Southern Arizona is full of mystery. It's fertile ground for those who want to read or write a classic - whether it's a murder-on-the-first-page whodunit, a contemporary novel packed with heart-pounding action and tension or a thriller set in a faraway time and place.

"(It) is a great genre - you learn a lot," says Susan Fifer, at a recent mystery book club meeting at Antigone Books on North Fourth Avenue.

"They are great escapism, and you can learn history and culture," says Fifer, who often reads mysteries set in areas where she plans to travel.

Tucson's culture of mystery thrives with reading groups at bookstores and libraries, and organizations that promote writing and publishing.

Mystery and romance are the most popular genres, says Mikaela Quinn, president of the Tucson Sisters in Crime, a branch of a national group of published and aspiring writers that meets monthly.

Avid reader Emily Walsh attended her second Mostly Books Mystery Book Club meeting last month.

"I think of all of the different genres of books that I read on a regular basis, I enjoy mysteries because they're fun and engaging 'mind games,' " she says.

"I get to dive into this bizarre world and follow the protagonist on all kinds of adventures that I will probably never have in real life," says Walsh, a fundraiser.

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Despite the genre's popularity, mysteries are often dismissed.

"Some people feel like mysteries are not literary and are a waste of time," says Cherrie Lucerne-Martin, at the Antigone group.

"People read mysteries all the time, but they are not called mysteries," she says. More high-brow terms like "historical fiction" are used.

"When people tell me, 'I don't read mysteries,' what that says to me is that they consider themselves too smart and too busy to spend their time simply reading for fun," says New York Times best-selling author J.A. "Judith Ann" Jance, who splits her time between Tucson and Seattle.

"But mysteries are supposed to be fun. They are storytelling," Jance says.

Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series has been categorized as mystery, crime fiction, detective and Western. He says his only delineation in literature is "good writing or bad writing."

Johnson says he also believes today's crime-fiction readers are sophisticated.

They demand a defined story arc, social commentary and fleshed out characters, he says. "It must be a complete package; more than clever ways to kill people."

That includes having characters readers can relate to, along with "a grabber beginning as well as a satisfying ending, and in between, leave out all the boring stuff," says Jance, a University of Arizona graduate. More than 10 million copies of her books are in print.

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Men have long dominated mystery-writing realms.

Jance submitted her first Detective Beaumont book in 1985, using only her initials because her agent thought editors would be more inclined to accept the book if the author's gender were ambiguous.

"That disparity still exists, by the way," says Jance.

"My 47th novel, 'Second Watch,' will be published in September. I've been on the New York Times list many times, but I have been reviewed by the New York Times only once," Jance says.

Sisters in Crime began in 1986 as a response to the disparity of attention given to male and female mystery writers, says Jance.

Sisters in Crime still tracks reviews, but Quinn explains it also was intended to raise the visibility and respect for women mystery writers. The Tucson group formed about 18 months ago, and today counts about 42 members.

The group's monthly meetings encourage and support published and potential authors - male and female. Each meeting features two speakers - one discusses police procedure or a crime-related topic, and another presents information about publishing and writing.

Last month author Darrell James gave six tips to get published, which included learning the craft as well as the business.

"The meetings are places where like-minded folks can talk about the nuts and bolts of writing with people who won't look at them as though they're nuts," says Jance.

The 35 like-minded members of the Arizona Mystery Writers also gather monthly to hear a speaker on an aspect of law enforcement or forensics that might inspire a story or help ensure a plot's accuracy.

Last month, Dr. F. Mazda Shirazi, medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, shared information on poisons. If the villain is going to kill someone with strychnine, he told his note-taking audience, the writer needs to know it is always bitter.

The Mystery Writers meetings also include writing sessions, often using the speaker's topic as the catalyst for a storyline, says Mary Ann Hutchinson, a member for more than a decade who coordinates the speakers at the meetings.

The group has been around nearly a quarter century.

"Our mission is to promote mystery writing," says Kay Lesh, who chairs the group.

One of its efforts was the fourth annual Arizona Mystery Writers Jim Martin Memorial Story Contest.

The top spot and $200 went to John J. White of Merritt Island, Fla. Tucsonans Eleanor Whitney Nelson and Graham McLeod took second and third places. Independent judges read the blind entries. Next year's contest will open in October.

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Reading is a solitary activity, but book groups make it social.

Recent meetings at three local bookstores each drew about eight readers, many of whom belong to more than one mystery group or other genres, such as classics and science fiction.

"I just really enjoy talking with people about books," says Walsh. "And it's fun being able to let all of that out around a group of like-minded people."

Discussion expands perspective and deepens the reader's understanding.

"During the discussion you find out things you might have missed and a light bulb comes on," says Liz Pedersen, at the Antigone meeting.

"It's amazes me how differently people see things," says Jan Collins from the Mostly Books group.

Disagreements are welcome and expected.

"Not everyone likes the same things, and we feel free to say what we didn't like," says Lin Scharbach, a retired attorney who reads for entertainment, at the Clues group.

Ann Burba attends the Mostly Books group. When the group doesn't like a book, it doesn't talk about it for very long, she says.

However, the book can be a springboard for a discussion on social issues or current topics - well beyond a body on the floor.

"It's nice to see justice and resolution - life is not that way," says Christine Burke, who owns Clues Unlimited, one of fewer than 100 mystery bookstores in the U.S.

Contact Ann Brown at