Egg Market from Southern Writers MagazineSince I’m a mystery writer, my friends frequently ask me to recommend “good” mysteries for them to read. When I respond with, “What kind of mysteries do you like?” I sometimes get a blank stare. I list some of the choices: “Cozies, police procedurals, paranormal, amateur sleuth, historical, suspense, romantic suspense, hard-boiled PI, soft-boiled PI, legal, noir, or some combination of the above, like historical paranormal amateur sleuth?” The blank look frequently turns to a deer-in-the-headlights expression and my friends start to edge away until I ask, “Do you like Evanovich or Grisham? Christie or Scottoline?”

We’re Not Talking About Eggs

This fine-tuning of genre seems to be a recent thing with booksellers or marketers slicing and dicing a basic category like “mystery” or “romance” into such fine delineations that some “sub-genres” may only be two or three authors wide. All of which got me thinking about a genre I particularly enjoy, soft-boiled PI novels. What sets a soft-boiled novel apart from the other mystery sub-genres? I identify four main criteria:

  1. The protagonist is usually a female private detective.* If she’s not a PI, she’s in another law enforcement-related field, but is not a cop (because then the book would probably be a police procedural). Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott is a judge, for instance. *The only soft-boiled series I can think of with a male protagonist is Spencer Quinn’s series narrated by a dog-named Chet. I’m sure there are more and, hopefully, you avid readers will let me know what they are.
  2. The tone of a soft-boiled book is relatively light and sometimes veers into slapstick as in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.
  3. The gore quotient is low, with little or no graphic sex or violence. If you want pedophiles serial killers, or descriptions of erotic antics look for a hard-boiled or noir book.
  4. Unlike traditional/cozy mysteries that are frequently set in small towns/villages—think Cabot Cove or St. Mary Mead—soft-boiled PIs usually conduct their business in cities. Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files adventures, for instance, take place in San Francisco. (Maybe because there’s not much need of a PI in a town of 300?)

Why Does It Matter?

Knowing what genre you like is important because it can help you locate books you’re likely to enjoy. If you punch “soft-boiled PI mystery” into a search engine, instead of relying on the broader “mysteries” or “private investigator series” you’re more likely to find books tailored to your tastes. As an author, it helps you know what key words to use frequently on your website and what tags to attach to your books on such sites as Amazon.

If you’ve got some favorite soft-boiled series I haven’t mentioned above, please leave a comment and let me know about it! I love discovering new series.

Read the complete post at Southern Writers Magazine.