Mysteries are a great example of the kind of book that might better be handled by thematic discussion than by asking all of your readers to read the same title. Many mysteries (including some that are wonderful books) are highly plot driven, and it’s difficult to get a long discussion out of plot. Also, readers have varying thresholds of tolerance for the violence of dark mysteries, for certain kinds of crime like rape, or for the cuteness of cat detectives or other cozy plot devices.
Instead of making everyone read the same book, pick a theme, let each person choose their own novel, and spend the meeting hearing short reports on each book. Just warn your readers not to give away too much of the plot, especially the identity of the murderer.
How should you pick a theme? The options are almost endless:
- Try books written in a certain time period or by a particular group of associated writers: for example noir novels of the 40s or golden age mysteries from the 1920s.
- Read the work of a particular author, especially those that have written many books and who feature multiple detectives: Agatha Christie, Lawrence Block, or Janet Evanovich.
- Try mysteries with a shared geographical setting: Italy, the Rocky Mountain states, New York City, or Florida, for example.
- A related theme might be books set in a particular kind of place: for instance locked rooms, school settings, or country houses.
- Look for mysteries set in a particular time period: Elizabethan England, WWII, or the ancient world.
- Read mysteries featuring a certain kind of detective: older women, private eyes, or detectives with disabilities, for example.
- Find novels that feature a particular kind of crime such as poisonings, or comic heists, or serial killings.
- Center the discussion on some other common element: cold climates, traveling detectives, connections to the fine arts, or mistaken identities.
- Consider particular kinds of characters: young victims, sidekicks, or family groups for instance.
- Pick out books that share a common reading characteristic: mysteries over 500 pages, short stories, graphic novels, or books with multiple narrators.
- Genre blends make a great theme: chick-lit mysteries, historical mysteries, or science fiction mysteries, for instance.
- Examine the winners or nominees for a particular award: the Edgars, the Left Coast Crime Awards, or the Anthonys.
Mix up the topics to keep things fresh. Build lists of books that fit your theme using books like Make Mine a Mystery, Detecting Men and Detecting Women, and Read On… Crime Fiction; online tools like Novelist or GoodReads; or sites like Booklist Online or Stop, You’re Killing Me. In my themed book group, I create a ballot each year of possible themes with various categories and let the readers pick their favorites from each section. With a little thought, you can put together a varied schedule of mystery themes that will keep readers happy over the lifetime of the group.