Blog Post: The Mystery of Why a Book is Shelved in Mystery: Volume 2

Read Volume 1 here

So, what makes a mystery, and what makes a book something else? There are at least a dozen genres and sub-genres, but we only use four categories to classify adult fiction:  mystery, sci-fi (which includes fantasy as well as science fiction), westerns and for everything else–fiction.

If you widen your catalog search to find mysteries within the entire state of Wyoming, and scroll down to see the listing for all the libraries, you will find that for a significant number of authors, half the libraries in the state catalog the books as mysteries and the other half as fiction. So, clearly it’s a very subjective process. Yet you have to have some rationale to guide your decisions.

Sometimes the packaging and publisher information are helpful. Some books will say “a thriller” or “a mystery” right on the cover, or be clearly described as that in the cataloging information the vendor provides. But other times several terms are used, making it hard to know. We can also look at where other libraries have shelved the book, or the section of a journal the book was reviewed in. But sometimes we have to look even deeper and start thinking about what really makes a mystery.
In Volume 1, I mentioned viewpoint, and that can be a good clue as to where to find certain mysteries.

  • If the book goes into the heads of other characters, especially the killer or villain himself, then there’s a good chance it will end up shelved in fiction.
  • If the police or a private detective are involved, even if there are other non-mystery elements, then it likely fits the mystery category (Some good examples of books that have a mystery at their core that are Mary Higgins Clark, Her first books were in the  who started out writing what were called “women in jeopardy” stories, where the “mystery” was how the main character and narrator was going to get away from the bad guy. Jonathan Kellerman changed things up by having his protagonist be a psychologist. In John Sandford’s Prey series, his character Lucas Davenport started off being a police detective but then became an investigator who often used unorthodox methods Davenport left the force and ended up being an investigator for a Minnesota Bureau).

Gradually librarians realized that these new kinds of books were being read by the same people who read traditional mysteries and some of these authors were moved from Fiction to Mystery. Yet, there had to be a stopping point, and a way to differentiate between these sub-genres.

The rationale for LCLS cataloging for adult fiction has to do with the subtle difference between suspense fiction and mystery fiction. In general, a mystery is told from the viewpoint of the person trying to solve the crime, while suspense fiction is usually told from the viewpoint of the victim or victims, and sometimes the killer, and sometimes both viewpoints.

In fact, any book that is told from multiple viewpoints is more likely to be suspense than fiction. Using multiple viewpoints gives the book a broader focus and puts the emphasis on the story overall rather than narrowing it in on the puzzle of solving the murderer.

Of course, having said that, the reality is that nowadays even traditional mystery writers are writing “bigger” books with more complex plots. So the lines between the two types of books gets blurrier and blurrier. Which means that sometimes an author’s books are shelved where they are simply because that’s where their books have always been shelved.

The only way to really be sure where to look for some authors is to check the catalog or ask library staff. Of course, if they write in two sub-genres, their books might be in two places. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post!