the horror and fantasy side of the genre campus.

  20. Alafair Burke

    I agree that word of mouth will do it every time. I worry that some of my biggest fans (ie. friends and family) are themselves "not usually" genre people and are more likely to talk to their friends about the latest National Book Award winner than my books. I guess I need to start strong-arming my besties to talk me up more!

  21. heuschnupfen

    I honestly don’t think book jackets and store placement and titles will go far with people who have already closed their minds to the idea of the "mystery." It will take some human interaction to battle that dam.

  22. Mike Cane

    >>>I think a lot of people say they don’t like mysteries becuase they only know mystery from inane and cliched TV shows.

    >>>You could split hairs and tell them, "It’s not a mystery; it’s crime fiction."

    Bingo on both counts.

    I wouldn’t read mysteries. Columbo is fun to watch on TV, but god, I could never imagine reading something so sedate!

    Then I ran into Ken Bruen’s works. And hey, that’s not mystery — that’s crime fiction! It’s not Columbo — it’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and damn, gimme more!!

    So it might be splitting hairs to you lot — but, yeah, make the case for crime fiction. Otherwise people will have Angela Lansbury and freakin doilies in their mind’s eye. That won’t sell.


  23. Deb Sturgess

    I confess to having been one of those snobbish "I read LITERATURE types" who would not, could not, stoop to reading a mystery. (Let’s ignore all those pesky questions about Poe, et. al., because I am wiser now.) I taught at a state university — not far from nor much unlike, say, Wichita State — and could not admit to admiring something outside "the Canon" without losing the respect of even snobbier colleagues. Then, my fabulous, brilliant mentor, Renee Betz, started raving, in a serious academic fashion, about a mystery writer. She was presenting a serious paper at a serious conference about a mystery writer — one who was actually still living and sold loads of books! She insisted that I read one, which led to many near-sleepless nights as I read his books obsessively until I could find no more. The mystery writer? James Lee Burke.

    I suppose I must give Renee credit for indirectly leading me to you, Alafair. (You were probably in law school at the time she presented her paper on JLB.) Years later, when you came to KC for a book signing for Judgment Calls, I got lost on the Kansas side of the state line on the way to the signing, plunked down my hard-earned cash and sat in an uncomfortable folding chair, based solely on the assumption that no daughter of JLB could be a bad writer.

    Your dad may have gotten me through the door (that, and a good city map), but you have kept me coming back for more with your own compelling stories of Samantha and Ellie. You have kept me plunking down the cash as fast as you publish, and I have made a space on my "Burke" shelf for 212 already. I do my small part for TEAM BURKE by spreading the word to booksellers, librarians and readers that you are a must-read writer.

    I suppose the short answer to your question is that a referral from a trusted source will get a mystery writer’s foot in the door, but the author must bring quality writing through the door to receive further invitations.

  24. acai

    This is very wonderful article.There are many ones who likes mysterious and suspense because they think it gives the entertainment and thrill.

  25. Jessica Star

    Books these days have all sorts of genre. Some clash incompatible ones together and do make a great book. Mystery books have such a long line of bestsellers in the past and there purpose is to challenge ones mind to solve a case before the book actually ends. For those who love to read laid back light books are understandingly uncomprehending when it comes to mystery books. But everyone has their likes and dislikes, you just have to find the right one.

    Jessica Star
    Designer Sale


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