What do agents and publishers most look for in a crime/mystery novel? “Gimmicks matter most,” said long-time literary agent Evan Marshall at the recent “Deadly Ink” conference.
Evidence supporting his claim comes from Sisters in Crime’s monthly list of members’ book deals. In the list are numerous examples of novels and series with distinctive premises, including books featuring the sleuthing activities of:
- A wine club, “where drinking wine and solving crimes go hand in hand” (where do I sign up?)
- A small-town knitting club
- A “centuries old alchemist and her impish gargoyle sidekick”
- A dowager duchess (I’m thinking Violet Crawley. You?) and
- A bed-and-breakfast owner and her deceased husband’s ghost.
The whole idea of ghostly crime-solving is a thing, apparently. CrimeFictionLover.com recently had a special article on novels narrated by the deceased. Talk about needing to have the last word!
Fanciful set-ups like these remind me of the 1984-1996 tv show, Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury. Why would ANYbody in Cabot Cove, Maine, ever invite that woman to dinner? But they did, for 264 episodes. How many murders is a wine or knitting club or b&b owner likely to stumble across? Apparently, enough to keep a series going.
In fact, Marshall said, series is everything in mystery fiction these days, even for authors who are self-published. The popularity of series fiction derives in part from the attachment that develops between reader and dowager duchess or impish gargoyle. Also, readers can enjoy the mystery knowing that said duchess and gargoyle are never likely to be in any serious danger. Like Miss Marple, James Bond, and Jason Bourne, series characters will survive to appear in the next book.
Yet, stakes must be raised, so authors often threaten someone the protagonist cares about. Male protagonists may develop a disposable romantic interest, which also enables a lot of (invariably) fantastic sex. For women protagonists, a favorite niece or sister or former college roommate may be imperiled.
At another recent writers’ conference, best-selling author Lee Goldberg said authors can make even rather far-fetched gimmicks more acceptable to readers by balancing them with realistic elements. He should know. He published nine books and six short stories about a seriously germ-phobic, obsessive-compulsive, symmetry-fixated, former San Francisco homicide detective who unerringly solves crimes in his head. We know that wildly unrealistic character as Adrian Monk.