Defining the genres: Mystery

I did have one request for a definition of cozy mysteries, so I’m going into mystery subgenres today. Next month, I’ll probably focus more specifically on the fantasy subgenres.

The first step is to distinguish between mystery, suspense, and thriller. In mystery, there’s something that needs to be solved: a murderer to be unmasked, an identity to be discovered, a missing treasure to be found. In suspense, a threat of some kind hangs over the main character’s head, and the reader generally knows what it is but not when or how it will happen, while the character may not know about it at all. In a thriller, there is a threat that the main character knows about and a ticking clock for when it needs to be dealt with by — the bomb will explode, the jury trial will be over, the artificial virus will be released into the general population.

Focusing on mysteries, they can be divided by style of protagonist or world.

Capers: Told from the point of view of the criminals. Think Donald Westlake or Leslie Charteris’s the Saint.

Cozy mystery: The main character is generally not a professional detective but can have almost any other occupation, from bookstore owner to dog groomer to housewife. These often but not always take place in a small town, and depending on the main character’s occupation may be thematically linked. For everything you could possibly wish to know about cozies, including lists of cozy by theme, check out One example that does not take place in a small town is the Burglar series by Lawrence Block.

Detective stories: Often falling between the cozy and the hard-boiled, these feature a private investigator solving the crime — Holmes, Poirot, Warshawski.

Hard-boiled mystery: Think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett — the hard-drinking private eye, down on his luck, in a gritty world where the dames are beautiful and deadly.

Locked-room mystery: Often a murder mystery, a locked room presents an intellectual puzzle: how did the killer get in and out of an impregnable spot? One of the first examples of this was penned by Poe — “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” John Dickson Carr specialized in this kind of tale, and many other examples can be found.

Police procedural: Told from the point of view of a police officer, often with detailed descriptions of methodology. Examples of authors would include Tess Gerritsen and Ed McBain.

There is also the form wherein the detective — whether private individual, PI, or police officer — knows who the culprit is and has to find a way of proving it. Wikipedia refers to this as an “inverted” story, but I’d never run across that specific term before.

What is your favorite type of mystery? Did I leave something out? As usual, comments, questions, quibbles, and differences of opinion are welcome. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

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