There are numerous kinds of mystery stories available to read and enjoy. Many concepts have developed since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie penned their famous tomes, that broaden the appeal and hook more mystery fans.
The following list is courtesy of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. This list of types has expanded to include about a dozen styles of mysteries, with many crossover hybrids added for spice.
The Caper Novel
This is one of the newer forms, centered on the commission of some type of crime or scam, usually outrageous and frequently humorous. Will it succeed, and will the scoundrels get away with it? Gives us an opportunity to root for characters we might not root for in real life.
The Classic Mystery Novel
A work of fiction which should meet all the requirements of any novel, and is additionally expected to include four essential elements:
~Crime (usually, but not necessarily, murder)
~Detective(s), whether professional (police or private) or amateur
~An investigative process and
~The identification of the culprit(s)
The Crime Novel
“Mysteries” and more; less dependence on the four essential elements. Often in a crime novel, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” share equal time – you know whodunit – but you don’t know how the story will be resolved.
Although basically a synonym for mystery, the term whodunit is generally used to describe works such as many of the “traditional” or “classic” mysteries of the 1920’s and 30’s, which contain significant elements of a puzzle.
Is a technique where an author imitates another author’s style (and/or characters), in a respectful way. The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is a pastische; he is imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style and character, Sherlock Holmes.
The Urban Fantasy
Is a genre defined by geography; it is a mystery which has supernatural or fantasy elements (read vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and possessions for example), but it must take place in an urban (i.e. city, generally speaking the larger the better) environment somewhere on earth (usually). It can be set during any time period, however a good portion are set in the present or future time periods.
Takes an alternate view of history; what would the world look like today if steam power had never been replaced? Often features anachronistic technologies or innovations which could only have been dreamed of during the early 19th century. The fashions, culture, architecture and style are most often modeled after Victorian Britain.
Think Agatha Christie. Think cats. Think culinary. The cozy is a mystery in which a murder, perhaps violent, is committed offstage. In her entertaining 1977 book, Murder Ink, Dilys Winn described the cozy as “a small village setting, a hero[ine] with faintly aristocratic family connections, a plethora of red herrings, and a tendency to commit homicide with sterling silver letter openers and poisons imported from Paraguay.”
The Agatha Award nominees and winners are either cozies or on the cozier side.
Murder taken out of the drawing room and into the streets; read realism. Chandler wrote about authors who “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reason, not just to provide a corpse.” Generally, but not always, featuring a private detective; usually, but not always, pervaded by pessimism. The humor, if any, will be dark. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels are excellent examples. This style has been made into movies for decades (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past) and can also be characterized by the same term, noir. Like crime novels, hardboiled stories tend to be urban.
The realism of the hard-boiled but tempered with optimism, and humor that is light. Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr (“Burglar”) novels exemplify this type, and provide a clear contrast to the hard-boiled Scudder.
The Police Procedural
A novel which attempts to describe all the activities the police undertake in solving a crime. These novels often have several seemingly unrelated crimes under investigation in one novel. They often employ forensics, autopsies, search warrants, interrogations and interviews to gather the evidence needed for an arrest. The perpetrator of the crime may or may not be known at the beginning of the book.
Similar to thrillers, the danger is more likely to be psychological than physical, based more on expectation or fear of harm than on frankly hazardous situations. In this type of story, the main character is normally an innocent caught up in danger – think of North by Northwest. This is an area that may get blended with a touch or horror, which comes under the term “Gothic”.
Plenty of action, accent on plot. Tension. Emphasis on placing the protagonist in dangerous circumstances – usually physically dangerous. James Bond. Lawyers/defendants in the courtroom. Spies everywhere. Derring-do anywhere. Rather than solving a crime, the object may be to prevent one from happening to our hero or heroine. In this type of book, the main character is active, a professional.
The True Crime
This is a type of novel which deals with a real crime, with or without a murder, examining the motives of real people and events. These novels can run the gambit of from being highly speculative in nature to sticking the basic facts of the case, ultimately allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. The crimes which are written about can be pulled from current headlines or examine cases from the past, such as; JFK’s assassination, the Ripper murders, Marilyn Monroe’s death or the Gardner heist.
All these types of fiction can be found on our shelves or on Overdrive’s ebook selections.
Caroline Poppendeck, Librarian
Steele Memorial Library