Wednesday, November 24, 2010


How book club discussion illuminates personal preferences in crime fiction reading

As individuals we know why we read crime fiction and often tend to think everyone else reads for the same reasons we do. But in our reading group discussions we found that people actually look for different things in mysteries and can be quite definite about their personal likes and dislikes. Perspectives often differ quite radically over the same book in fact. Here are some of our observations from our own group discussions over the past two years.

Some people read purely for the "Why" and don't care about anything else. Others want more.. ..they want a good story, good writing, believable characters and character development. They want likeable characters and will express little tolerance for those they dislike.

Other readers look for the "Who did it" factor. They want clues to try and figure the mystery out themselves. They want good detail. They will review the story afterwards for accuracy and nothing makes them more outspoken than if the author has resorted to a last minute surprise clue or pulled facts out of "left-field'". All the relevant details must be given, or else!

One of the most popular aspects seems to be "The Setting". Here readers are keen to read about family life in another time, or another place, e.g. WWI. Because murder is a human experience they wish to enjoy the story while, at the same time, getting a picture of how people lived in another era and to observe the differences to how we live today. Detail enriches the story and is important.

By extension, some readers choose "Other Cultures". Here the "setting" will be foreign: Iceland being a recent newcomer. These readers are world-wide travellers delving this week into the Turkish setting and the next in Sicily or Sweden . Often, they say, the enrichment of the new or unknown adds suspense to the story. They want to feel that difference as they read. They want to hear a different "voice"....the author writing about his own country and people.

However, sometimes our readers prefer stories that stay closer to home. Preferences here vary from the different social experiences within the North-American setting, to local history. We found very strong interest in our group for reading Canadian crime writers, whether in a modern or historical setting.

The issue of a " Different Perspective" is often discussed. For example, a foreign author writing about his/her own country versus an American author writing a story set in another country. A reader will usually prefer one over the other. We equate this with the example of a Scandinavian movie made in Sweden versus the same story made into a movie in the US , from translation.

Do people read themes? Yes, in our experience they very often do and they may stick to a theme and have to be persuaded to try other writing styles. Often this choice is because of a personal background which motivates this reader to want to learn more about their chosen theme. There are many to choose from and some of the most popular seem to be "Forensic ; Culinary; the Supernatural/ Paranormal; Animals; "The Private Eye" and, of course, those old favourites, "Police Procedurals" and "Village Life Crime".

Comic or Graphic? A good comic mystery can be hard to find, although many readers find "Cosies" fit the bill. Fewer readers seem to love the dark and demented . Sometimes one reader will love a good Psychological mystery but hate one about Serial Killers, or the reverse, without really being able to explain why. However, one thing is sure, readers' "squeamish levels" vary enormously. Sometimes trying and testing the whole spectrum between the Noir and the Cosy can be a reader's complete reading experience.

Finally, we have discussed "The Stand-Alone", those one-off crime novels. Some readers treat these as an indulgence between their regular fare. Other readers far prefer a series with recurring familiar characters.

A few things seem certain. Our readers hate anything formulaic or unbelievable. Whatever their chosen style of writing or story, they want good characters, quality of writing, pace and good plot development. Some prefer lots of description, others not.

Who can doubt that reading crime fiction can be an educational experience?

Anne Jeanjean was born in the UK, has an English Lit. degree and has adored crime fiction since she was ten. It all began with Agatha Christie and now she’s into forensic, police procedurals and foreign authors.
Catherine Jeanjean, her daughter, is a Librarian and worked for nearly five years in Kansas at Kansas State University Library. She is now a Collections Management Librarian for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Together they are the coordinators for a crime fiction reading group based at the Alta Vista Public Library, called the SleuthHounds. This group has been going strong for over two years now.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Most heartening to those of us who write these things is that you all love mysteries. I love going to book clubs, because of their lively discussions and passionate love of books. Not to mention the friendships, the food...and sometimes the wine.

  2. Sounds like a great book club, Anne and Catherine. We authors like to know what appeals to readers, and you've given us lots of think about. It is great to be part of a group of people who love and appreciate and care deeply about books! Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.