The 1 big mistake mystery novels make

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The Mysteries of Jennie Manning.

Dear Reader,

Jennie Manning. She’s a character who gives zero…

The word that you’re looking for to end that phrase rhymes with ducks.

That’s how someone described Jennie to me after I read a sample for Culture, Love, and Identity: An Afro-Latina Reading.

Zero ducks. Yes, I like that.

Every time I’ve taken parts of the Jennie novel to workshop or to read, I get this feedback about her voice and her character. She is powerful, and sassy, and funny, and yes, gives no ducks.

And the people who have commented most about this have been women. I don’t know why this surprises me. A lead female character should appeal to women, shouldn’t it? But when women who don’t read mysteries say that they would read a Jennie Manning novel, it’s probably because they see something in her that they don’t see anywhere else.

“I’d want to have a beer and hang out with Jennie,” someone told me after the reading.

As a writer, that makes me feel great. As a woman and a reader, it makes me sad.

With other female detectives out there, from cozy to hard-boiled, why are there not more women finding themselves in mystery fiction? More specifically, what aren’t more women of color seeing themselves in this genre?

It’s not that there aren’t female sleuths in fiction. Janet Evanovich alone has made an industry of Stephanie Plum. However, if you’re like me, you like your heroines gritty, more complex, more like … you.

I’ve read heroines who were more like me. Lupe Solano from Carolina Aguilera Garcia was my childhood. I didn’t know what Miami was until I read those books. Lupe had a Cuban heritage like me. A loud and proud family like me. But she had such a crazy awesome life — a DA boyfriend, a crazy cousin, and a detective agency in Coral Gables. Those books brought that world into my world and I knew then I’d write a novel. And if I was really lucky, I’d write my own mystery novel with my own lady detective.

So I know that lead characters of color in mystery novels exist. But if I wasn’t looking for them, would I have come across them?

That’s the argument that comes when this talk about writers of color and characters of color comes to the main stage. It’s not enough that there’s one or two or a handful of characters who look or sound like me. It’s not enough when the rest of the world sounds so different. When people don’t see themselves in stories why should they listen? Why should they read?

I decided to look for some market research in this genre (seriously, once you’re a journalist it’s hard to turn it off) and I found a 2010 study commissioned by Sisters in Crime. The  study was surveyed 75,000 (that’s not a typo) who purchased books at the end of 2009 and the beginning on 2010.  Here’s some of what they found:

  • 68 percent of mysteries are purchased by women.
  • More than half the mysteries purchased are sold to people over the age of 55.
  • 39% of all mysteries are purchased in stores.
  • 35% of mysteries are purchased by people who live in the South.
  • 77% of mysteries are purchased by households with no children at home.
  • 48% of mysteries are purchased by readers who live in suburban areas.
  • E-book sales are growing fast. In 2009, 1.7% of books sold were e-books. In Q2 of 2010, 7% of books sold were e-books.
  • Readers under 40 look for dark, suspenseful stories.
  • Readers under 40 don’t see mysteries as distinct from other genres as older readers do.

So older women in Southern suburbs with no children read mystery novels that they purchased at their bookstore. That’s what the findings boil down to.

This study is dated and I hope that the group commissions another study soon, especially since they started to track the growth of e-book sales and the habits of readers under 40.  I also hope they break it down by ethnicity/race.

Because the ladies who wanted to have a beer with Jennie were women of color.  And they were not older. And they did not live in suburbs.

Reader, I know some things about life and telling stories. Stories are about people and how they live their lives. I have a character of color who chooses to go down a path that many women would go down if they could.  She picked justice by any means necessary. In this world where justice for people of color seems like a foreign concept, this is the appeal.

We want hell in high heels. Strength. Smarts. Flawed.

This is why writing characters of colors and stories of color is so important. Our stories don’t just validate our experiences to adds to the overall narrative.  And our narrative is not just older and suburban.

Marching forward,

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