Not Who ‘dun it, but what is it?
Mystery Fiction and Crime Fiction are often lumped together as if they are part of one fiction genre. I believe they are their own separate genres (for clarity sake). Further complicating things, today’s mystery and crime fiction works overlap and often slip-and-slide into each other. Then within the genres a novel may fit into more than one category so that determining what genre and/or category the novel falls into is often subjective. My novels have been called detective stories, murder mysteries, and cozy thrillers. Of course, the reader is always right. However, I’d like to shed some light on what we find in the world of today’s mystery and crime fiction novels. BTW, according to the list below, most of my novels fall into the mystery fiction genre and the soft-boiled detective story category. ~~ Below, I’m looking at novels written in English, mostly in American English.
The Murder Mystery Novel: This is a classic whodunit, a puzzle. The reader follows the clues as the sleuth discovers them which leads to who committed the crime. It’s usually a murder but can be arson, a bombing, kidnap, cyber crime, theft, embezzlement, stock manipulation and fraud, and a host of others. The author will create red-herrings (false clues), making it difficult for the sleuth and the reader to determine who the criminal is. In the end , the sleuth will catch the bad guy, and hopefully the reader will be surprised.
Detective Stories (hard boiled/noir): Featuring a professional law enforcement officer (police detective, military police, forest ranger, canine detective and his/her dog, District Attorney’s investigator, a state investigator or state trooper, a private detective, military police, cyber crime detectives, and the like. They are often fighting their own demons such as alcoholism/drug addiction, an abusive past, etc. The murder and perhaps also other crimes happen in unsavory or bleak settings with rough and coarse or disreputable secondary and tertiary characters. Quite often there is coarse or vulgar language. The violence is most often graphically described.
Detective Stories (soft boiled): These feature professional detectives, but are lighter in tone. There will be more psychology and less action, sometimes humor. The main character(s) will most likely have personal issues but these difficulties will be disclosed in a less gritty manner. Secondary and tertiary characters will be a mix of upstanding and disreputable. There will be less explicit or no explicit language and less violence.
Procedurals: The main character is a professional detective (as described above) or a medical examiner, a forensic behavioral psychologist (a profiler), a forensic scientist (pathologist), and so forth. They stress realistic police operations and/or realistic science where the investigator is constrained by law and department regulations. Departmental politics, even town/city politics will have some bearing.
The Cozy: This style has traditionally featured well bred characters and a closed community setting. However, today’s cozy could just as easily have a bartender or trailer park owner as its main character instead of a leader in the community. Often there are charming or eccentric characters. The modern cozy doesn’t have to stay in a closed community, but could cross state lines as well as crossing national boundaries. The crime entails minimal violence, may have happened before the story began or occurred off-scene. It may be described, but not graphically.
The Caper: This is a crime story with a high degree of comedy. In many ways, this is a cousin to the cozy. It may feature an incompetent amateur sleuth who solves the crime by accident (Pink Panther). Or the investigator is competent but a series of zany and outlandish occurrences continually happen to thwart him/her. Or she/he has contrary and/or eccentric family members, or business partners, or whatever that mess things up in a humorous manner. Still, he/she manages to catch the criminal.
MIXED-CATEGORY: Romantic Suspense: Romantic suspense most often falls under the mystery fiction genre as it’s usually on the soft-boiled side and has a happy romantic ending. However, we are seeing more and more gritty romantic suspense novels where the twisted mind of the villain is openly on display. Romantic Suspense is actually a combination of a genre (romance) and a category (suspense which falls under the crime fiction genre). Historical Romantic Suspense: As above, but the story is set in the past. Supernatural/Paranormal Mysteries: This is also a mix of a genre (mystery) and a category (paranormal which falls into the speculative fiction genre). Fantasy Mysteries (a mix of two categories, mystery and then fantasy which falls into speculative fiction).
MYSTERY FICTION SUB-CATEGORIES: heists (often told from the criminal’s point-of-view), historical murder mysteries, legal mysteries, medical mysteries, pet detectives (most often cats in a cozy novel or series, but can be a police dog or bomb or drug sniffing dog in a police procedural, or another animal), equine mysteries. More that are usually cozies – cooking/food mysteries, knitting/sewing mysteries, tea/coffee mysteries, granny mysteries, mommy mysteries, bridal mysteries, and many more. Location based: there are a slew of Florida based mysteries, British Isles mysteries (set in the British Isles, though not necessarily written by a citizen of the UK), Cape Cod mysteries, New Orleans and Mississippi River mysteries, Caribbean Island mysteries, and many more.
The Suspense Novel: This type of story is designed to take the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride and can be quite psychological. There is a murderer or some other type of heinous criminal, and the main character’s job is to catch him/her. The depravity of the criminal’s mind is often displayed. This can be done quite graphically, bringing the story into a noir designation. The protagonist might not be in law enforcement, or could be. There is always a high level of danger either to the main character, his/her loved ones, community, or even her/his nation. The main character may not know what motivates the criminal and must find out. Why, is a big question. Often, at some point, the tables turn and the highly intelligent criminal pursues the main character. How can the protagonist stay alive is the other big question.
The Thriller: There is a threat to the social order, an affront to societal norms and decency. This category most often lands on the noir side and can get very dark before the light comes. The criminal or crime is introduced right up front in most cases, although the motive may not yet be known. The story may have a forensic behavioral analyst (profiler) either as a main or secondary character. There will be tension from the outset and the threat level will increase from there. The protagonist or her/his loved ones will be threatened by a highly intelligent criminal.
Thriller Sub-Categories: the psychological thriller, the spy/espionage thriller. In the legal and medical thriller, while investigating the crime against the community or nation, the lawyer or doctor (or their loved ones) will personally be threatened by the criminal outside of the legal or medical settings.
An Over-Arching Subcategory: Multi-Cultural and Diverse Subcategory. Over-arching because it can be found in both the Mystery and Crime Fiction genres, and in any of the categories and sub-categories. These novels provide mystery and suspense while giving readers a peek into new ethnic or racial communities and cultures. Another Distinct Subcategory: The Racial/Ethnic Subcategory. This is written, most often, by a member of a racial or ethnic group for the enjoyment of members of that same group. Still another, Over-Arching Subcategory: Christian and clean Mystery and/or Crime Fiction. These novels can be found in either genre and any practically any subcategory but not all. There will be no on-page sex, no profanity, and limited violence and no glorification of these. The Young Adult and New Adult Subcategory: These are also mixes of genres (YA and NA) and the various mystery and crime fiction categories. The extremely dark categories would not be appropriate for this subcategory. Middle-Grade Mystery is a combination of mystery (a category) and (middle-grade which is a genre). These novels must be appropriate for pre-teens and under (Nancy Drew, Lady Grace Cavendish).