A young man kills his only brother in a desperate and ill-fated quest for approval. A woman of ill repute helps several agents in their spy mission. Government troops scour the countryside in hot pursuit of a known threat to the current administration.
Murder! Intrigue! Danger! It's all there in the Old Testament—in the stories of Cain, Rahab and David—and the CBA market is quickly discovering just how well contemporary mysteries fit in with their biblical kin.
Even if the shelf space didn't offer a clue, the number of entries in the annual Christy Awards offers tangible evidence that the genre is growing. In 2000, eight CBA publishers submitted 15 titles in the suspense category, which includes mysteries and thrillers. In 2003, those numbers had jumped to 17 publishers and 32 titles. "It isn't that any particular company is doing more suspense," says Christy Awards administrator Donna Kehoe. "It's just that more publishers in general are doing suspense."
What's more, it was a military suspense title, Broadman & Holman's Mission Compromised by Oliver North with Joe Musser, that won the ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award for fiction at this year's CBA convention. That comes as no surprise to Kehoe, who credits a Christy judge with pointing out that many of the year's books dealt with "cultural angst" relating to issues like terrorism, identity theft and embryonic research. More than most fiction genres, Kehoe says, suspense engages the mind, as readers take on the role of investigator and participate in solving the plot's challenges, possibly gaining a new perspective on anxiety in their own lives.
And while the genre is growing, Warner Faith publisher Rolf Zettersten emphasizes that it's a "developing" category, with some distance to go before it can genuinely rival its ABA counterparts. Still, of Warner Faith's dozen fiction releases this year, five were suspense or thrillers—depending on how the company decided to categorize the titles. Categorization remains a challenge, with some CBA releases listing as many as four categories on the back covers; a fine line often separates mystery, suspense, and thrillers.
But no matter how books of this kind are categorized, Zettersten believes they require significantly more of a writer than most fiction does. "A good suspense novel creates a scenario that keeps the reader wondering how on earth this dilemma is going to be resolved. The writing requires intelligence, creativity and ingenuity; books of this kind require the writer to be clever," he says.
Apparently, one of those clever writers is Ted Dekker (see InProfile, this issue), whose June release for W Publishing, Thr3e, has garnered nearly universal praise for its fast-paced action, convincing characters and compelling plot. The supernatural thriller pits a murderous villain against a baffled seminary student, blending elements of horror, suspense and mystery.
Whodunits and Whydunits
While the line between suspense and thrillers is a fine one, there's less confusion over what constitutes a mystery: A classic mystery is a classic whodunit. And classic mysteries have worked so well for Paraclete Press—which entered the fiction field only in 1999—that the publisher recently signed Mary-Jane Deebs, Arab World Specialist with the Library of Congress, to a three-book contract.
Paraclete's foray into fiction was part of a strategy to introduce people to the daily life of a modern monastic community like the one with which the publishing company is affiliated. "We wanted to do this in a very non-threatening way that wasn't hokey," says Paraclete CEO Lillian Miao. "Someone said, 'How about murder?' and we all said 'Wonderful!' "
After some convincing, noted nonfiction author and community member David Manuel agreed to write the first of what would become the Faith Abbey mystery series; his latest novel and the fourth in the series, A Matter of Principle, releases in November. In February 2004, Paraclete publishes Deebs's Murder on the Riviera, a mystery that draws on the author's international background and features a character who's a member of the fictional Faith Abbey community. Central to all of Paraclete's books are the themes of reconciliation and ecumenism, and both elements play a prominent role in its fiction titles.
The desire for reconciliation of a decidedly different kind forms the premise of Multnomah's Brotherhood of Betrayal (Sept.) by Randall Arthur, a former church planter and pastor in Norway and Germany. Arthur's first novel, Wisdom Hunter, got him in hot water with the mission board he had served for 17 years; in this novel, the sudden disappearance of an American missionary pastor in Sweden forces his wife and children to face the criticism and legalism of the very people they once considered to be their Christian family. Not surprisingly, Multnomah expects the underlying struggle to resonate with readers who have experienced what is euphemistically called the "back hand of fellowship"—rejection and abuse from fellow believers.
All three titles in Howard Publishing's new fiction line, which launches this month, fall at least partially into the suspense category. Shoo Fly Pie: A Bug Man Novel is a full-fledged murder mystery by Tim Downs, a former cartoonist whose nonfiction Finding Common Ground (Moody) was the ECPA Gold Medallion winner in the missions/ evangelism category in 2000. In what is becoming a growing trend, authors are adding suspense and intrigue—classic "whydunit" categories—to what would otherwise be romance titles (see "Love—and Suspense—Is in the Air" on page TK), as in Howard Fiction's other two September releases, Betrayal in Paris by Doris Elaine Fell, which centers on deception within a family and an international terrorist plot, and Sins of the Mother by Patricia H. Rushford, whose protagonist is a country music star forced to face the truth about her life.
In February 2004, Revell introduces another Rushford suspense title, Deadly Aim, the first in a crime series featuring Angel Delaney, a police officer in a coastal Oregon town. A seaside Oregon town is also the setting for Lorena McCourtney's Julesburg Mysteries; the third and final title in Revell's series, Undertow (September), transforms a fashion model into a newspaper publisher. And keeping with the newspaper setting, in January 2004, Revell releases another suspense title, The Chase by Susan Wales, in which an investigative reporter for a Washington daily is forced to return to her hometown—this time in the Wisconsin heartland—to work for a small-time weekly.
Like Undertow and The Chase, a number of current and upcoming releases overlap the romance and suspense categories. Among them are Mindy Starns Clark's third title in the Million Dollar Mystery series, A Dime a Dozen (Harvest House, July); The Rescuer (Multnomah, March), the sixth book in the O'Malley series by bestselling romance author Dee Henderson; and Line of Duty (Zondervan, Oct.), the fifth title in the Newpointe 911 series by Terri Blackstock, who had no fewer than six books on the July CBA fiction bestseller list.
Other mystery/suspense series to add new titles this year include Sally Wright's Ben Reese books for Multnomah (the fourth, Out of the Ruins, released in January) and Alton Gansky's Out of Time (Zondervan, Oct.), the fourth title in his J.D. Stanton series.
In one distinct subcategory, ABA writer John Grisham—a man of faith whose books contain little if any objectionable material—is credited most often with boosting the interest in legal thrillers among Christian readers. In fact, it was a legal thriller, Randy Singer's debut novel, Directed Verdict (WaterBrook), that won this year's Christy Award in the suspense category. Another legal thriller, Craig Parshall's The Accused (Harvest House, July), adds an element of military suspense to the mix.
Despite the growing popularity of suspense, CBA publishers know they'll hear from offended readers if they cross the sometimes blurry lines of Christian decorum. A reader recently complained to Warner Faith that a scenario in one of its releases was not consistent with biblical interpretation. Zettersten recounts, "I wanted to say, 'It's a novel—it says "fiction" right on the cover.' These aren't teaching books, but still some readers expect fiction to line up with their particular view of scripture."
The taboos that Christian fiction has generally observed continue to apply to the mystery/suspense category—with the exception of violence, which is a given. Even so, publishers regularly receive submissions in which the action is too muted for the book to be considered a genuine suspense or thriller title. "Maybe the answer is to have a Miss Marple type solving crimes about who stole the neighbor's cat," Zettersten quips.
By their very nature, he says, thrillers in particular must push the limits of violent content because of the realism needed to convey a sense of peril. Several authors who have accomplished that for Warner Faith are Robert Wise, whose apocalyptic thriller Wired is due out in March, and W.B. Griffiths, whose latest title in the Gavin Pierce spiritual thriller series, Takedown (June), sets a nonbelieving New York detective against a demonic serial killer. Buyers at CBA chains, if not their customers, are eager to see suspense fiction with more of an edge to it, according to Zettersten. Or, as Kehoe puts it, the threshold for violence is much higher than it used to be in the CBA.
The threshold for imbibing apparently remains as low as ever, though; references to alcohol continue to create problems for authors and publishers. Zettersten recently looked over a Warner Press title to see if it had CBA sales potential. Although the book celebrates marriage and features a Christian protagonist, Zettersten had to give it a thumbs down for CBA distribution, because the main characters occasionally drink wine with their meals.
One author who will never need to be reminded about that particular no-no is Kevin Bowen, who stepped outside the CBA and self-published two suspense novels, Wil's Bones and The Third Funeral , through his own company, Engage Publishing. Both titles, and a third planned for release next year, carry a clear Christian message and received positive reviews in the mainstream press.
"I received a few steamers from readers. A Christian bookstore owner who didn't read the books accused me of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. They were praying for my soul and told me Jesus could deliver me from alcoholism," says Bowen, a teetotaler who committed the apparently unforgivable sin of creating an abusive, alcoholic character who was supposedly a Christian. To make things worse, in Wil's Bones a pastor gives a bottle of champagne as a celebratory gift, another character uses the word "bimbo" and the protagonist remains unconverted at the end of the book—all the targets of complaints Bowen has heard from readers and booksellers. (Somewhat ironically, persecuted and suffering Christians around the world receive the proceeds from various fundraisers that are held in connection with the release of Bowen's books.)
Like all CBA authors, Bowen steers clear of sexual scenes in his books; like many of his ABA readers, he is tired of seeing so much gratuitous sex in print and on the screen. But in the CBA, even marital sex is out. Zettersten's team recently nixed a scene in which a husband and wife make love. "Every editorial team wrestles with decisions like that," he says. "We all tend to cater to the most conservative element of the market, because they're the ones we'll hear from."
That conservative element seems to not mind the sermonizing or tacked-on religious elements that once characterized CBA fiction. But publishers and consumers alike are beginning to demand a higher quality read. Subtle faith, flawed Christian characters and seekers rather than converts all made their way into some of the Christy entries this year, Kehoe points out.
"It's a growing category and it's getting better, but I still don't think we're seeing the level of sophistication in the plotting that you see in the general market," Zettersten says. "We've got a long way to go."