The allocation of a novel to the category ‘middlebrow’ is partly a matter of marketing and shifting attitudes to literary value, but this article argues that it also designates certain stylistic and narrative qualities that are little esteemed by ‘serious’ critics, but appeal consistently to a wider reading public. The article focuses on one sub-category of contemporary middlebrow fiction, feminine crime, through a comparative analysis of novels by Fred Vargas (French) and Kate Atkinson (British). The argument addresses the relationship between popular and middlebrow within the genre of crime writing, and the ways in which a female perspective inflects generic conventions in ways that are comparable despite the very individual narrative voices of the two authors. It finds that mimetic, story-telling fictions perform significant social, cognitive and emotional roles for readers, and that their pleasures deserve more serious critical attention than they generally receive, particularly in France.