Blog Post: The Mystery of Why a Book is Shelved in Mystery: Volume 1

Cataloging fiction used to be simple. These days, with a proliferation of fiction genres and sub-genres, it can be a challenge to decide where to shelve books in the library. Take mysteries for example.  Besides the classic mystery story, we now have suspense, thrillers and crime fiction, all of which share some aspects of a mystery but not all of them.

4A classic mystery is focused on a murder or murders. In fact, they used to be called murder mysteries. These books are not merely all about the murder, but on finding out who the killer is. Discovering the answer to this puzzle is the whole point of the book.

If a book is more about how the main characters are going to escape being murdered, then the book is likely not a true mystery but a suspense novel or thriller. If it’s about bringing the murder to justice and/or stopping them before they kill again, it’s likely to be a thriller or a crime fiction novel. And finally, if there is a lot of political or legal detail, it’s probably a thriller (there are legal, financial, political and religious thrillers, to name a few) rather than a mystery. In general, suspense novels and thrillers are shelved in fiction, while crime novels are shelved in mystery.

The protagonist in a mystery tends to be either a policeman, private detective or an amateur sleuth (Examples of amateur sleuths:  Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher or Richard Castle). But there are also mystery series where the main character is a district attorney, an FBI profiler or forensic specialist.  In general, in mysteries, the characters work through the legal system. If the protagonist is more of a maverick and works outside the system or uses unorthodox (or legally questionable) methods to bring about justice, then a book is more likely to be categorized as a thriller.

The setting can also matter. Mysteries and crime fiction tends to be set in a specific city or area. Thrillers and suspense novels may bounce all over the country or even the world, as the characters search for clues or tracks down the villain. Again, these books are usually shelved in fiction rather than mystery.

9To add to the confusion, an author may write different types of books, so different that their books end up being cataloged in different places. For example, Alexander McCall Smith writes a mystery series set in Africa and another mystery series set in Scotland. But he also writes books that aren’t mysteries that are shelved in fiction. Other authors may have two different series where one series is true mystery and the other more suspense, but because many readers enjoy both series, we may decide to shelve them both in mystery.8

Deciding where to put a book can be a complicated and confusing issue for librarians, but it doesn’t have to be difficult for patrons. When in doubt as to where a certain book is shelved, check the catalog or ask at the Ask Here Desk. We’ll help you find it…wherever it is.