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Murder, Mayhem and Madness. (And That's Just in the Publishing Houses.)

The Rise Of The Mystery And Why It Isn't A Mystery.

May 19, 1996|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman's last piece for the magazine was on Magic Johnson

The office with my name on the door was two small rooms on the second floor of a bank building on Cahuenga, at the end of a corridor that smelled of rye whiskey and Aqua Velva. Aqua Velva was my partner, a Hopi Indian with a face like a police sketch. She was blind in one eye and had a tendency to retain water whenever trouble was coming.

* The case walked in on a pair of black satin pumps, with heels that were saying something to me, and I think it was something pretty bad because I felt as if I was about to break out of my genre. Aqua said she was feeling crampy and walked out. I never saw her again, but I heard she became a jockey at Churchill Downs and started a series of private eye novels. She is known as the Dick Francis of water-retentive Hopi jockeys. The place still stinks.

* The blonde stood in front of me and chewed her lip, looking for a moment as if she might cry. Then she pulled out a pistol and pointed it at me. She said she needed my help. She told me she was a lesbian forest ranger, and that she had been a puff pastry chef for the circus, the French-Canadian one, but she had given it up to write a series of detective novels. "I'm manic-depressive," she purred. "I'm published by Random House." Just then she pulled a manuscript as big as a cinder block out of her pantyhose and tossed it on the desk. The title was written in calligraphy, one of her other bad habits, but I could make it out: "Ladyfingers on the Trigger: A Culinary Mystery." Right under that she had macramed bits of string so that they spelled out the words "No animals were cooked or otherwise injured in the preparation of this book."

"Read it, peeper," she hissed like a drugstore pressure cooker.

This was what the job had become, providing cheap patter and dime-novel plot twists for dysfunctional college girls. Ever since murder mysteries became one of the hottest profit centers of the book publishing industry, my waiting room has been filled with writers looking for a little of the muscular prose of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and the sinister beauty of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. I was Marlowe's ghost. I was all they had.

I told her it was a good yarn but I thought there were too many egg yolks in the flan recipe. She thought it over for a minute, then she pumped a .38 slug through the jacket of my blue seersucker suit. I was beginning to take a real disliking to that one. Suddenly there was another muzzle flash, and as I felt myself sinking into a dark place, I heard the trailing voice of Aqua Velva from the outer office. "Write what you know," she said.

Where once stood the hard-boiled detective--a man's man, with few needs and still fewer pleasures; alone and unadorned by all but his own intelligence and a few filterless cigarettes--now come the many-footed gumshoes of the hyper-modern private eye. He is no longer the lonely literary figure he once was--there were more than 1,400 new mystery titles published last year-and, in fact, he is often a she. And no matter what the gender, they are all privately eyeing the bestseller lists.

"It was extremely unusual as recently as 10 years ago for any mystery title to make the bestseller lists," says Jim Huang, who monitors the mystery publishing business as both a bookseller and editor of the respected Drood Review, which publishes reviews and summaries of upcoming releases bimonthly. "These days there are a number of writers in the field-Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman when he's writing about Navajos, Sara Paretsky, Robert Parker, Dick Francis and Patricia Cornwell-whose books are pretty much automatic [bestsellers]."

No one, not even the publishing houses, who keep their own books a closely guarded secret, really knows how many of the 2.2 billion books sold or the $25.5 billion in publishing revenues generated last year came from mysteries.

"There's no simple way to even identify what publishers call a mystery," says Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Los Angeles and its parent store in New York, where sales have risen steadily for the last 17 years. "Ask Knopf if they call 'Intensity' [by best-selling author Dean Koontz] a mystery. It is a pure crime suspense novel, but they would never, ever categorize it as a mystery because they feel the term is too limiting. You can't get publishers to give you numbers for a category in which they're denying many of their biggest books even belong."

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