Undercover Mysteries

Not long ago, I picked up a copy of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. I had no clue it was a mystery until I started to read. Liane Moriarty’s book covers all feature pink color palettes and artistically rendered objects like lollipops and flowers (fractured to show us they are edgy). Penguin Random House is clearly marketing Moriarty’s books as upmarket women’s fiction writer, but all three of the books I’ve read are also good mysteries.

Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret are both murder mysteries. In The Husband’s Secret the murder takes place years before the narrative starts. The main characters are tied together by some connection to the murder and not much else, in some cases. Throughout the book, she tracks how their lives twist around secrets that were never meant to be kept.

In Big Little Lies, Moriarity very cleverly starts the books with the murder and then jumps back in time nine months. Instead of examining how murder twists relationships after the fact, she uses the entire space of the novel to examine how little lies contort relationships to the point a perfectly civilized person can commit violence.

Because of Moriarty’s focus on relationships, her books are squarely in the realm of women’s fiction, hence the pink covers. But, in my mind, the categories of fiction are somewhat arbitrary and largely determined by marketing. Plenty of mystery writers examine relationships and have strong character development. Louise Penny, for instance. Her books focus heavily on the tangled relationship within the village of Three Pines. Out of curiousity, I pulled up Penny’s title, Still Life, on Amazon. Amazon reports that people who bought Still Life also bought Big Little Lies. Perhaps consumers see past the marketing? Or maybe they just buy the books displayed most prominently at the front of the store? Big name authors tend to transcend genre.

While on Amazon, I noticed that one of the reviews for Big Little Lies listed Bridget Jones’s Diary as a predecessor to Big Little Lies. That surprised me. I always thought chick lit mysteries, Janet Evanovich et. al., echoed Bridget, but the reviewer is right. Bridget could easily be a character in one of Moriarty’s books. Moriarty’s writing is refined enough to be upmarket, but she’s got a big streak of Bridget Jones running through her center. Maybe a book like Big Little Lies is the new face of chick lit. (If you never read its obituary, chick lit as-we-knew-it died ten or so years ago, coincidentally, right about the same time I started writing a chick lit mystery. As a native South Dakotan, I’m at least fifteen years behind most trends. Maybe that’s not true anymore with the internet, but when I was growing up it was a solid fifteen years.)

If a book like Big Little Lies is the new face of chick lit, I wonder what made it so. My best guess–it captures the fun spirit of the genre, but with significantly less frivolity. There is more meat to one of Moriarty’s books. Either that, or the genre’s fans are approaching forty, as are Liane Moriarty’s characters.

I’m not going to argue that Moriarty’s books aren’t women’s fiction or even an incarnation of chick lit, it’s just that I think they hold their ground as solid murder mysteries, too. What are some of your favorite crossover mysteries? Any thoughts on Liane Moriarty’s books?

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16 thoughts on “Undercover Mysteries”

  1. I haven’t read her stuff, but now I’m inclined to. I’m amazed at how authors deftly explore character relationships through nuance. Gonna check it out now.

  2. I’ve never read Liane Moriarty (I love that last name). I’ve come to think genre is for the benefit of publishers and bookstores, not readers. Readers don’t seem to care.

    Favorite cross over? Jim Butcher. I think the Harry Dresden books definitely have a streak of noirish mystery to them.

  3. My daughter turned me on to Liane Moriarty. She likes her so much, she buys her books in hardcover. I read The Husband’s Secret and really enjoyed it. Big Little Lies is in my TBR and I’m moving it to the top on your recommendation. It hadn’t occurred to me that The Husband’s Secret was a murder mystery; I was so caught up in the protagonist’s journey. Thanks for your post!

  4. I loved The Husband’s Secret. I didn’t think of it so much as a murder mystery, though, because the murder was part of the backstory that supported the relationships. Although it definitely was mysterious! I would like to read more of her books.

    One of my very favorite books is Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It crosses over with all kinds of mystery–gothic, historical, paranormal, romantic.

  5. I haven’t read these, but I get into arguments ALL THE TIME because I firmly believe every book is a mystery at heart. Of course, because it seems I only read mysteries these days, I can’t think of any examples, so I’ll pretend I’m deep and erudite and use the Socratic method on you.

  6. Awesome post, Sam! Liane Moriarty is one of my fave authors right now, and I agree completely that she crosses a number of genres: mystery, chick lit, women’s fiction, and arguably even literary (the Berlin Wall theme in Husband’s Secret was so well done!). I love her dark sense of humor, MCs’ voices, and mystery plots that deliver plenty of twists. Did you hear she has a new book coming out later this summer called Truly Madly Guilty?! Can’t wait!

  7. Sue and Keenan, The more I think about it–you’re right. They aren’t murder mysteries exactly. Still, she circles the murder throughout the book, dropping more and more clues. Still, not exactly a murder mystery.

    Becky, I love your comment about every book being a mystery! I would modify–every good book. If there aren’t a few secrets, what’s the point!?

    Kate, I didn’t know about Truly, Madly, Guilty–totally wish I’d thought of that title, though!

  8. I’ve never read her but now she’s on my list. Thanks!

    Becky, I totally agree with you. If you know how the story unfolds/ends on page one, why bother?

  9. Never read her either, but now I’ve got her on my wish list. About genre–my $0.02 is that you are absolutely right. It’s an artificial creation that allows publishers to pigeonhole writers. I don’t think readers care one way or another. Especially if they are already following an author. Poor chick lit–I am afraid I missed the funeral. I still enjoy a good chick lit read from time to time.

  10. Great discussion. I have read both Liane Moriarty. books you mentioned and loved the both. I have her on my “to read everything” list. Big Little Lies was interesting because as a reader, I had to wonder what the crime was. I knew one had happened, but it was up to me to pick out the clues about what really happened along the way. I loved Husband’s Secret because it was about the people and the way the crime changed them. That is one aspect of life that is rarely covered in “crime fiction.” The crime that happened so long ago continued to weave its way into the lives of many in the community. The usual crime novel ends with the “bad guys and gals” being hauled off to jail and everyone else just going on their way. It was wonderful to read about the other side of a crime — what happens to the family and friends after.

  11. Oh one more comment/question — why is it a “cozy” if the main character is a woman with no overt sex, and no graphic violence, but if the main character is a man even if he is just hanging around with his pets, not blowing people to bits, not jumping into stranger’s beds, it is NOT a cozy?

  12. 3 no 7, you’re right! That’s why Big Little Lies was such an interesting mystery! The crime was the keystone of the book, but she didn’t even reveal what it was until the end. So clever.

  13. Sam, such a great post. Big yes to this >”But, in my mind, the categories of fiction are somewhat arbitrary and largely determined by marketing.”

    And I hope chick lit isn’t dead because I still love it. Understand that the label was not something everyone liked, but “women’s fiction” has its own issues, at least to me. I’ve heard it defined as fiction that “appeals” to women…but then why is there no corresponding “men’s fiction”? The implication would be that “fiction”–unqualified–is actually “men’s fiction,” and I REJECT THAT. 🙂

  14. I’m so with you, Cynthia. I hate the title “women’s fiction.” It’s so patronizing.

  15. 3 no 7, I think there are a couple of “cozy” series written by men with male protagonists (Henery Press has one, I think), but you have a point. So many cozy series are women writers with women protagonists.

  16. I love it when y’all get deep on here. I learn so much! Women’s Fiction is an offensive title to me. It just bugs me. Chick Lit was worse, as titles go. I haven’t read Liane Moriarty, but now I’m curious. And the whole “cozy” thing. . .hmm. You do make a good point there, 3 no. 7. Great post and comments!

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