We’ve had a goodly number of donations recently from people who have sorted their books by subject. Some of them are trying to be helpful, while others had the books sorted to be put into storage, had them in storage for a long enough period to allow them to part with the books, and THEN donated them. This results in a donation which is sometimes efficient, sometimes fun, and sometimes both.
I’ve mentioned this hereintofore: no two people will sort books in exactly the same way. Everyone has a personal vision of what a shelf of, say, baseball books ought to contain, and if that includes Malamud’s The Natural, why, that’s a valid opinion. It doesn’t work for US, since our Sports section is restricted to nonfiction works and The Natural is a novel, and Malamud important enough for his novel to go into Literature. But we get the principle behind the sorting.
Likewise, we understand why those of you who sort Fiction separately don’t do so by our standards. One such donation recently included several boxes labeled “Fiction”, but fewer than half the books inside were sorted by us into the Fiction shelves. There were several books of short stories, a smattering of literature, and half a ton of mysteries. This is not surprising: mystery novels ARE fiction. We just sort in a little more detail.
We will never demand that you sort your books before donating. We do that; it’s one of the fun parts of the job. And we would certainly never insist that you study our list of categories and sort the books exactly the way we do it. (For one thing, no two of US will sort quite the same way.) But I thought I might just pass along a few guidelines for telling a mystery novel from a novel.
There’s the picture on the cover, of course. These illustrations have gone through fads and phases over the years, and will vary depending on whether you are dealing with private eyes, small town book group detectives, or government operatives. But a body lying on the floor is generally a dead giveaway. (Sorry.) Similarly, if there is a skull, skull and crossbones, or skeleton on the cover (especially if the skeleton is standing up) you have a pretty good chance that the book includes the phrase, “I accuse you, Poodle Pierre, of poisoning the housekeeper!” This is especially true if the skull is grinning at you out of something unexpected, like a ball of yarn in a knitting basket or an apple on a fruit stand. (Standing skeletons are a little old-fashioned now for mysteries, and went through a phase of appearing on fantasy novels instead, but presumably you aren’t dealing with a stack of books from 2018.) A standing pool of blood in a strange place should be considered an indication that foul play is involved.
Thrillers can frequently be identified by having the seal of a government agency or a police badge on the cover. There are nonfiction works which do the same thing, but if the emblem is torn, cracked, cut through with a knife, or dripping blood, this is almost always going to be on a book about daring secret agents trying to save or topple a government. The same applies to national or political symbols: a hammer and sickle, an American Eagle, etc.
Look at the title, while you’re at it. Thrillers can be especially difficult, as they like to use a simple formula of “The (Proper Name) (Noun)”. The Kremlin Letter, The DaVinci Code, The Polar Vortex…these all tell the reader to prepare for a wild ride.
The words Death, Dead, and Deadly can be used as major clues. Nowadays, the trend is away from using the words Body, Corpse, Murder, Homicide, Case, or Mystery: these belong to an era which liked more definite labels but look for them. They get reprinted, y’know. As stated in a previous column, any title including a sorry play on any of these words (Little Dead Riding Hood) is probably a suspect.
I hate to mention it, but you MIGHT look below the title, too. Some authors should be pretty well known to you as mystery writers (Agatha Christie didn’t write MUCH else) and sometimes the publisher will help out by slathering “The New Priscilla Poisson Mystery!” on the cover.
If you are forced to open the book, look around for words like “Inspector”, “alibi”, and “getaway”, or sentences like “And what were you doing in Berwyn on the night of the seventeenth?”
In the last resort, of course, you can just put it in the box. We grade boxes mainly on content, not so much on sorting.