Guide to Mystery Genres and Subgenres
Take a moment and picture your favorite mystery story. Do you think of an exciting thriller full of grisly crimes and narrow escapes from danger? Or how about amusing novels of bumbling amateur sleuths trying to solve crimes with absolutely no expertise? Perhaps you imagined the world-famous investigations of Sherlock Holmes or the classic Nancy Drew series from your childhood. No matter which character or book came to mind, it’s easy to see that the expansive mystery genre features much more than private investigators and unsolved murders. In fact, mysteries can be further divided into over a dozen distinct subgenres!
Curious about subgenres you might be missing out on? Let’s investigate all the different types of mysteries you could choose for your next read.
Standard Elements of a Mystery
Mystery authors have plenty of freedom to create unique stories within the genre, but every mystery book must meet some basic criteria. Whether you enjoy cozy mysteries or heart-pounding thriller novels, there are a few elements that all mystery novels have in common:
- A puzzle. This is the most important aspect of every mystery novel; without a puzzle, crime, or some other type of problem to be solved, there would be no mystery, no plot, and no need for a detective!
- Detective. The detective or protagonist is whoever sets out to solve the mystery. The character doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional detective; they may be an amateur detective, a police officer, or even a criminal themselves in some cases.
- Suspects. The various characters within a mystery will each be evaluated as potential suspects. Their motives, personalities, and other information about them will be taken into account during the sleuthing process.
- Clues. Readers are given everything they need to solve the puzzle before the end of the mystery. Authors usually include a few overt or obvious clues to point the reader in the right direction or leave clues through foreshadowing. If you’ve ever reread a mystery novel, you’ve probably noticed some obvious foreshadowing you missed during your first read!
- Red herrings. These are false “leads” that cause a reader to think they can solve the mystery, but they end up being irrelevant to the case. For example, a reader might believe that a specific character is guilty due to their suspicious behaviors, but then it’s revealed that the character was acting that way for an entirely different reason.
- Hidden evidence. Mystery authors always sneak important clues or details into their novels in ways that might seem unimportant at the time of reading it. Therefore, always pay attention to the ways an author describes someone or a specific location to process all the information that’s given to you.
- Gaps. A mystery novel will never tell the whole story up-front. Readers have to intuitively “connect the dots” between the information that is given to them. Most readers actively try to figure out the mystery before the protagonist does.
- Suspense. This is the element that makes mystery novels so hard to put down! The reader is always kept at the edge of their seat, anxiously waiting to see what happens next.
List of Mystery Subgenres
As long as authors incorporate the basic elements of the mystery genre into their book, they can choose to craft their story in whatever way they desire. Therefore, a mystery novel may include romantic scenes, take place in the past or future, occur in a fantasy world, or feature any other elements you can dream of. Due to the countless ways an author may write their book, plenty of mysteries may not fit perfectly into a specific subgenre. That being said, the following types are the most popular and well-recognized mystery subgenres today:
- Caper. In a caper story, the “protagonist” is someone who commits one or more crimes while avoiding being caught by investigators. These mysteries tend to be humorous, light-hearted, and are told from the perspective of the criminal. The main characters are usually endearing and have legitimate reasons for breaking the law, so the reader can’t help but to root for the anti-hero.
- Cozy. Cozy mysteries are fun, sweet, and completely family friendly. Like the name implies, these mysteries won’t ever make the reader feel uncomfortable or queasy. Elements such as sex, gore, and violent acts are never explicitly described, and the story often takes place in an idyllic village or small town to add to the “cozy” feeling. The protagonist is typically an amateur sleuth who happens to stumble upon the right clues and overhear the right conversations in order to solve the puzzle. Imagine the typical setting of a Hallmark movie: that’s the kind of mood and scene a cozy mystery should convey.
- Crime fiction. First, it should be noted that not all crime fiction books are mysteries. In typical crime fiction novels, the protagonist usually battles some kind of societal imbalance, an unjust police state, or some other type of worldly moral dilemma. A crime fiction novel can become a mystery when the protagonist doesn’t know who (or what) is responsible for the terrible acts and the reader is left to wonder if the hero can stop them before they cause more damage.
- Forensic. If you prefer a mystery solved mainly through science and careful investigation, look no further than a forensic mystery! The protagonist is most commonly a medical examiner, forensic pathologist, coroner, or another professional who frequently deals with the dead. The gruesome details of the crimes tend to be extensively described due to the nature of the main character’s work, so this may not be the best choice if you tend to be a bit squeamish.
- Hard-boiled. The main character is a tough, experienced cop or private investigator who often borders the line between world-weary and bitter. The writing tends to be straightforward and fast-paced, with plenty of accurate details given about criminal investigations. Although the hero seeks justice for the victims of the crime, a hard-boiled mystery usually ends on a bittersweet note.
- Historical. This is simply a fictional mystery that takes place at a certain point of history. The author will describe the setting in great detail to relate the time period to the investigation process. Sometimes, an author may even reimagine an actual historical figure as a detective instead of inventing completely fictional characters, which can help readers more accurately understand the time period of the novel. Elements such as the political tensions, formalities between men and women, social hierarchies, and even fashion are all explained to add to the overall mood of the story.
- Legal/Courtroom. The story is told through the perspective of an experienced lawyer who is either defending an innocent client or prosecuting a potential suspect. Throughout the story, the details of a criminal court case are meticulously described and usually the author shows how members of the police force either help or hinder the lawyer’s investigation.
- Locked room. A mysterious crime or murder has been committed under seemingly impossible limitations. Perhaps the crime occurred somewhere that leaves investigators confused and alarmed because there seems to be no way for anyone to gain access to the area or leave without being caught. As the suspense and worry about the perpetrator grows throughout the novel, the book eventually resolves with a logical, reasonable conclusion to the crime.
- Medical. In this case, the main characters tend to be professionals in the medical field trying to solve threats such as mysterious epidemics or the misuse of morally unsound medical technology. These books are often written by doctors, nurses, or other professionals who can provide extensive knowledge about medical terms and practices.
- Noir. These novels are dark, gritty, moody, and essentially the polar opposite of a cozy mystery. Noir mysteries feature a troubled, rather pessimistic detective who is typically plagued by various temptations such as sex or money throughout their investigations. Because the main character doesn’t necessarily abide by a strict moral code, the reader is unsure if the detective will solve a crime or end up committing one themselves.
- Paranormal/Occult. This type of fantasy fiction blends together paranormal phenomena with a mysterious puzzle that needs to be solved by the hero, who may have psychic abilities or other supernatural abilities of their own. Because the idea of the paranormal is inherently fascinating and mysterious, readers can expect an exciting combination of a horror novel and detective fiction as the hero may communicate with spirits, investigate potentially haunted houses, or embark on other suspenseful, terrifying missions.
- Police procedural. Somewhat similar to the hard-boiled mystery, the police procedural is often told from the perspective of a cop who uses real-life procedures in an attempt to solve a crime. Authors are often knowledgeable about the actual stressors and factors that cops face on a daily basis, such as deadlines, political tension, danger, and the psychological effects. The ins and outs of the hero’s work is detailed, realistic, and allows the reader to get a glimpse into what police work involves in the real world.
- Psychological suspense. These mysteries can either involve a main character who is experiencing a “dissolving sense of reality,” or the perpetrator of a crime themself is mentally unsound. In the former case, the protagonist is struggling to solve a crime while trying to maintain their own mental sanity. When the criminal is psychologically ill, the detective is often horrified at the nature of the crimes committed and they try to understand what would motivate someone to do such terrible acts. Psychological novels focus less on the actual actions and details of the crimes and instead detail the mental distortions the characters face.
- Spy/espionage. Spy fiction clearly defines separate parties as being “right” or “wrong” and typically involves some type of political tension between the parties. To prevent the other side from carrying out their devious agenda, a spy or group of spies must try to infiltrate enemy lines to find out exactly what their next move will be. Although the story is often told from the perspective of those on the “right” side, readers have to watch out for possible double agents! These novels are full of action and suspense due to the constant threat of being discovered by the enemy.
- Thriller. Thrillers involve plenty of suspense and mystery, but they are fast-paced and involve a case that involves a wide scope, such as an international crisis. Thrillers can be described as a blend between the horror and mystery genres because they cause readers to feel fear, doubt, and even dread as the hero narrowly escapes from dangerous villains and situations. Thrillers can take place in any time period, even the future, and can become more horrific if the author chooses to add elements such as monsters, scientifically enhanced humans, or futuristic weapons to the story. Expect plenty of action, heart-pounding adventures, and a story you simply can’t put down!