For all of the foreboding tales within, Houston’s Murder by The Book feels soft and inviting, with massive windows up front and plenty of places inside to kick back and dig into something grisly. With its coffee mugs and T-shirts shouting out famous crime-solving heroes (plenty of “Holmes& Watson& Marple& Poirot” merch), the place looks downright friendly. “There’s a lot of natural light and, depending on the time of day, natural darkness,” says Lou Berney, an Edgar-winning thriller author, who always looks forward to reading from his novels at the venerable crime bookstore. “Events start out cheerful and end up kind of ominous and spooky. I love that.”
Don Winslow, a dean of crime fiction, visits Murder by The Book whenever he’s on tour, including a recent stop to discuss his new novel, City of Dreams. The British thriller master Ruth Ware came through in June to promote Zero Days. Best-selling novelists Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke are regulars. The store, a Houston literary staple since 1980, draws throngs of crime aficionados to these events, and at four thousand square feet, it has plenty of room for them to roam.
Murder by The Book harvests a sort of glee in terrible doings. It serves up bloodshed not just with a smile, but also with a flurry of knowledgeable recommendations based on devoted clients’ interests. “I never get out of there without buying three or four excellent novels I wouldn’t have found otherwise,” Berney says. It’s like Cheers, but with poison in the beer.
Crime certainly pays these days, with true crime documentaries and series inundating streaming services on a weekly basis and podcasts popping up left and right in the wake of Serial’s sizzle. The store’s demographic has gotten younger over the past few years, with more Gen Z hipsters joining the core retired customer base with time to read in bulk.
Store owner McKenna Jordan has a theory about the current popularity of crime fiction, or at least of “cozies,” mystery novels that tend to be less explicit and more old-fashioned, in which the nasty stuff occurs off the page. “Sales uptick in more difficult times, when maybe the overall climate that you’re living in is more stressful,” she says. “So many mysteries have a crisis, obviously, and at the end of the story, there’s a resolution. It is structured very much so that something bad happens, normally things get worse, and then there’s a resolution with a bow tied around it.”
Crime, murder, and gore make up a popular niche—but it’s still a niche. Murder by The Book has survived Barnes & Noble, Amazon, COVID-19, and other manners of existential threat thanks to clever promotion, good customer service, and a dab of improvisation. As soon as the pandemic lockdown hit, Jordan found herself ordering every jigsaw puzzle she could find, which the store quickly turned around and sold online. (Murder by The Book has a very impressive puzzle section, including everything from the World of Sherlock Holmes to Chocolate Overload.) “We just got a new Murder on the Orient Express puzzle,” says Jordan, who bought the store from original owner Martha Farrington in 2009. “Puzzles sell.”
Jordan and her staff take outreach very seriously. Murder by The Book does a brisk subscription business; customers sign up to have staff-selected titles and signed copies (from all of those author appearances) delivered to their homes. The store is also big on partnerships. The latest is with Abby Endler, a former Rice history major who moved to New York after college to work in publicity with Penguin Random House. A crime fiction fanatic and longtime Murder by The Book customer, she started a popular blog, Crime by the Book (unrelated to the store), and recently moved back to Houston. She has partnered with the store on a Crime by the Book subscription series. Every author she chooses for the series’ flagship subscription, Murder by the Box, will visit the store and sign books (which are included in the subscription, at $31 per month), after which everyone will head to a local bar for drinks and further discussion.
“Even when I was in college and they had no reason to want to be nice to me—I was not involved in the publishing industry—they immediately made me feel at home at the store,” Endler says. “That made a big impact on me. There’s their expertise, but also just the sense of community that [Jordan] and the whole team there have worked to create.”
Jordan started working at Murder by The Book in 2003; she soon met her husband, David Thompson, who was a manager there. Thompson owned a crime publishing house, Busted Flush Press, and the plan was for Jordan to run the store and Thompson to run the press. Then the much-admired Thompson died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart ailment in 2010. Jordan heard whispers that she wasn’t up to the task of carrying on Murder by The Book without him. Amidst her grief, she set out to prove the naysayers wrong.
“It was brutal,” Jordan says. “He died on a Monday, and I was here on Friday calling publicists to let them know that our events were going to continue to get booked, that we were in a transition period, that the store was going to stay around. I remember calling a publicist, and they picked up the phone and said, ‘Oh my God, McKenna, what are you doing?’ ” Her response: “I’m working. What do you think I’m doing?”
In the subsequent years, the store has only grown as a criminal powerhouse, and it is a must-stop on a stretch of Bissonnet Street that also includes the superb indie Brazos Bookstore. Murder by murder, book by book, the shop continues to thrive as a source of darkness and light.