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Murder, she writes

With half of the mysteries each year written by women, the macho world of crime fiction is rapidly filling up with not-so-hard-boiled female detectives.

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When Kate Mattes opened Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., in 1983, all the mysteries featuring women professional detectives – both hardcovers and paperbacks – fit on a single shelf.

Today that category fills eight crowded shelves – and that's just counting the paperbacks. To accommodate more titles, Ms. Mattes is rearranging the store to create a bigger area for these books.

"I call it the strong-women's section," Mattes says. "Sections are based on demand. There were such demands for strong-women's fiction that we realized we were nuts not to create a section."

Her overflowing shelves serve as one measure of the growth of a popular literary genre – crime fiction written by women. After decades in which male writers dominated this area, turning out more titles and garnering the lion's share of book reviews, women are gaining recognition, awards, and more reviews, says Libby Fischer Hellmann, president of Sisters in Crime, an international group of female mystery writers celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Almost half of the estimated 1,500 mysteries published each year in the US are written by women, Ms. Hellmann says. In addition to creating intriguing new fictional roles for female crime-solvers, these whodunits are drawing more women to read mysteries of all kinds.

"We hear from women readers saying they had not read a mystery since they outgrew Nancy Drew," says Sara Paretsky, a bestselling author. "We've helped grow the market for crime fiction. While fiction is stagnant or falling, crime fiction remains a very buoyant subgenre."

In addition to fiction starring women as professional detectives, a second category of traditional mysteries – called Malice Domestic or cozies – features women as amateur sleuths. They might be librarians, archaeologists, or writers; they may have children and pets. Some revolve around creative activities, like needlepoint and scrapbooking. They may be set in tea shops or bookstores. Several authors write cooking-related mysteries with punning titles: "Sticks and Scones," "Crepes of Wrath," "Custard's Last Stand."


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