A Crash Course in Mystery Sub-Genres

Mystery Genres

Image Credit: Lance Kidwell

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

In my genre examination I’ll still be covering romance and horror. If there’s any genre that I haven’t covered that you wish I would, please leave a comment or send me an email. If enough people request a post on a not-yet-covered genre, I’ll happily oblige. These Thursday writing posts are meant to help you.

What Is a Mystery?

Last time we talked about genre, I picked apart the differences between mysteries, suspense, and thrillers.

In that post, I pointed out that mysteries are meant to be a puzzle. The thing that mystery readers enjoy about the genre is solving the puzzle of the crime (usually a murder) alongside the main character. If you tell them whodunit early in the story, they’ll feel cheated. The main character needs to be the one investigating the crime, but they can be either a professional detective or an amateur sleuth. Mysteries tend to share the common characteristics of red herrings and that the first person the main character suspects turns out not to be the bad guy in the end. The main character in a mystery usually isn’t in any danger throughout the book, or if she is, it’s either moderate danger or she’s only in danger as she closes in on the identity of the suspect.

If you’re a mystery writer, you may want to join the Mystery Writers of America. Two of the most prestigious awards for mystery writers are the Arthur Ellis Award (Canada only and given out by the Crime Writers of Canada) and The Edgar Allen Poe Awards (which includes the Mary Higgins Clark Award as a category).

Defining Mystery Sub-Genres

Cozy Mystery – Cozies are the softest version of mysteries. They don’t have explicit sex or violence, and are often set in small towns rather than big cities. The protagonist is a female layperson (think Murder She Wrote) with a knack for getting into trouble and solving puzzles. She’s not a member of the police or other law enforcement. In fact, the police in the story probably view her as a pest.

The fraternal twin of the cozy mystery is the hobby mystery. Basically this is a cozy where the main character is involved in a niche hobby and the crime is intimately involved with that hobby. For example, your protagonist collects rare books and a rare book is stolen from the used bookstore in town.

Elizabeth Spann Craig is a good example of a cozy mystery writer (and she also has some books that could be considered hobby mysteries).

Police Procedural – The focus of a police procedural isn’t so much on the reader figuring out who the criminal is but rather on how to catch him and prove he was the one who committed the crime. Because of this, the bad guy is often figured out earlier in the book than would be the case in other mystery sub-genres. Readers of police procedurals expect detailed descriptions of the investigative techniques used by the police. For a TV example, look no farther than CSI.

General Mystery – The protagonist in a general mystery is normally a private detective rather than a police officer (police procedural) or a layperson (cozy mystery). Oftentimes, however, the PI will have a non-PI friend/employee/client who plays a key role in the plot as well. The emphasis in these stories is definitely the puzzle of whodunit. Examples include The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton.

Historical Mystery – These stories revolve around a historically significant crime (real or fictionalized). Anne Perry and Steven Saylor are well-known writers in this sub-genre. An excellent up-and-coming author in this sub-genre (in my opinion) is K. B. Owen with her Concordia Wells mysteries.

Noir/Hardboiled Mystery – On the opposite end of the mystery spectrum from the cozy is the noir or hard-boiled sub-genre. With its realistic, gritty portrays of sex and violence and dark tone, this sub-genre got its name from its tough voice and unsentimental take on life. Protagonists are so deeply flawed, self-destructive, or damaged as to almost be anti-heroes. These mysteries aren’t for the faint of heart.

Do you prefer to know the criminal in a mystery or do you like to try to figure it out as the book goes along?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction and How to Write Dialogue.

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