The Mystery Section

The Mystery Section:

An Open letter to Barnes and Noble, with painstakingly constructed visual aids

Dear Barnes and Noble,

I love mysteries.  Therefore, when I found myself in a Barnes & Noble the other day, I naturally drifted over to the Mystery section.

I had forgotten how useless this would be.

Here is a sort of summary of what I saw before my boyfriend took me by the hand and gently led me away:

Hair Brunette Cover

Chickadee Back Cover Better

The hot pink cover is, admittedly, like soooo 5 or 10 years ago.  However, the rest of this horror is, I fear, all too accurate.

I have no problem with books like this existing.  However, when I see a mystery section that seems to consist almost entirely of books like this, I do see red.  Or, rather, hot pink.

And when I see a field of cats and cooking and cute little shops and knitting and sewing and titles with bad puns stretching before me, a brightly-colored desert where there was once a Mystery section, I get mad enough to blog about it.

We can do better than this, ladies.  Think of Christie, of Sayers, of Allingham.  Did any of them depend on, for example, “knitting interest” to sell their books?  No.  I admit that Miss Marple did knit; I do not think, however, that this helped Dame Christie to sell millions of books and become the Queen of Crime.  Was Hercule Poirot ever marketed as a man who really loved chocolate?  Was Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers) “branded” as a book-collector?  Why does this seem like a good idea today?  It seems like a lousy idea to me.  I should state that I am 32 years of age.  Not young and hip; not, I hope, quite an old curmudgeon, yet.  But as a consumer, I feel only rage when I am presented with this kind of marketing.

Also, Barnes and Noble, stop slacking!  You used to have a decent selection, back in the day, when you were competing with Borders.  I remember a time when I could actually find some of the mysteries I like reading within your mystery section.  I have a dim memory of purchasing Felony and Mayhem books from you, once upon a time.  This may, of course, be a mere Fevered Imagining of mine, but… stay, the memory grows clearer!  I bought a whole stack of Margery Allingham novels from you once.  It was glorious.  I had Albert Campion as my near-constant companion for weeks afterwards.  In fact, I remember that I used to be able to buy high-quality, hilarious, intelligent mystery novels from you regularly.

I hear your business is in trouble; I wonder if it could be because you have had a sort of long-lasting identity crisis or amnesiac episode, wherein you believed yourself to be an airport bookstore writ large?  I know that the Internet is enough to depress any bricks-and-mortar store, but come on!

It almost looks as if you guys aren’t even trying.

Warmest Wishes,

M. Atherton




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  1. Urgh! I sympathize completely. I hate it when book marketing (or any product really) stops asking “How do we showcase how awesome our product is?” and becomes “How do we sell this to the all-pink-loving-frilly-woman-hive-mind?”

    I’m sorry your mystery section was pinkafied. I at least remember a time when a mystery could be carried by characters that weren’t overburdened by gender stereotypes. :/

    • Melanie Atherton Allen

      Hey N J! Thank you for your sympathy! I was really surprised at my own emotional reaction to the Barnes and Noble mystery section; I am not an angry person, and yet it really did make me angry.
      I also don’t understand why this particular marketing strategy seems like a good idea to publishers. For example, I have a cat. I love him to death. That doesn’t make me want to read mystery stories with cats in them. I don’t see the connection.
      And even if this strategy did work on me once, if it induced me to buy a bad book, I wouldn’t get a second bad book by the same author. It seems, in many ways, cheap. The publishers aren’t earning my repeat custom. They are extracting $14.95 from me, and it is money that I will later regret giving them.

      But I don’t object to the existence of bad books. What I do object to is the fact that they seemed, in this case, to be the only books on offer.

      By the way, I am not, I think, being unfair. I have read some mysteries of the pink-cover sort; I am a mystery junkie, and sometimes I’ve sunk pretty low. I knew, and had reason for hating, many of the authors whose books glared pinkly at me from the shelves.

      Another thing I feel that I must mention: not all ‘chick-lit’ style mysteries are without merit. I am especially fond of funny mysteries. If a mystery is genuinely funny, I will forgive it almost any offense. Most of the pink brigade are billed as ‘funny,’ but very few are. Pamela DuMond’s Annie Graceland series is genuinely funny, so, even though it does everything I generally find off-putting, I find that I don’t care. Annie Graceland is a psychic who sees ghosts and bakes things; she is also a glorious nit-wit, and the stories are mad-cap mystery adventures. This is great. I suspect that Pamela DuMond knows all about the conventions with which she is working, and that her novels are to some extent parodies; I have no evidence for this, it is just an impression that I have. Either way, I find the series entertaining.
      If you are looking for modern mysteries with a non-chick female protagonist, Helen Smith’s Emily Castle mysteries are great. Emily Castle is more of a brain than a body; she only rarely thinks about romance; she isn’t given to irrational, overly emotional, self-indulgent behavior; in fact, she is great! And the books are hilarious.

  2. I love your constructed visual aid. I wonder if there are any mystery novels with knitting cats? Because I’d like to read that one.

    I haven’t been in a B&N in ages, so I’m apparently blissfully ignorant of this change within mystery literature. 😛

  3. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Hey Sara! I’m glad you liked my visual aid! I love making them (as you probably know by now, as you’ve read my A To Z posts).
    I, too, would love to read about this knitting cat. I feel, however, that we can go farther. The knitting cat, whom we will name Caboodle, should be able to see ghosts. Caboodle should also run a shop, possibly a book shop, if we want to give the stories a superficial gloss of culture- like lip gloss, OMG!- or possibly a vintage clothing shop. Or hey! A knitting hobby-shop. Lots of balls of wool for Caboodle to get tangled up with! Think of the cover-art possibilities! 🙂
    It isn’t, though, a change in mystery literature. At least, I hope it isn’t. That would make me deeply sad. I know that some people are still writing good mysteries (see my remarks above). It just seems as if Barnes and Noble does not think that these books are likely to sell. Sigh…

  4. Hee, hee. That one had me laughing. I was just in the Barnes & Noble mystery section yesterday looking for a book for a birthday gift for a relative, and yes, their selection was exactly as you described. I found it disappointing, too.

  5. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Did you find a book for your relative? If so, what was it? Is this relative a mystery fan?
    Thanks for stopping by, Lori! I am always pleased to see a new comment from you in my comments list.

    • Thanks! I was looking for a book for my mom. She is an avid mystery fan who likes everything from Agatha Christie to the Murder, She Wrote series, to the cozies. Right now, she’s into the Miss Marple-type amateur detectives like the Mrs. Jeffries series and Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax (which is what I ended up getting her).

      • Melanie Atherton Allen

        Good choice, Lori! Mrs. Pollifax is a good series, and Mrs. Jeffries is decent, too, though I’ve only read one or two of those. Have you tried your mother on Dorothy Cannell? Her Ellie Haskell series is quite good- I especially liked How To Murder Your Mother-In-Law.

  6. Hi, Melanie! I heard about your blog from Lori and had to come check it out. I love your book illustration. 🙂 And I so agree with your sentiments…it is depressing when everything gets pinkified! I’m a sci-fi fan, but I love mystery too. As soon as I see a book with a cat on it I avoid it like the plague. Thanks for a great post!

  7. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Hey Sue! Welcome! I’m glad you like my book illustration! We must fight against The Pink Tide! It is wrecking up my favorite genre.

  8. Had to laugh at the last line, “she almost like gets killed.”

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Cohost
    M is for Movies

  9. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Stephen- thank you! I loved making these, I really did. Thanks for stopping by! Do come again!

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