It’s a Dirty Job: Defining Categories and Subgenres
Hello again! Thank you to Larissa for letting me bring in this month’s edition of Killing It – Writing the M/M Mystery a few days late. The last couple of weeks have been, cough, murder. 😉
After reading over the last month’s comments, I thought it might be helpful to tackle a number of your questions right off the top. There’s always a bit of confusion regarding crime and mystery subgenres in general—and the M/M genre in particular.
Why does this matter? Why is it important to know the difference between a cozy mystery and romantic suspense? Or the difference between noir and hard-boiled crime fiction? Is there a difference between gay mystery and M/M mystery?
The better you understand the requirements of the subgenre you’re working in, the more accurately you can pitch your book to publishers or, if you’re self-publishing, correctly categorize your title on vendor sites.
The more precise and tailored your book marketing and promotion, the higher your odds of success. The key is in finding and focusing on the audience most receptive to the type of story you’re selling.
So, let’s start with the broader questions and work our way down.
First of all, although they are referred to as though interchangeable, there is a difference between the Gay and M/M Mystery.
There is one universal element in all M/M Mystery and Suspense fiction: the romance and the mystery plots share equal page time. M/M Fiction is, by its very definition, romantic fiction. It’s right there in the acronym. “Male-slash-Male” is a fan fiction term for same sex or “slash” fiction.
(Slash means a romantic pairing between two male characters who in canon are likely straight or at least not romantically paired. The Male/Male fiction professionally published today evolved from slash fan fiction. This makes it a very different animal with a very different family tree from the traditional gay mystery, which evolved out of both the gay pulps and literary gay fiction.)
A gay mystery need not have a romantic subplot, and if it does, that subplot need not end on a happy or even hopeful note. In short, you can have a mystery with a gay protagonist, but if there is no romance plot receiving equal page time and authorial attention, it is a gay mystery NOT an M/M Mystery, and the audience for these two things is not always the same.
Believe it or not, there are traditional gay mystery readers who are just as hostile to the idea of romance, let alone explicit sexual content, as the traditional mainstream mystery reader. While there is clearly crossover, you need to be aware that erotic content, in particular, is not universally beloved by all gay mystery readers.
Which once again brings us to targeting.
Who is the audience for the M/M Mystery and Suspense novel?
Readers who enjoy an equal mix of romance and mystery or suspense in stories featuring LGBTQAI protagonists. Readers who are usually more than okay with erotic content. Does the M/M Mystery and Suspense novel have to contain erotic content? Of course not. It does have to contain a romance plot that eventually (possibly over the course of several books in a series) ends with a Happily Ever After for the main protagonist.
When you slap that M/M label on your mystery or suspense novel, you’re promising the prospective reader that there will be plenty of romance as well as puzzlement ahead. You’re also promising that all will eventually end well for the protagonist. If you break this promise to the reader, you will hear about it—and you will pay the price in reviews and lower book sales.
Pepón asked: Could you take a m/f mystery and exchange the “f” with an “m”, and that’s all?
That’s a great question. The answer is no. At least…not so far as the gay mystery novel is concerned. And that “no” is another of the differences between the M/M and gay mystery novel. The gay mystery novel must, obviously, feature a gay protagonist. More, the themes and motifs of the novel should, ideally, relate in both general and specific ways to gay life and gay culture. The M/M mystery does not have this restriction. Which is why M/M mystery abounds with gay cops, gay FBI agents, gay private eyes, gay you-name-it who never confront the social, political, personal challenges and obstacles a real gay person working in law enforcement might encounter.
Could a writer exchange the “f” with an “m” for an M/M mystery? Well, it would make for some lame-ass characterization, but as far as plot and theme go? Yes. The concerns and considerations of a mainstream m/f mystery or suspense novel will not differ significantly from many, possibly most, M/M mystery and suspense novels.
Any questions so far? Share them in the comment section below.
Now let’s consider the different subgenres in mystery fiction, including the different expectations for each subgenre—while keeping in mind that an m/m mystery is going to be half romance novel, regardless of other subgenre requirements.
Once again, we’ll start broad and then hone in.
Suspense—romantic suspense in our case—is a story wherein the protagonist is in danger either due to or magnified by a romantic attachment. The main character is surrounded by mysterious events, but usually not participating actively (or at least not in any practical, organized manner) in solving whatever mystery there might be. In suspense novels, the protagonist is more or less a victim of circumstance. The plot drives the protagonist to action. His role is reactive.
Mystery is a story where the protagonist follows clues and plays an active role in investigation—either as an amateur sleuth or a professional investigator. The protagonist is himself the catalyst for action. He drives the plot. His role is proactive. Much of what happens to him happens solely because he starts poking his nose into things that are none of his business.
A mystery will generally have moments of great suspense, just as a suspense novel will typically have elements of mystery and enigma. The central difference is the role the protagonist plays in figuring out the puzzle.
The third broad category you’ll run into is Thriller. A thriller generally takes place on a larger stage than the suspense or mystery novel. There will be more action and the action may even spread across continents. The stakes are often much higher. Yes, it will still be personal for the protagonist, but there’s a good chance that every kid at the amusement park—or even all of civilization—is also at risk. Frequently there is a time element or a deadline with terrifying consequences. In the thriller, the protagonist may start out either reactive or proactive, but events will soon overtake him to such an extent as to make the igniting incident moot.
Most M/M mystery is actually romantic suspense. The stories are typically personal and small in scope, and there is generally very little believable crime-solving going on, even when the protagonist is a professional investigator. There will be plenty of sex, romance, danger and mysterious happenings.
None of these subgenres is “better” than the other. It all comes down to what you love to read and what you love to write.
Next we have the various sub-subgenres.
The Cozy is sometimes referred to as the Traditional mystery, but cozies typically have a romantic element that the traditional mystery needn’t. The cozy mood is cheerful, upbeat and positive. The traditional mystery is a bit more shaded. Agatha Christie is traditional. Nancy Atherton is cozy.
The cozy is the realm of the amateur sleuth. The crimes are bloodless and offstage. There is no sex, no swearing and no murdering of small children or pets or small children who are pets. The crime typically occurs in a small, contained environment: a village, a university, a snowed-in manor house.
(The cozy is having A Moment, by the way. This can be a particularly lucrative genre for self-publishing.)
Police Procedurals are exactly what they sound like. The story emphasizes factual police investigation of your made-up the crime. The protagonist will be a professional (paid) member of law enforcement: a cop, FBI agent, marshal, etc. The expectation is that the protagonist will follow real life LEO procedures. There is a lot of emphasis on real life details. In fact, those details are what readers of this genre love best.
Can you write an FBI thriller that is not a Police Procedural? Sure! Just make sure you label it FBI Romance or FBI thriller and not Police Procedural. The devil is in the details.
Psychological Mystery (or Thriller). Is it real or is it Memorex? That’s the question, because the main thing that sets the psychological mystery apart is the fact that no one, including—in fact, especially—the protagonist is sure of what is real. Sanity is almost always an issue and suspense will be a-plenty.
The Legal or Medical Thriller. If it sounds like I think they’re interchangeable, it’s because they kind of are. The protagonist will be a member of the legal or medical profession and much of the story will take place in the rarified behind-the-scenes of those mysterious (to most of us) environs. So… a courtroom or a hospital. The crime will be one of medicine or law—and usually the solution relies on some ingenious twist of understanding medicine or law. These usually fall under the thriller category because a time factor is almost inevitably in play.
Historical Mysteries. The challenging thing about historical mysteries is they can be any variation of subgenres with the added challenge of placing the story at any time before 1970. Meaning, on top of everything else, you’ve got to research historical police procedures, social mores, etc.
Private Eye novels are kind of an American institution. The protagonist must be a paid professional, but not a member of law enforcement. So, a crime reporter qualifies but a cop who moonlights as a bodyguard does not. Now if the cop was fired for slugging the police chief’s son-in-law and later became a PI, that’s different. 😉 These novels can be traditional (Christie’s Poirot) or hardboiled (Chandler’s Marlowe). Very often they are historical. They work especially well as standalones, but they make for good series too.
Noir. Standalone by definition since EVERYBODY DIES. Okay, not always. But mostly. Bad things happen to good people—and they keep happening. Even if the protagonist manages to solve the crime, it doesn’t matter because all life is shit anyway. And the villain will be out on bail in fifteen minutes. The noir crime novel and M/M mystery are antithetically opposed. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. The noir novel and the gay mystery are a natural pairing.
Caper. Sometimes Comic Caper, but not always. Sometimes the black humor of these stories can veer into noir territory. Basically, there will be a considerable element of suspense, there will be a time factor, and the protagonists will be criminals trying to pull off a heist. They may die trying. Or they may all end up in jail. Or the hero might actually end up with the boy and the loot. Irony and physical action will both be important factors.
There we have it. Mystery Subgenres 101. There are combinations of all of the above, of course: for example, science fiction PIs and sleuthy wizards are not unknown in the realm of crime fiction. Besides, mixing it up can invigorate an overworked subgenre. Don’t ever be afraid to experiment.
Feel free to share your thoughts on your favorite M/M Mystery subgenres. Or if you have questions, please leave them in the comment section below.
About the author
A distinct voice in gay fiction, and the bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure, and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYONhas been called “arguably the single most influential voice in m/m romance today.”
Today Josh’s work has been translated into nine languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first Male/Male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. The Adrien English series was awarded the All Time Favorite Couple by the Goodreads M/M Romance Group. Josh is an Eppie Awardwinner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist (twice for Gay Mystery), and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads All Time Favorite M/M Author Award.
Josh is married and lives in Southern California.