Sales figures for books in the digital age can be tricky. That’s because independently published e-books can sell quite well without making a great deal of money for the author or affecting print sales at all. And that matters because ebook sales continue to decline, which means print sales continue to lead market trends. When it comes to determining what sells most, figures vary. According to Nielsen BookScan, which bases their data on number of sales, the most popular books in 2015 were general adult fiction followed by romance and suspense/thrillers. According to Statistica the most popular genre is thrillers, and according to Publishers Weekly romance is seeing a steady decline while thrillers are seeing a steady uptick. Statistics also tell us that women read more fiction than men and that we are the primary readers for mystery and romance.
All that math is my lead in to an important point: Women drive the fiction market and we love romance and mystery almost equally. Which leads to point number two: Several reviewers last year stated that their romance reading was nowhere near as satisfying in 2017 as their mystery/thriller reading had been. So – just what drives us to seek mystery/thriller stories? The internet is full of articles listing various theories but for me the answer is simple: they make for good reads. I turned to fellow reviewer Shannon, who routinely covers a great deal of mystery and suspense books for our site, to discuss this emerging trend and touch on what it means to us as readers.
MB: I can’t really remember what my very first thriller was. Would Mary Stewart count? I just know I have always read a lot of mystery and a lot of romance and it just varies by year as to what I read more. What about you? Do you remember your first thriller/mystery/suspense novel? Have you always read both genres?
SD: Romantic suspense was my introduction to the world of mysteries and thrillers. I have fond memories of devouring things like Tami Hoag’s Night Sins, Iris Johansen’s Long After Midnight, and Nora Roberts’ Divine Evil. Those books managed to satisfy my need for a happy ending as well as my love for an excellent puzzle. Over the years, I’ve become less enamored of the romantic suspense out there, and I’ve found myself reading more and more straight-up mysteries and/or thrillers.
MB: My favorite authors moving to mystery from romantic suspense forced me to make the move, for which I am very grateful. You’ve reviewed a very impressive fifty-plus books this year so far, almost half of which were mysteries. I’ve reviewed only nine mysteries so far, although I have read twelve. I noticed that you’ve read a mix of male and female authors, where I’ve exclusively read female authors. In fact, I look for that because I’ve found that books by women revolve more around the mystery than the violence. Do you feel there is any difference, or do you have a preference at all?
SD: When I’m choosing my next read, I tend to pay more attention to the plot of the book than to its author. It turns out that I still end up reading more books by women authors, but I’m not sure that’s a purposeful thing. I want the authors I read to tell believable stories filled with relatable characters, and I’ve found both male and female authors that do that very well. Of course, I’ve also run across authors of both genders who do this very poorly, but that’s a topic for another day.
MB: My reading has also skewed British recently. Again, I think it is the issue of focus on the intellectual or emotional aspect of the mystery by British authors against reveling in the more violent aspect of the mystery, which I feel Americans tend to do. For example, Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh had some eerie moments in it, but I found the heroine very sympathetic and I didn’t at any point feel overwhelmed by any graphic imagery within the novel. On the other hand, I still get icked out when I think of some of the scenes from Courtney Evan Tates’ Such Dark Things. Nordic mysteries, made popular by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tend to be violently intellectual but unemotional. I don’t mean to say that what happens in British mysteries or Nordic mysteries is any different from what happens in an American one. There are violent acts in all three. It is where the focus of the book lies that I find the difference. What about you? Do you find you have a preference between British, Nordic or American authors or do you enjoy all three?
SD: I’m becoming more and more convinced that no one can write psychological thrillers like the British. There’s something about the atmosphere, the wit, and the focus on the unpredictability of the human psyche that I am really drawn to. Oddly though, I’m not a fan of other types of British mysteries. I adore American-based police procedurals, even though some of them can be pretty violent at times. It’s not that British mysteries aren’t violent, because some of them certainly are, but they don’t tend to focus on every single detail of the violence the way certain American authors do. As for Nordic mysteries, I’m afraid I’m just not a fan. I find them dry and hard to relate to. Of course, if someone can recommend a great one to me, I’m perfectly willing to give it a try.
MB: I totally agree regarding British Psychological thrillers! The emerging dominance of that genre, which many claim began with Gone Girl, has been wonderful for me. Many of my favorite reads recently have been in this subgenre. What attracts me to these books is the subtle sense of being on very shaky ground. We can’t really trust our narrator as it is clear from the start of the story that they may either be mentally ill or the guilty party behind the mess. What are your thoughts about this subgenre?
SD: Psychological thrillers are my catnip, and I tend to agree that they owe their popularity to Gone Girl. There was something so shocking about that particular book, something I hadn’t encountered up to that point, and it sucked me in and refused to let me go. I read that one in less than twenty-four hours, and I haven’t looked back ever since. Authors like Clare Mackintosh and Ruth Ware are among my favorites, and the more unreliable our narrator is, the better I like it.
MB: I love Mackintosh; I will definitely have to check out Ware. My own favorites are Colette McBeth, Sabine Durrant and Lisa Jewel. I’ve reviewed two of McBeth’s books for AAR – Precious Thing and The Life I Left Behind – and I cannot rave about them enough. This year I’ve noticed alcohol or drugs playing a greater part in the mysteries I’ve been reading. In Let Me Lie by Mackintosh, the heroine, whose parents have died, finds bottles of liquor hidden about their home and slowly comes to the realization that one of her parents had a drinking problem she had managed to ignore. Chris Bohjalian used the idea of impairment with chilling efficiency in his book The Flight Attendant. Mary Torjussen also used this trope in her novel The Girl I Used to Be. I’ll admit that I preferred the use of it in Let Me Lie to the use of it in The Girl I Used to Be. Who do you feel used it most effectively?
SD: Drugs and alcohol are tricky for me. I often find it difficult to sympathize with characters who drink too much and let their lives fall apart as a result. I really enjoyed The Flight Attendant, but I did find myself growing frustrated by the heroine’s constant drinking. I found the use of alcohol more tolerable in Let Me Lie, mostly because it wasn’t the main character who had the drinking problem.
MB: I tend to agree. I don’t like when the characters drunkenness, even if it isn’t habitual, is what drives the story. Both Let Me Lie and The Girl I Used to Be utilized another trope effectively which is one I call “cat and mouse”. In both those tales, the villain is playing a game with the heroine, ratcheting up the suspense factor by luring them into a position where the ultimate purpose of their interactions comes to an explosive reveal. A variant of it is used in Lisa Jewel’s Then She Was Gone. How does that trope compare for you with say a straight police procedural approach or a historical/research approach such as the one used by the heroine in The Lost Girls? I’ll admit I like them all but have found myself preferring the cat and mouse trope in this year’s novels.
SD: I love a good cat-and-mouse book, but I’m also kind of picky about them. It’s very common for villains to come off as cartoonish or over the top, and that ruins the book for me. I don’t want to roll my eyes whenever the villain makes a move. I want the menace to feel real to me. Fortunately, a ton of authors are doing this well these days, so I’m in book heaven. Police procedurals are great too, but I’ve definitely gravitated more toward the cat-and-mouse style of mystery.
MB: Let Me Lie, The Girl I Used to Be, Then She Was Gone and The Lost Girls all had strong female protagonists who worked outside law enforcement tackling personal mysteries on their own. In real life I am not sure how I feel about vigilantes but in suspense novels, I tend to love them. I’m not saying I don’t love a good police procedural – I do. But I tend to prefer mysteries (in books) that are solved by civilians. What are your thoughts on that subject?
SD: This is a tough one. I like when civilians are working to untangle mysteries in their personal lives, but they have to be savvy about it. I don’t want to read about clueless people doing foolish things and needlessly putting themselves in danger. I just don’t have the patience for that. I suppose this is why I’m not a fan of cozy mysteries. Police procedurals tend to feel a little more authentic to me, but there is something very appealing about a wife, mother, sister, or best friend searching for some deeply hidden truth.
MB: Oh, I agree. The character needs to have a personal connection to the mysteries. There isn’t much suspense in a crime that can be solved by the local baker! These four novels also dealt with cold cases. I enjoy that because I love the idea of justice triumphing in the end. Do you like cold case novels? What draws you to them?
SD: I do enjoy cold case novels. Then She Was Gone was one of the very best I’d read in a while. I’m drawn to stories about people coming to terms with their pasts, and those pasts often include some kind of crime. If the protagonist has a personal stake in learning the truth, I’m completely on board, but, if it’s something like a detective working on a cold case he or she has no real connection with, I sometimes lose interest. I love books that allow us to come to a better understanding of the human condition, and cold case novels are surprisingly good at doing this. Elisabeth Carpenter’s 99 Red Balloons was remarkable in this way. It’s not one I reviewed for the site, but it’s a British mystery everyone should read.
MB: I bought a copy awhile ago. I will have to move that up on my exceedingly long list of To Be Read books.
I could talk about this for hours and I’m pretty sure you could too, but we’ll leave it her for now. We’ll have to do this again – and then again at the end of the year and tell everyone what our favorites were.