No longer dominated by historical and romance novels, Christian fiction is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and expanding segment of religious publishing.
The genre seeks to increase its quality by offering richer plots beyond the traditional sacred topics.
For many years, Christian fiction was mostly "formulaic" in nature, says Henri Kerrigan, a religion editor for Publishers Weekly.
"The quality of the product was not very good," he says. "Until now, Christian fiction writers haven't used formulas in a very sophisticated way. Many are just now starting to break out of the mold."
Perhaps one example of increased sophistication is "The Strand" by Reston author Ellen Vaughn. A mystery novel set in the District, the book includes characters who might not fit the typical evangelical Christian mold. One is Anne Lorelli, whose world is shattered by unexpected violence.
"Anne Lorelli had the perfect home, the perfect husband, the perfect life - until an anniversary dinner with her husband ended in murder and the shattering of her picture-perfect world," says the book's advance publicity.
Mrs. Vaughn says that the homicide investigation in "The Strand" is the catalyst for Anne's spiritual pilgrimage.
"Through the shock, suffering and betrayal, Anne ends up finding a relationship with God," the author says. "So the murder mystery is an echo of the far greater mystery of how God works in our lives. Through the most unlikely means . . . he draws us to himself."
Mrs. Vaughn says that she wanted to "present something that was realistic in the sense that it reflected the challenges and choices of real life.
"Life is rarely neat and tidy," the author says. "The story never ends with the hero and the heroine riding off into the sunset. If you look at the broad scope of literature, it's more open-ended than most Christian fiction."
A Christian murder mystery novel is a unique release in an industry dominated by historical and futuristic novels. Books like "The Strand" exemplify what many in the industry refer to as "mainstream fiction with Christian themes."
"There are no telltale signs that ["The Strand"] has an explicitly Christian message," Mr. Kerrigan says. "It breaks out of inspirational fiction into the mainstream. …