It’s Thursday.  Which means, it’s time for another installment in our genre series.

*cue dark and ominous music and shadowy figure in trench and fedora*

Today’s genre is mystery.

n. a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder

Wikipedia’s list of genres puts mystery under the heading of “suspense fiction” alongside “crime fiction” and “detective fiction.”

Since I’m using the structure found on Wikipedia for my genre research, I’ll be sub-dividing mystery into all its components and exploring crime and detective fiction, and their sub-genres.

Crime fiction “deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives.”  Our popular culture today is saturated with variants of crime fiction.  (Think three incarnations of CSI, two of NCIS, Criminal Minds (and a spinoff next season), all the forms of Law and Order, etc.)

Where possible I’ve looked to other sources for information.  I’ll include a links section here at the end of the post.

Crime fiction’s sub-genres

  • Detective
  • Whodunit
  • Legal thriller
  • Courtroom drama
  • Hard-boiled fiction

Detective fiction’s sub-genres

  • Whodunit
  • Locked room mystery
  • Cozy
  • Sherlock Holmes

Whodunit’s sub-genres

  • Historical
  • Spoofs and parodies
  • Inverted detective stories
  • Hard-boiled
  • Police procedural
  • Legal thriller
  • Caper story
  • Spy novel
  • Psychological suspense novel
  • Criminal novel
    • Told from the perpetrator’s POV

Noticing the overlap?  I think it’s pretty typical of a lot of genres these days as we try to freshen things up and create our own aesthetic for coming generations to enjoy and riff on.


  • n. a detective story or mystery story
  • Characteristics
    • Complex and plot-driven
    • Puzzle is the key interest for the reader
    • Clues are given so that the reader may solve the crime before the climax and denouement
    • The investigator is generally eccentric and either an amateur or novice detective
  • Examples
    • Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries

Locked room

  • Characteristics
    • Shares much with the whodunit mysteries
    • Crimes committed in impossible circumstances
    • First assumption is that the criminal seems to have vanished into thin air
  • Examples
    • YA: Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series
    • Adult: Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue


  • Characteristics
    • Main character is often, but not always, a woman
    • Emphasis on plot and character
    • Sex and violence are downplayed and treated with humor
      • If sex occurs it’s a fade to black scenario
    • Amateur detectives with a college degree and varied life experiences which help them in their sleuthing
    • The MC often has family or a close friend in the police force so they have ready access to the case
      • But the MC is often dismissed by the force as a gossip and thus the MC is able to overhear important details he or she might otherwise miss
    • Eccentric and likable secondaries in a good number
    • Crime is offstage, if it’s murder it’s bloodless and a quick death
    • Small town setting
    • Connected victims
    • Fast-paced with lots of twists and turns
  • Examples
    • Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries
    • Murder, She Wrote
    • Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who series

Historical whodunit

  • Characteristics
    • Bears elements of the traditional whodunit
    • The setting must have some historical significance
      • Should involve a time before publication, but there is much debate on just how far back that should be
    • Must have true-to-history elements to distinguish it from pure fantasy
    • Detective can be a real figure from history or one entirely of your own imagining
    • Newer trends
      • Split setting where the modern setting acts as a frame for the historical setting
      • Modern setting where a mystery of the past is solved
        • Fueled by Dan Brown’s books

Inverted story

  • Characteristics
    • The crime is shown in detail at the beginning
    • Often the perpetrator’s identity is known to the reader at the outset
    • Chronicles the attempt of the detective to solve the case, with the chief interest being in the manner in which he does so
    • Subsidiary problems like motive can be solved along the way
  • Examples
    • Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder


  • Characteristics
    • “unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex”
    • Hero solves the mystery but faces more danger and is often more violent than detectives in other categories
    • Hero has a “tough guy” mentality
  • Sub-genre: Noir
    • Characteristics
      • Detective is either a victim, suspect, or perpetrator
      • Someone tied directly to the crime (the MC is)
      • Emphasis on sexual relationships, use of sex to advance the plot
      • MC has self-destructive tendencies

Police procedural

  • Characteristics
    • Several crimes in one story
    • Perpetrator’s identity often known at the outset, at least to the reader
    • Depict related topics such as autopsies and interrogations

Legal thriller

  • Characteristics
    • MCs are lawyers and their staff
    • Justice system almost becomes a character in itself
    • Lawyers endanger their careers, lives, relationships, etc. in pursuit of their ideal resolution to the case they’re working on


  • Characteristics
    • One or more crimes (usually theft, cons, sometimes kidnappings) with readers’ full knowledge
    • Humor, adventure, cleverness, audacity are all distinguishing elements
    • Can sometimes appear as a sub-plot in a work
      • Think of when Huck plots to get Jim out of jail

Psychological thriller

  • Characteristics
    • Focus on character over plot
    • Emphasize character development over physical action
    • Protagonist and antagonist play mind games with one another to create suspense
    • The danger is on a mental level rather than a physical one
    • The characters rely on strength of mind rather than strength of body

The “rules” (so you know how to break them!)

  • Plot is everything.
    • Keep each point plausible and the action fast-paced.
    • Limit backstory.
  • Introduce both the detective and the culprit early
  • Commit the crime within the first three chapters
  • Make the crime violent, preferably murder
  • Make the crime believable.
    • The victim can’t bleed out from a scraped knee.  (Unless of course you reveal that the victim was on blood thinners or something.)
  • The case should be solved rationally and scientifically.
    • Just the provable.  No gut intuition or deus ex machina.
  • The culprit must have the capability, both physically and emotionally, to commit the crime.
    • No wheel-chair bound culprit with a second-floor murder unless you set it up properly.
  • Don’t try to fool your readers.
    • No hero as the bad guy.
  • Research.
  • Delay the reveal of the culprit to the last possible page.
My recommendations:
Tony Hillerman’s novels.  I’ve read several and would like to someday track down more.  His are largely located on the Navajo reservation in Arizona/Utah/New Mexico, though sometimes he has gone out into the rest of the country with his two MCs.
Jasper Fforde’s novels.  Love them so much.  Start with The Eyre Affair or with The Big Over Easy.  Both are equally delightful and they start off the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series, respectively.