RARA-AVIS: Re: the evolving definition of noir

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 22 Dec 2006


Re your comments below:

"For example, with the thriller awards last July I found myself perplexed. Stuart MacBride¹s book Cold Granite ­ while a fantastic piece of fiction and something I¹d class under noir myself ­ was not what I¹d call a thriller. Others I know expressed the same sentiment. This didn¹t stop me from being delighted for him to be nominated, but end of the day it left me completely confused at what exactly is considered a thriller anymore, and that¹s a personal bugbear of mine because where I live thrillers are not put in the Œmystery¹ section of the chain bookstores ­ they¹re put in general fiction. Yet Bruen, MacBride, Kernick ­ you¹ll find them in mystery."

Some time ago, I got into a discussion about this at the EMWA e-mail list. Somebody was drawing a distinction between "mysteries" (by which they really meant "traditional whodunits/puzzles") and

I responded that "thrillers" were not something separate from mysteries, but were a TYPE of mystery, and then suggested that if there really was a difference, then "thriller" should be specifically defined in a way that made the difference clear.

Nobody came up with a work-able definition of
"thriller." Later, when the ITW awards were given, one of the comments I heard was that the eligibility requirement were such that virtually any crime novel qualified.

FWIW, it's very common for publishers/booksellers to classify a police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer (like MacBride's COLD GRANITE) as a thriller.

Further, in Britain, I noticed that "thriller," "crime novel," and "mystery" were virtualy interchangeable terms and that a book by Agatha Christie was as likely to be called a "thriller" as one by Ian Fleming.

As for whether or not "thrillers" are shelved in the mystery section or not, that depends on the bookseller. At local Borders stores, it's common to find Tom Clancy, Thomas Harris, Robert Ludlum, David Hagberg, Gayle Lynds, and other writers whose credentials as "thriller novelists" are unassailable, in the mystery section. At local Barnes & Nobles they're more likely to be shelved with straight fiction.

The distinction, at the bookstore and publisher's level, if the distinction is even made, has much less to do with whether or not a given book is a "mystery," or whether "thrillers" are something distinct from
"mysteries," as those terms are broadly understood, then whether it's more profitable to market it as straight fiction.

A mystery/thriller that's breaking for the best-seller lists, whether or not it fits whatever the hell the definitions of "mystery" or "thriller" are, is more likely to be classified and marketed as straight fiction, because it's perceived as being a more profitable way to market it.

Casual readers will, at least so the conventional wisdom goes, be more likely to browse the straight fiction section than the genre sections, so, conseqently, a genre book that is perceived as having appeal outside of the genre will be shelved there.

However, as the local Borders policy indicates, popular books will find their audience no matter what shelf the book is placed on.

As for what constitutes a "thriller." Try this: A mystery novel that depends less on cerebration than on action, pace, and suspense.

I can already guess what the objections to it will be.

It's too general and let's too many "non-thrillers" in.

And it's simultaneously too specific and excludes too many books that are clearly should be included.



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