One of the pitfalls of being a mystery writer is that you absorb all the narrative tricks writers use to cover their tracks. This makes it harder for a mystery to stump you! Perhaps that’s why I love Agatha Christie’s mysteries so much. She’s very good at stumping her readers. But there’s more to choosing a mystery than how easy or hard it is to figure out whodunit. Mystery is a category, or genre, of fiction, and you can divide the mystery genre further into subgenres. And by understanding the subgenres, you have a better shot at picking a book that you’ll enjoy.
Today, I’ll break down some of your options.
Traditional/PI – For traditional mysteries, think about Agatha Christie’s famous investigator, Hercule Poirot, or for a more modern take, Sue Grafton’s beloved private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. In these mysteries, the sleuth has skills, often as part of their job, and the narrative is straightforward crime solving. The protagonist, an expert, but not a cop, is called in to unravel a mystery, and via a combination of fact finding and insights about the human condition they come to a solution and present it in a big dramatic scene at the end, what Futurama once amusingly called “The Accusing Parlor.” To me, what makes a mystery traditional is some combination of the following:
- An expert sleuth, called in to help.
- A suspicious cast of characters, who are often brought together by circumstance, such as a train ride, dinner party, or family gathering. (This is true for traditional mysteries but less true for modern PI mysteries.)
- A non-obvious solution, which can be determined via a combination of fact-finding and insight into the human condition.
- A dramatic reveal at the end.
- The lack of a romantic subplot or secondary story for the sleuth. The protagonist has personal relationships, but they’re mostly window dressing. Traditional mysteries start and end with the crime. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
I adore traditional and PI mysteries. To me, they’re relaxing and engaging. They make you think! An editor I know once jokingly referred to this subgenre as competence porn. It’s nice to see someone smart do their job well, isn’t it? Especially when the puzzle is hard.
By using the traditional mystery as a base, we can tweak the elements to reveal additional subgenres.
Amateur Sleuth – Just like it sounds, the crime solver is an amateur. What makes this fun is that we can relate to the hero or heroine quite well. We imagine ourselves in their shoes! Most amateur sleuth stories have a slant based on the setting and/or profession of the protagonist. The sleuth has a particular role in their community, and we relate to them on that basis. And it’s common for the sleuth to have a friend or a romantic partner in law enforcement. Someone has to bust out the cuffs, right?
Cozy – Cozy mysteries are G rated. No gore, scares, or profanity is allowed in a true cozy. Often times there’s a big focus on the character’s personal relationships, family life, and positive social values. Most sleuths here are amateurs, thus there’s overlap between the Amateur Sleuth and Cozy genres. Cozies have some additional sub-subgenres within them like my cruise ship cozies, or cozies featuring pets, hobbies, or women who bake or quilt. Cozy mystery plots tend to be less suspenseful and less complicated than the other mystery genres. They’re comforting and always have a positive resolution. They’re as warm and fuzzy as a cup of tea and fluffy slippers by the fire. Cozy mysteries can also have a silliness factor. Character flaws and quirks are often exaggerated for comic effect. A good cozy series can make you feel like you’re spending time with old friends; it’s the personalities that bring you back.
Police Procedural – Here, we diverge. In a police procedural, the sleuths here are members of law enforcement, and we follow them as they investigate the crime. Typically, a procedural relies less on insight, relationships, and cognitive leaps than a traditional mystery. As the story progresses, the police learn more, and so do you. Standard police tropes may be included, such as jurisdictional pissing matches, gun play, and witness interviews. What makes a police procedural fun is that you’re following a process of investigation from A to Z. These are process-driven stories. If you’ve ever imagined yourself as a cop, or if you enjoy the dogged work of chasing down leads, interviewing witnesses, and getting ever closer to the truth, police procedurals may be your jam.
Hardboiled/Noir – Here you’ll find gritty settings, gruff investigators, political corruption, and possibly a cop or investigator with a drinking problem. There’s a 75% chance of rain and the crime may get ugly. Protagonists are morally wonky, and there’s a bleakness to the setting that creates a kind of “film noir” feel to the story.
Historical – Just as it sounds, a historical mystery is set in a different time. There are mysteries set in World War II, Victorian-era mysteries, and Agatha Christie once wrote a mystery set in ancient Egypt. Death Comes as the End was written in 1944 and it’s a fun read. Here, you get two stories in one. The mystery, plus a chance to experience a different place in time.
You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned the mystery-adjacent genres of Thriller and Suspense. Those genres overlap with the mystery genre, as they all involve crimes, but they aren’t quite the same thing. Chances are, if your book has a serial killer in it and your protagonist is in physical danger, you’re looking at a thriller, not a mystery. Mysteries revolve around the question: Who committed the crime, how, and why? Thrillers usually involve a protagonist in peril, with the question: How will they escape from danger? I’m simplifying matters, but that’s the gist.
After reading about the mystery subgenres you might already be getting a sense for where your preferences lie. Personally, I enjoy traditional mysteries best, and I have a lot of love for amateur sleuths too. That’s why you’ll see me sliding back and forth between those genres in my own novels. The Case of the Floating Funeral was a cozy, but it had elements of a traditional mystery too, with the “cast of characters thrown together” at the funeral, and the big reveal in the parlor at the end.
And wow, we haven’t even talked about the flavorings an author can sprinkle atop these subgenres, have we? A mystery can be historical or current, silly or serious, emotional or as dry as a bone. Some include elements of the paranormal, while others are purely rational and contain painstakingly detailed depictions of proper police procedure and forensics. Your sleuths can be American, British, or of any nationality. They can come from any culture and have widely different values. The crimes can be simple crimes of passion in a village or grand conspiracies with a global reach. We can dig down deep into the psyche of a murderer with a psychological profiler at the police department or enjoy a pleasant problem-solving romp with a traditional mystery, maybe one set in a spooky mansion just for kicks.
Now that you know the basics, you can take most of these mystery subgenres and add them to any number of modifiers to seek out a more specific variant. Paranormal Amateur Sleuth Mysteries. Historical Cozy Mysteries. British Traditional Mysteries. Scandinavian Noir. There’s so much good stuff out there!
And if you’re lucky, eventually you’ll run across unique type of mystery known as an unreliable narrator mystery. That’s when the person narrating the story turns out to be the murderer! When it’s done well, these stories are incredibly fun. Unfortunately, I can’t name any of them as it will spoil the surprise. Agatha Christie has a few and if you read her novels you’ll run across them.
Why We Love Mysteries
In a big picture sense, the mystery genre appeals to me because it’s satisfying to seeing all the threads tied up at the end. Romance readers want their “happily ever after” and most of us mystery readers want “justice served.” It’s a good feeling to know that you can close the book knowing that all will be right with the world. There’s a comfort to the completion of a good mystery, a sensation that wrongs have been righted. The good guys (and gals) may have struggled, but they’ve won. The real world doesn’t always give us that, does it? But a good mystery novel can.
A Mini-Decision Tree
If you’re not sure where to begin, here’s one way to narrow your choices down:
Do you want an expert sleuth?
– Traditional/PI Subgenre (Solved by clever sleuths with insights into the human condition.)
– Police Procedural (Solved by robust police work.)
Amateur Sleuth (A relatable protagonist with a particular role in the community)
Cozy (Warm and fuzzy stories without swears or big scares)
If you want international flavor: Depending upon where you live, try British, American, African, or Scandinavian variants. Note: Scandinavian mysteries lean noir. Perhaps it’s the lack of sunlight?
If you want a different era: Try a historical mystery from your favorite time period and place.
If you want mysteries mixed with steamy romance: Try romantic suspense. That’s a specific genre that mixes romance with either a thriller or a police procedural.
Lastly, there’s nothing wrong with not caring for a particular type of mystery. Follow your bliss! For example, I don’t enjoy romantic suspense. To me, reading romantic suspense makes my brain go: crime-yay-crime-yay-crime-NIPPLES and I want to scream and throw the book across the room like it’s a spider crawling over my hand. Which is admittedly odd, given that I have no problem with sex scenes generally. But when it comes to my mysteries I want my sleuths to leave it in their pants. BOUNDARIES, PEOPLE. WE’RE WORKING HERE. Lol.
The more you read, the more you’ll discover your own preferences. They might even vary depending upon what’s going on in your life! I read cozy mysteries primarily over the holiday season (when I’m feeling cozy), and I like a scary thriller when I’m on an airplane (remember airplanes?), probably because they help me forget that I’m trapped in a pressurized tube soaring through the sky. Police procedurals are great for coping with life’s more chaotic moments. Procedurals are orderly, dammit, and sometimes we need that! Really, picking the right mystery novel can be like picking the mood you’re looking for that day.
I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions about subgenres, let me know.