What do you think of when you pick up a mystery book? A dark and stormy night? A dead body lying in a mansion? A moustachioed detective wielding an enormous magnifying glass? Many people have a stereotypical view of the mystery genre. However, excellent mystery and suspense stories rarely follow this fixed and tired formula.
Nowadays, crime fiction features more than a dozen subgenres, each with its own set of rules and reader expectations. There are even sub-subgenres! Authors such as Agatha Christie, Lee Child, and Liane Moriarty may all be plunked under the umbrella of Mystery and Suspense, but if you have read any of their books, you would know that their stories are worlds apart. There are books for every mystery fan. It’s just a matter of awareness of the different genres and which ones suit your reading (or writing) tastes.
Let’s check out a few common subgenres, their distinguishing traits and tips if you’re interested in trying your hand at scribbling a story.
“Cozies” are considered the classic mystery stories. The nickname comes from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series which constantly features tea cozies. Usually set in small towns and villages, they center around amateur sleuths who use knowledge garnered from their pastimes such as gardening to solve crimes. They rarely make use of forensic tools — they rely on intuition and deduction.
The pace is leisurely and relaxed, with little gore, swearing or R-rated material. These mysteries are often community-based; the killer and victim know each other and the motive is often personal. Likewise, the detective is dragged into the mystery due to an association with people affected by the crime.
Another classic of the mystery genre, this is where you can fulfil your childhood dreams of becoming a Crime Scene Investigator. Police procedurals feature professional sleuths in law enforcement. There’s often a team of officers working together to solve a crime, such as detectives, medical examiners and more. However, there will be one main protagonist in the story which the reader will follow.
The pace may vary widely according to author preference. It is often written with a realistic, or even somber view. The team follows set protocols and procedures to solve the mystery. Technology such as forensic studies, fingerprinting and CCTV footage may come into play. This genre can be set anywhere, at any time.
Private Eye/Private Investigator
Sherlock Holmes? Hercule Poirot? Yes, these two famous characters are examples of private eyes. Private investigators are professional detectives not employed by the government, and they often run their own private agency, charging fees for cases they take on. They often have years of experience under their belt and may even have worked in the police. Good private eye novels often have unique protagonists with traits that set them apart, such as a diverse background or unusual occupation.
This type of stories is fast-paced, and can be set at any location, in any time period. Interestingly, many fictional private eyes do not reflect the reality of real private investigators. They may bend the rules just to nab a culprit or follow their strong moral compass. (Both Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot have covered up the truth to protect the real killers, if only to follow their sense of right and wrong.)
Thrillers are primarily centered around an occupation, such as legal, medical, political and so on. There is a constant danger and a good hero is called upon to race against the clock and save the world. The antagonist has a goal and will stop at nothing to achieve it. The victims often do not know the villain and are pawns in the game. The action takes place in multiple locations around the world.
This genre is fast-paced and rising tension is present throughout the story. The obstacles grow increasingly difficult and the stakes are high: lives may be at risk. Swearing, violence and other R-rated material is acceptable here. Technology, forensics and teamwork are main features.
Thee Sim Ling
Thee Sim Ling (she/her) is a young Southeast Asian writer. She has placings in numerous writing competitions, including being a winner for the 2021 Inklings Book Contest, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Stone Soup, Shameless Magazine and Skipping Stones. She is also the Chief Content Officer for I-CREATE YOUTH, as well as a staff member for multiple writing organisations. Outside of writing, she’s a cybersecurity enthusiast and a proud INTJ. Find her at https://lucindathee.com