Convergence of Terms

I could blame this essay on Bouchercon, or on Ed’s post as a result of the convention. But really, the idea has been germinating my head for a while, mostly as a variant on the theme of “cozies are the new pulp.” But then it went away before I could really develop the idea.

Then I started thinking about romance. And categorization. And how it might be an interesting idea to apply romance-friendly terms to the crime fiction world. And suddenly things started making more sense.

For those who read romance (I stopped years ago, mostly because I loved mysteries more and it stuck) there are two broad streams of books: category and single title. The former is “categorized” by “a specific brand name, such as Harlequin Presents, Silhouette Desire or Silhouette Intimate Moments. Their covers look similar and they are sold together in a packaged line. Each line has certain common elements, such as the level of sensuality or the level of mystery. Word count is generally about the same but can differ greatly from line to line.” The latter is “one that stands alone on the shelf without being part of particular line. This type of romance may stay on the shelf and in print much longer than a category.”

Sound familiar? It sure does to me. Which is why I’m intrigued by the possibility of using the term “category mystery” instead of the dependable cozy, hardboiled, noir, etc. Because it doesn’t really matter what the trappings are, the end result (which I’ll try to develop in more detail) is the same:

A mystery novel is either category or single title.

It is by no means a direct comparison, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that the role of Harlequin will be played by St. Martin’s Minotaur, which publishes approximately sixty mysteries a season. Of late, they have designated four titles each season as their breakout titles – the ones that have considerable marketing muscle behind them and a greater chance at “breaking out” and staying in print much longer than SMP’s usual titles. So in other words, for the spring season, Marcus Sakey’s THE BLADE ITSELF, Val McDermid’s THE GRAVE TATTOO, Marc Lecard’s VINNIE’S HEAD and Dana Stabenow’s A DEEPER SLEEP are your flagship single titles.

What about the rest?

Well, one can divvy them up into specific, well, categories. Cozy? Check. Hardboiled? Check. Noir? Check. Chicklit? Check. Historical? Check. PI? Check. Regional? Check. Erotic? Not really, but that category is amply taken care of by other publishing houses. Point is, most of the remaining titles SMP will publish each season are bought for similar advances, have small, hardcover-only print runs, a tightly defined market, a somewhat narrow margin of creativity (insofar as category constraints are not necessarily chafed at) and will cycle on bookshelves for approximately three to four weeks before making way for the new crop.

So that I’m not just picking on Minotaur here, Berkley Prime Crime is another great example of category at work. They’ve subdivided things even further, focusing primarily on the cozy side of things with “insert topic here” mysteries. But all of them, of course, are category: knitting, chocolate, baking, figure skating, are they not topics with particular categories, specific niche markets and the like? And on the opposite spectrum, Hard Case Crime is unabashedly category, even going so far as to emulate Harlequin – and the old pulp fiction lines, too – with their insignia, specific word count limits and ethos. HCC gets all the ink and Berkley Prime Crime or NAL doesn’t, but in the end, they are equal:

They are category.

So what, then, is single title? Well, it’s not just a case of a standalone novel, though that’s probably the easiest marker of such. It’s a book that moves past category constraints, which has something to keep it on bookshelves a little longer, keep it in print beyond the old one-a-month cycle (which is now more like one-every-two weeks, if that.) They are the books that get cherrypicked by PW’s fiction section instead of the mystery one; they are the books that hit bestseller lists and sometimes stay there forever. They are the books that others deign to say “transcend genre” when all they really do is step up a notch in terms of bigness, the quality of the writing, the scope of topic, the heightened stakes.

Mind you, category vs. single title should not be conflated with good vs. bad. Donald Westlake is, to my mind, the absolute King of Category, but Elmore Leonard went from category to Single Title. So, too, did Lawrence Block. Mary Higgins Clark is Single Title but Carol Higgins Clark is pretty much in category. Robert B. Parker might have done a reverse; start in single title but move down to category (though the particular category, in this case, is Spenserism.) Dennis Lehane started off in category, barely, but is so firmly single title that he’s leaving the genre behind completely – a trajectory he’d been headed in since day one.

The debut novels that get the big bucks are, by and large, single title. Sometimes category makes it, but that’s because there’s enough of an indication that the author is going to move up the ranks fairly soon. And sometimes a book that might seem to be category on the surface (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, perhaps) are just massive bestseller single titles waiting to happen, patience notwithstanding.

Think about this: maybe when Otto Penzler does his yearly anti-cozy rant, what he’s really doing is disdaining category mystery in favor of single titlehood. Which may be cause for alarm, but then, are romance enthusiasts trying to equate their own category and single title books?

I’m not so sure.

And if so, maybe the mystery world is drawing genre lines in the wrong places.