The website where I hunt up book values was recently touting a blog post that appeared a year ago, creating a certain amount of excitement. They attempted to list Thirty Essential Mystery Writers. I could have told them where the comments on THIS one were going to go, but maybe they knew that already. Often, the comments are the best part of making such a list. Dozens of people hurried to their keyboards to point out that they had missed this, that, or another essential author. There was not MUCH on the other side, though a few commentators got into the whole question of “But those are THRILLER writers!”
We, too, have had our audience members who wanted to know why Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy or another such artist was included among Mysteries. Some of these have suggested we make ourselves more accurate simply by renaming the category “Suspense”. This, I think, would just lead us into other dark alleys. MOST novels could be called suspense, except for a few where you know exactly what’s going to happen the second you open the book. As one expert pointed out, most romance novels can be called suspense novels: will she or won’t she, and, if so, with whom?
But it was reading through the list of names that really nudged my memories. See, here at our July book binge (and the gone but not forgotten Mystery Book Fair) we have watched a number of authors come along and rise to the heights of being the first words out of a customer’s lips (Colin Dexter! Where have you got his books?”) only to slip away from the limelight.
Most of these authors wrote books AFTER the frenzy, and good books, at that. It was just that somehow they aren’t at the top of everyone’s want list any more. Either the TV series ended, or the publisher rushed the author into writing more and more books, or somebody else came along who simply knocked out the old champion.
There was a time when we actually thought of setting aside a separate shelf for Elizabeth George. What was Inspector Lynley going to do next? For three or four years, the fans of British mysteries had that foremost on their minds, rushing in at our Mystery section. It added another layer of suspense to the whole enterprise. They moved on, though Elizabeth George continued to write excellent mysteries, and then became the foundation of the BBC’s Inspector Lynley television series. But no one is grabbing through all the mysteries in other people’s bags to find her now. They KNOW she’ll be there.
Then there was Lillian Jackson Braun, and her Cat Who series. People were as hungry for the next book in this series as a cat who hasn’t been fed for nearly twenty minutes. They HAD to find out what the Cat would do next. Around the same time, Sue Grafton, who had been producing her Kinsey Milhone mysteries (starting with A is for Alibi) suddenly got the attention of the public. From about H through P of her alphabet, we were on the lookout for that next letter, so we could rush it out to the cart in the lobby (we had to tell the security guard, too, lest there be violence if two people saw it at the same time.) A similar rush for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse followed.
Sara Paretsky never brought on this kind of passion: people bought HER books NEW, as they appeared in the bookstores. It was a matter of course. Our chief rabid fans were the closet addicts, who wanted to buy a secondhand book they didn’t have yet, the ones who didn’t want to admit to their friends and loved ones that Lee Child had written another book and it HAD to land on the shelf. (It was harder for the Tom Clancy fans to hide their habit, as his books got thicker and thicker.)
Clancy, George, Grafton, Child, Braun: their books still sell. But who is the author who will have them stampeding up the stairs at 4 P.M. Wednesday night at this year’s Book Fair? We’ll find out. Stephen King is generally to be found in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror rather than mystery, but he’s a veteran of the same phenomenon. I learned that when they lady rushed into the lobby, looked three directions at once, and exclaimed, “I would KILL for Stephen King in hardcover!”
I always believe these people, and I get out of their way.