Interview: Jamie Agnew

Recently Jamie was asked a few questions about mysteries by a reporter at The Michigan Daily, Rebecca Lerner. She agreed that we could publish the questions & original answers here. (An edited version was published in her column.) He gets to the heart of why mysteries are so great & why we love them so much.

Q: Why did you open/run a bookstore specifically devoted to mystery? 

A: Most of all because we love mysteries.  Of course, we also thought it would be economically feasible. Mystery readers are very loyal, and mystery books have only grown in popularity. Many authors write in series with a continuing character, and specializing allows us to carry their backlist as well as the current bestseller. We’ve been here twenty-four years now, so we must be doing something right.

Q: Do you think that the mystery genre opens itself to being serious and literary?

A: My first response to that question would be “God forbid.” I know that many people, especially in a place like Ann Arbor, think that slogging through a painfully “serious and literary” book is somehow more virtuous than reading a book that is entertaining, but to me that’s a fairly recent attitude. The great novels of the nineteenth century are both profound and enjoyable to read, and quite a few of them had to do with the themes of modern mystery such as identity, guilt and murder. If Crime and Punishment came out today what section of the bookstore would it be shelved? I’ll add that I think “literary fiction” is a genre like any other, with just a many artificialities and strictures.

Q: Where do you think the mystery genre is moving toward in terms of literary gravity? 

A: Edgar Allan Poe was the author who, for me, set the template for the modern mystery, so as far as I’m concerned it’s been heavy all along. Surely there’s no character more memorable than Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot in modern English literature. Character is revealed most truly in life or death situations, which is, of course, our stock in trade. Most crime novels, then and now, are far more than puzzle books, but incisive looks at how the web of society is torn by antisocial acts and the attempts of that society to somehow make itself whole again. The movement I have seen the most is from static protagonists like Poirot or Philip Marlowe, who change little over the course of many series books, to more nuanced figures like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight or William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, who over the course of succeeding installment achieve a depth of characterization impossible in any single novel. Lately, it has been the vogue for “literary” writers to attempt thrillers, presumably seeking the vitality and popularity lacking in their own genre, but not all of them have the skills to pull it off.