Taxonomy of the Mystery by R. Cook

Taxonomy of the Mystery

36 Semi-Scientific Schema of Classification of the Types, Styles & Subgenres of Mystery Fiction

by R. Cook

Amateur or professional sleuth, cozy, Golden Age, noir, hardboiled ... these are more than just terms booksellers use to figure out where to house a particular title. The taxonomy, or scheme of classification, of mystery stories is a vital part of knowing just what to expect in terms of conventions, styles, level of sex or violence and even the possible outcome of the story.

Table of Contents

Pick up any mystery novel and you're presented with a mystery beyond the one on the pages of the book or short story you've selected.

The first mystery is what kind of mystery story are you holding? From amateur detectives to whounits, a vast expanse of styles, types, subgenres and schools of mystery, crime, and detective stories abound. For any fan, whatever flavor of mystery they most enjoy, it is a vital skill to be able to discern the minute differences between Cozy and Golden Age, or the classic whodunit vs. the howdunit.

Below is a selection of the most prominent subgenres, schools, and types of mystery fiction. While it may be simplest to find the larger categories in which to drop a story, most great mystery fiction takes elements from more than one category.

Can you find the clues in your story to accurately determine in which category or categories it belongs?

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Amateur Detective

An amateur detective mystery is one in which the main character pursuing the mystery is not a professional detective but is instead an everyday person, perhaps a housewife or casual friend of the victim or suspect who takes it upon himself or herself solve the mystery. The detective may be pursuing the case as part of a profession, like a reporter, doctor or lawyer. However, the key aspect of amateur detective fiction is that the sleuth does not formally work as any kind of private or police detective. The detecting is subsequent to his primary role or career.

Examples include Father Brown, a Catholic priest and hero of 51 detective short stories by G. K. Chesterton; Nancy Drew, a high school girl created by Edward Statemeyer; Miss Marple, of Agatha Christie's novels; and Lord Peter Wimsey, a wealthy English gentleman, created by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Also called an am sleuth, am detective.

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Ancient/prehistoric (aka, pre-Poe)

While Edgar Allen Poe is generally credited with creating the modern mystery story and the modern detective, his Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) are not the first mystery stories written. As far back as Ancient Greece and Rome, audiences have been fascinated by murder and the pursuit of justice for the victim. Sophocles, among other Greek dramatists, spun yarns of murder, including his play Oedipus the King (first performed around 429 B.C.E).

During the Renaissance Period in Europe, as the general public learned to read, sensationalized reports of villains' capture, trials, imprisonment and execution titillated the masses.

Other stories, like "The Three Apples" from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (800-1300), Thomas De Quincy's "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1827, and E. T. A. Hoffman's novella Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten (1819) are prime examples of the pre-Poe mystery stories.

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The caper story is a humorous, adventurous or otherwise clever example of the classic straight crime story. It involves crooks who, through unusual demonstration of creativity, embark on a mission to steal valuable jewels, painting, or other artifact from a highly secured museum or bank vault. The crooks, themselves, are the heroes of the genre, often portrayed as Robin Hood-esque characters fighting against corrupt government or business entities.

The caper is a highly suspenseful story in which the daring crook is pitted against police or merely the security measures in place to prevent the theft. The story may focus only on the planning and execution of the theft, or it may open with the audacious actions of the balaclava-masked intruder lowering himself from the museum ceiling to outwit the security, then follow as the crook must evade capture.

Popular examples from novels include Donald E. Westlake's highly comic tales of unusual thefts to Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr novels of an honest crook up against a corrupt cop. Ever a popular genre for films, the caper crime story is featured in the Ocean's Eleven (2001) film and sequels (2004, 2007.

Can also be called a heist, but that often entails a more serious treatment, rather than the emphasis on the daring-do and dauntless creativity of the caper.

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Child/Woman in Peril

Here the focus is either a child or woman who is put in harm's way because of a crime commit either by someone they know like a parent, or because of something they, themselves did. The story focuses on their struggle to free themselves from the forces of evil pitted against them. Often told through the personal voice of the victim, the child or woman in peril mystery can be one of the most jarring styles of mystery writing.

Written in 1748, the novel Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson is one of the earliest examples but the form became popular in the post-war men's adventure pulp magazines, which often told of women kidnapped by Nazi or Japanese soldiers and forced to spy or do other horrendous acts.

The child in peril group of mystery stories stems from fairy tales like those of the Brothers Grimm. Modern examples include the Anne of Green Gables stories (beginning in 1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Also called womand/child in jeopardy, damsel in distress, or kidnapping mysteries.

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Comic/Bumbling Detective

When you're looking for a laugh or just a giggle, the comic or bumbling detective story provides a lighter approach to the mystery. Here, the emphasis is on a detective who, despite his clumsy or inept ways, manages to solve the crime at hand. The classic example that most people will think of is Blake Edward's creation of Inspector Clouseau, of the French Surete, and played in the films by Peter Sellers.

Perhaps the subgenre of mysteries that require readers to suspend the most disbelief, bumbling detective stories focus on the absurd, both in overall plot and in the usually circuitous route taken to nab the perpetrators.

Besides Clouseau, other comic detectives include the journalist-pair of X, featured in Y's short stories like "Z", featured in A magazine. Others include the Columbo stories starring Peter Falk on television, and The Burglar Who Like to Quote Kipling (1979) by Lawrence Block.

Also called humorous and puzzle mysteries.

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First appearing in the later part of the twentieth century, the cozy mystery is an homage to the Golden Age British novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Distinct from the Golden Age not just in time period, cozies are narrower in definition than their predecessors. They are distinct in their adherence to keeping violence and sex off the page. Ripe with murder of all ilks, cozy mysteries put an emphasis on the elaborate murder weapons and the aftermath of the killing rather than on demonstrating it. Even when the killer is unmasked, he or she gives up without a fight and frequently gives a soliloquy explanation of why.

The sleuths of the cozy mystery are typically women, typically amateur. Rather than being some kind of detective, the detectives are everyday folk like teachers, chefs, librarians, and little old ladies.

Major authors of cozy mystery novels include Lilian Jackson Braun, known for her The Cat Who … series; Rita Mae Brown (The Foxhunting Mystery Series, The Mags & Baxter Mystery Series, and The Mrs. Murphy series that was "co-authored with her talking cat as the main character."

Cozy mysteries may also be called cozies, softboiled or little old lady mysteries.

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An ever-popular subgenre of crime fiction, the espionage mystery is set on the stage of international politics and international intrigue. Rather than private or police detectives, heroes are spies, counter-spies and other intelligence officers. It is thematically similar to adventure fiction, political thrillers and military thrillers but includes the elements of mystery such as a murdered spy or lost piece of intelligence that the hero must find before the minions of the evil empire can take advantage of it.

G. K. Chesterton gives us an excellent example of the espionage mystery in his 1908 The Man Who Was Thursday, which tells of the infiltration of an anarchist organization by detectives. Sherlock Holmes also served as a spyhunter in "The Adventures of the Second Stain" (1904).

The term "spy novel" was coined by Irish author Robert Erskine Childers in his 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film The 39 Steps is another example of the espionage mystery story in which Richard Hannay, a London civilian, is caught up in a crime story of spies attempting to steal British military secrets.

Also called spy fiction, spy thriller, espionage thriller and spy-fi.

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Furry Detectives

Furry detectives are animals, usually cats although other animals are featured, as the detectives. They may be partners of a private detective and act as more than just pets. One might think of these furry detectives like the witch's familiar providing magical help to the befuddled human.

Typically, the animal is communicative with other animals but not with their human counterparts. Often typed as a cozy or softboiled mystery, the furry detective yarn (sorry, cat/yarn…couldn't resist) eschews violence and focuses on the animal's ability to spot clues that the (usually dumber) human counterpart cannot.

Examples include Lilian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who" series that features a newspaperman and his psychic cat who gives him clues to help solve the mysteries. Fictional private detective Elvis Cole, created by Robert Crais, is a cat owner whose adopted feline is a key character in the stories.

Could be referred to as animal mysteries, dog (or any other animal) mysteries.

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Golden Age

The Golden Age of mystery fiction refers not to a specific style of story but to a period of history, typically bracketed between 1920 and the early years of World War II, with some examples dating to 1911. It primarily refers to the British school of authors who created puzzle and whodunit style stories.

The era produced the first codified rules for writing detective fiction, including The Decalogue, or Ten Rules of Detective Fiction, created by Monsignor Ronald Knox in 1929. It, and other rule sets, emphasized the game aspect of the mystery and instituted the concept of 'fair play', which required the author to provide the reader with every clue that the detective saw in order to give the reader an equal chance to solve the crime before the last-page reveal.

Golden Age stories are often set on secluded English estates, during heavy storms and at night. Locked room or impossible crime stories were part and parcel of the era.

Significant authors and their works include: Agatha Christie, creator of Hecule Poriot, Miss Marple and other famed literary sleuths (Peril at End House, …), John Dickson Carr (The Problem of the Wire Cage, Hag's Nook), G. K. Chesterton (The Innocence of Father Brown, ), and Dorothy L. Sayers (Gaudy Night, The Nine Tailors both featuring Lord Peter Wimsey).

Also called locked room, impossible crime, paradox, puzzle, or (incorrectly) cozy mysteries.

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Born of the Prohibition Era (1920 – 1933) in America, the hardboiled detective genre tackled the gritty side of life. A uniquely American style, although copied throughout the world, the hardboiled detective story is typified by the hard-drinking, hard-womanizing, violent, but ultimately positive anti-hero. It takes on an earthy realism with graphic violence and sex playout on against a backdrop of seedy bars, big cities, underworld influences and dangerous dames. It carries with it a sense of disillusionment, heightened by political, social and economic problems of the 1920s Prohibition and 1930s Depression eras.

Raymond Chandler, author of the hardboiled classic The Big Sleep (1939), wrote that the 'smell of fear' permiated these stories and reflected the modern condition the hardboiled authors saw and put in the embittered detectives.

Other prime examples of hardboiled fiction include James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury (1947).

Also called hardboiled PI, private eye, private dick fiction and often confused with noir.

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Similar to the caper story, a heist mystery focuses on the crooks and their theft of some valuable property. However, in contrast to the capers humor and emphasis on the creativity of the crime, the heist is a grittier form of the straight crime story. The heist often involves heavy violence, like bank robbers with large caliber weapons. The heist is less elaborately planned than a caper and usually involves brute force to steal the item rather than light-fingered lifting of valuables.

The heist crime story involves the entire crime, from the planning stages through execution and escape. Stories may emphasize one aspect of the crime over the others. Rather than loveable rogue characters, heist stories attempt to capture the rawness of the career thief and show the rough and dangerous life led by men of violence.

Examples include the Parker series by Donald E. Westlake (writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark), including The Hunter (1981) and The Man with the Getaway Face (1984).

May be called straight crime stories, or capers.

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Historical mystery fiction stands out in its choice of setting, any time period prior to the modern age. The emphasis is not on any one particular style of mystery (locked room, private detective) but may include any other the other types of mystery stories. The key is the historical setting. They are, specifically, historical from the author's perspective.

It can also include stories of modern detectives solving historic crimes, such as Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) in which a modern policeman investigates the fifteenth century case of Richard III of England during an extended hospital stay. Other variations include alternate history or fantasy world mystery stories.

Other prime examples include Ellis Peters Cadfael Chronicle (1977 – 1994) set in the twelth century England, as well as Umbro Eco's masterpiece In the Name of the Rose (1980).

Also called an historical whodunit.

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A Holmesian detective story can mean one of two things: either a story written about Sherlock Holmes by authors other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as with "The Late Sherlock Holmes" by Doyle's friend and creator of Peter Pan J. M. Berry in 1893; or the moniker of a Holmesian detective story can awarded when a story closely follows the hallmarks of a Sherlock Holmes type story.

Berrie's pastiche is the first known of Doyle's creation but authors have created a significant body of work, expanding on the stories by the creator. Writers from Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, A. A. Milne and Neil Gaiman have all written Holmesian pastiches. Sherlock Holmes holds the record for the most television shows and film characterizations.

Works similar to Doyle's work follow the conventions such as a strong-minded, deductive-type detective who uses a combination of reasoning and scientific analysis to uncover and make sense of clues. The broader Holmesian style is closely allied with the scientific school of detective fiction. Examples include P. G. Wodehouse's "Death at the Excelsior" (1914) and Samuel Hopkins Adams' The Flying Death (1903).

Also called scientific detective fiction, or intuitionism.

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Things that go bump in the night. Dark moors and creatures we'd rather not encounter even in the daylight. Such are the makings of the horror subgenre within mystery fiction. It has its roots in the Gothic fiction and horror novels like many works of Poe and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818), with their ghosts, goblins, vampires and werewolves.

In more recent times, horror mysteries have evolved to include monsters of a more human sort, the men and women who lurk in the darkness of human depravity to prey upon all sorts of humanity. These monsters, because they are mere humans, are perhaps more terrifying than the mystical monsters like ghosts and vampires.

The 2008 novel The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo is a fine example of the horror mystery, tackling the traditional gothic werewolf monster. Stephen King's Bag of Bones (1998) is an example deftly weaves elements of the more human horror and classic private eye fiction.

Also called supernatural, gothic, or gothic horror.

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A fun variation of the classic whounit mystery story type is the howdunit. Here, rather than try to figure out who committed the crime, the detective must figure out how the crime was committed. The murder, or less often theft, is committed early and in full view of the reader. There is usually no doubt as to the killer's identity (although some mystery television shows, like Columbo (1968 – 78, 1989 – 2003), starring Peter Falk, like to hint heavily at the murderer's identity without overtly revealing it).

The detective either (as in the case of Columbo) quickly sees who the guilty party is through his unusual powers of observation or deduction or the murder is actually show without hiding the killer's identity. The thrill, then, is in the chase. Who will win the battle of wits and intelligence, the intrepid detective or the crafty killer?

A favorite genre of television mysteries, the howdunit is also popular in short stories and novels including R. Austin Freeman's works Dr. Thorndyke mysteries (1907 – 1942). Freeman claimed to have invented the howdunit style. Others include Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness (1960) and Dorothy's L. Sayer's Lord Wimsey short story "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers" (1928).

May be referred to as a howcatchem or simply the inverted detective story.

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Impossible Crimes

A broad category of mystery stories primarily from the Golden Age of mystery fiction, the impossible crimes subgenre is a catchall for any type of mystery where the crime is committed in such a way that it is seemingly impossible. 'Seemingly' being the operative word. Example plots include the classic locked room, where the murder victim is alone in a locked-from-the-inside room when murdered, the no-footprints murder where the body is surrounded by mud or snow but no footprints can be found, and murders committed in front of a mass of witnesses but where the killer was no actually seen committing the crime.

Often tied to the Gothic fiction of the Victorian Age, with its emphasis on ghosts, vampires and other supernatural forces that could come and go as they pleased without regard for locked doors or wet snow, the impossible crime stories presented the reader with the mental challenge of an elaborate puzzle. With few clues, they were forced to intuit the possible solution.

John Dickson Carr was a significant afficiando of the impossible crimes subgenre. He produced a large number of classic stories that included a impossibilities like the vanishing gun in Til Death Do Us Part (1944). Other impossible crime stories include the "alibi puzzles" like Freeman Wills Crofts The Cask (1920) and Christopher Bush's The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939).

Also called puzzle or paradox crime stories.

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The intuitionist school of mystery fiction was a reaction to the realist school and featured genius, eccentric detectives who solved crimes by pure thought, using so-called deductive reasoning to sort out the who and why of a crime. Conan Doyle solidified many of the traits of the intuitionist detectives in his creation of the ultimate deductive detective, Sherlock Holmes.

The school of intuitionists was greatly influenced by Anna Katherine Green, Fergus Hume and was hugely popular in the Golden Age era of mysteries. It included Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, S. S. Van Dine, and A. A. Milne. His introduction to his 1928 novel The Red House Mystery is called "a virtual manifesto for intuitionist ideas in mystery fiction" by Mike Grost on his excellent site "A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection" [].

Examples of intuitionist school of mystery fiction stories include The Strangler Fig (1930) by Dorothy Stockbridge Tillet writing under the pseudonym John Stephen Strange. An early example Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent (1912) by John T. McIntyre begins as a Holmesian story but shifts in later chapters to a Golden Age type intuitionist whodunit.

Also called the S. S. Van Dine School of mysteries.

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A flip of the classic whodunit style of mystery story, the inverted mystery reveals the perp at or very near the beginning of the story. The focus turns then to tracking and capturing the crook. R. Austin Freeman who wrote in his 1912 short story collection The Singing Bone claimed to have invented the inverted mystery and said he gave the reader all the facts about the criminal and the crime. "But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence…The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter."

Anthondy Berkeley Cox, writing as Francis Iles, wrote an early example in Malice Aforethought (1931). Dorothy L. Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey enjoys the inverted mystery in Unnatural Death (1927) and Strong Passion (1930).

Also called a reverse whodunit, howcatem, or howdunit.

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Kids/young adult

No fan of mystery fiction, no matter his or her age, fails to remember days of their youth spent reading The Hardy Boys created by Frank and Joe Hardy (first appearing in 1927) or the Nancy Drew series, created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer (first appearance in 1930) of kid and young adult mysteries. Nor will we forget the hours spent gleefully watching the Scooby-Doo cartoon series (starting 1969) with Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma unmasking crooks as they tootled around in their Mystery Machine van.

The subgenre continues to be one of the most popular areas of mystery fiction and may follow the general genre constraints of any of the other subgenres, from Holmesian to Cozy or Golden Age puzzle and locked room mysteries. This genre includes books that range from young child picture book mysteries like the 2010 What Really Happened to Humpty?: From the Files of a Hard-Boiled Detective by Jeanie Franz Ransom and illustrated by Stephen Axelsen to the Encylopedia Brown series of 29 novels by Donald J. Sobol, first published in 1963.

Also called child mystery fiction.

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We all love to hate lawyers and many of us would probably like to see more of them on the wrong end of a mystery or murder plot, but the legal mystery subgenre is one place we enjoy seeing lawyers succeed. Perhaps its because we tend to identify with the hapless victims accused of a crime they didn't commit that these legal eagles try to help. The genre follows the legal proceedings as an often underpaid and overworked attorney seeks to prove his client innocent while forcing the true guilty party to confess.

Perhaps best known in literature are Earle Stanley Gardner's 82 novels and numerous short stories starring Perry Mason (published from 1933 – 1973, and several posthumously), not to many numerous television and film adaptions. The Spider Lily (1953) by Bruno Fischer is an example of the legal mystery that takes place both inside and outside the courtroom. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic example of the legal mystery genre.

Also called courtroom dramas.

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Locked Room

The locked room mystery is a narrower interpretation of the impossible crime subgenre in which the crime is committed and the killer escapes, seemingly from inside a locked room. The circumstances of the murder would indicate some kind of supernatural criminal, capable of entering and leaving a locked room without leaving a trace or breaking a lock. However, there is nearly always, at least in the best examples, a perfectly rational explanation for how the crime was committed. It just takes an eagle-eyed detective and a bit of deductive reasoning to figure out the puzzle.

Although typically a Golden Age favorite, the genre conventions can actually be seen as far back as Old Testament writings, specifically the tale of "Bel and the Dragon" where Daniel debunks the worship of an idol that supposedly eats food offerings left in a sealed room (Book of Daniel 14).

John Dickson Carr (also writing as Carter Dickson) is heralded as the premier author of locked room mysteries. His novel The Hollow Man (1935) was voted the best locked room mystery by a panel of authors and critics. Others include Lawrence Block's Burglars Can't Be Choosers (1977), Agatha Christie's Murder in Meopotamia (1936), and S. S. Van Dine's The Canary Murder Case (1927).

Also called an impossible crime story.

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Medical Mystery

The medical mystery subgenre is a particular take on the amateur sleuth subgenre of mystery fiction. The story revolves around the death of a patient under suspicious circumstances. Oftentimes, the investigator is a doctor (hence its inclusion in the amateur detective category), nurse or other medical practitioner.

The plot may center around odd diseases or medical conditions that are not easily diagnosed, and true to the mystery genre as a whole, are usually intentionally caused by some villain. The genre easily morphs into the thriller category, where the unsuspecting doctor is pitted against the faceless drug company who's profit-driven motives cause murder in the hospital.

In the professional sleuth category of medical mystery fiction, the medical examiner as a member of the police force is the central character and is tasked with uncovering hidden poisons or other means of murder.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crighton and any of Robin Cook's novels including Coma are modern examples but R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke, a medical doctor who was also a forensic specialist fit this category.

Also called a medical thriller.

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Typically lumped in with hardboiled detective fiction, noir stories stand out from their cousin by nature of the protagonist, the guy or gal at the center of the story. Unlike a hardboiled yarn, where a detective chases clues and crooks, the noir focuses on what Otto Penzler, founder of The Mysterious Press and The Mysterious Bookshop, called the loser, characters that are "doomed."

The protagonist is a hapless victim, but one of his own vices. Finding himself in circumstances beyond his control, framed for murder, on the run, the noir protagonist is an everyday guy or gal who, because of something he saw or something he knows, finds himself beset by danger and desperate to escape. And they do not always, or even often, escape to a happy ending.

Noir fiction was first seen in French cinema and referred to both the themes of disillusionment and despair of the characters, and the dark, almost chiaroscuroan lighting methods used in the French films. Like the painters of the Renaissance era who used strong contrasts between light and dark, the noir filmmakers used strong hard lighting against deep shadows to cast characters and scenes in ominous tones, emphasizing and playing on the grittiness of the plot.

James M. Cain is regarded as an American pioneer of the noir genre. Others include Cornell Woolrich (Black Alibi, 1942), Dorothy B. Hughes (The Bamboo Blonde, 1941), Jim Thompson (Nothing More Than Murder, 1949), and Elmore Leonard (The Bounty Hunters, 1953).

Also known as roman noir, urban noir, neo-noir, or nihilistic crime fiction.

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See Horror.

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Police Detective

A police detective mystery story is a specific type of professional detective story, featuring a detective in the employ of the city or state. It can also include federal agencies and even espionage genres if the focus of the story is on the exploits of the cop as he uses whatever tools are at his disposal to solve the crime.

It is often closely tied to the police procedural but doesn't necessarily involve a group of detectives. It can feature a single cop or a pair.

A short story published in September 1837 by William Evans Burton called "The Secret Cell" tells of a London policeman solving the kidnapping of a young girl, and is an early example of a policeman relying on undercover work, evidence collecting and other legwork rather than deductive reasoning to solve a murder. Other examples include Emile Gaboriou's Monsier Lecoq (1868) depicting a young policeman's efforts to solve the riddle of two men's deaths in a bar.

Also referred to as Police Procedural, Professional Detective

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Police Procedural

This popular subgenre of mystery fiction seeks to accurately depict the crime solving processes of a police department. It may follow a single squad or an entire cadre of beat cops, detectives and forensics scientists. The details of how the police go about collecting evidence and tracking a killer or other criminal are vital aspects of the plot, almost ursurping the characters themselves.

The genre dates back to Wilke Collins novel The Moonstone (1868), which follows a Scotland Yard detective as he collects evidence in the theft of a valuable diamond. However, it has its roots in the scientific detective school dating to Conan Doyle's Holmes. It became prominent after World War II as the entire genre of mystery fiction turned away from the PI towards the newly respected police forces. As science enabled better forensics, the public fascination with the techniques and processes.

V as in Victim (1945) by Lawrence Treat is general given as the first true police procedural novel. Also popular in film and television, the genre is represented by films The Naked City (1948) and The Street With No Name (1948), as well as popular radio and television shows like Dragnet (radio starting in 1949, transitioning to television in 1951).

Also called police crime drama, or crime drama.

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Professional Detective

The professional detective is a crime investigator whose job centers around unearthing clues and solving crime. It can refer to private detectives who are hired to chase wandering husbands or find kidnap victims or police detectives who solve crimes as their day job.

Some definitions may include any professional, from doctors to lawyers, who, in the course of their day jobs, stumble across murders and other crimes and pursue the mystery. However, these characters fail the test because while they may investigate crimes, it is not their primary job and therefore their investigative efforts are firmly in the amateur category.

See Hardboiled, Noir, Police Detective and Police Procedural for specific examples of professional detective stories.

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See Thriller.

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See Impossible Crime.

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Gothic novels, particularly the Victorian era Gothics evolved into two types of modern fiction: the horror story and the romance. In the romance category, lies the further subgenre of the romantic mystery in which love and mystery are hopelessly intertwined. Following in the gothic tradition, the romantic mystery follows a beautiful young, if naïve, girl who investigates some oddity like an unearthly scream, dead body or other mystery. Soon she finds herself in danger (see Child/Woman in Peril) but is soon rescued by the dashing hero; love ensues.

After the women's lib movement, the damsels in distress became more self-reliant but the elements of romance continued to live on, with themes of betrayal and jealousy as motives for murder.

The short story "Scorpion on the Moon" by M. I. H. Rogers, and first published in Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine in May 1938, is an example of murder and love as flip sides of the same dangerous coin. Phylis Whitney wrote several modern gothic romance mysteries including The Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960) and others.

Also called gothic romance, Victorian gothic, and love stories.

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The scientific detective story, generally accepted as having been invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his chemist character Sherlock Holmes, puts a great emphasis on the hard sciences like chemistry and biology, as well as pseudo-sciences like phrenology to uncover and decipher clues. The style gained ground during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as science itself became more important to daily life and new theories of evolution, astronomy, the biological sciences and chemistry abounded.

However, it was not until authors like L. T. Meade and Halifax's Stories from the Diary of a Doctor (1894) that individual stories focused on using the scientific method applied to solving murder and other crimes. R. Austin Freeman's character Dr. Thorndyke followed in an outstanding body of work, including more than 60 novels and short stories from 1907 to 1942. Freeman, himself, is said to have conducted the actual experiments that his character Dr. Thorndyke performed.

Other significant stories include Mary Roberts Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton stories (1904), and the works of Nigel Morland, Helen Reilly, and Hugo Gernsback, editor of pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories (beginning publication in 1926), wrote numerous scientific detective stories. These and others are discuss in the article "Scientific Detection" by historian Sam Muskowitz and in The Encylopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976), edited by Otto Prenzler and Chris Steinbrunner.

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See Cozy.

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While the suspense type mystery story is more a method of telling the story and is present in some form in most types of mystery fiction, many stories rely heavily on the elements of suspense to carry the story. It is similar to the thriller genre of mystery fiction but typically takes a slower pace, allowing the tension to build as events plod along like a slow drip faucet.

Common in inverted or howdunit mysteries, suspense detective stories deemphasize the journey to uncover and make sense of clues and focus instead on raising the stakes for the detective or other protagonist as he pursues the criminal.

Often featured in stories about larger villains than the average jealous husband or genteel Golden Age murderer, the suspense story may reveal the villain early but leave the reader guessing as to whether the detective can outwit her foe or be doomed to become another victim.

Suspense is part and parcel to most mysteries but specifically suspense-driven mystery stories include Francis Iles (penname of Anthony Berkeley) who wrote Before the Fact (1932) and Steig Larrson's trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008).

Also referred to as thriller mystery.

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Practically a twin of the suspense genre of mystery and detective fiction, the thriller differentiates itself from the suspense or other mystery style of writing with its frantic pace and high stakes. It is often a race against time to stop a serial killer from plying his trade again or on a larger scale, poisoning a city's water supply. Many noir and hardboiled style mysteries employ the elements of a thriller, keeping the reader off balance by the quick and hard hitting action of the detective or dupe in trouble.

The points of the plot build and continue to add tension until the blow-out climax when the grit and determination of the sleuth are tested against an overwhelming foe. It is a villain-driven plot and therefore typically falls in the inverted genre of mystery story. And rather than racing to find the killer, the sleuth is usually tasked with escaping a trap before his own death or otherwise stopping a pending villain-induced disaster.

The 39 Steps (1915) by John Buchan is regarded as the earliest example of the thriller mystery. Other fine examples include films like many of Alfred Hichcock's films, especially Dial M for Murder (1954) and The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers.

Also called suspense, horror, or end-of-your-seat mysteries.

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True Crime

While technically a nonfiction genre, true crime stories are nonetheless part of the canon of mystery subgenres. It examines, as the title would indicate, actual crimes and seeks to tell, in as honest a way, the story of that crime. Typically, the crimes are sensational murders or sprees. Also popular are biographies of well-known serial killers like Ted Bundy. The genre was also popular in the later years of the pulp detective magazine, with stories told of men like Bluebeard, who murdered his wives, to stories of gangland hits. They may or may not have been true stories but were littered with photographs that seemed to authenticate the realism presented in the pulp true crime magazines.

Two of the most well-known examples of true crime are Helter Skelter (1974), the true story of the Manson family murders written by Vincent Bugliosi; and In Cold Blood (1966) detailing the brutal, execution-style 1959 murder of the Herbert Clutter Kansas family by two ex-cons and their subsequent arrest, trial and execution by hanging.

Often called a nonfiction novel.

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The whodunit is the classic mystery or crime story, usually involving a murder, a sleuth of some variety and a hodgepodge of clues that lead the detective and the reader down blind alleys reeking of red herrings to the last-page reveal of the dastardly killer. It is a complex, plot-driven example of the detective yarn that gives readers an equal opportunity to scrutinize the evidence and solve the crime.

The protagonist is often an eccentric amateur or semi-professional detective who is somehow connected with either the victim or the suspect, but not the final killer. The term was coined in the mid-1930s and first appeared in the pages of Variety magazine.

The genre flourished during the Golden Age of British mystery fiction, with its puzzle and locked room cases of murder and serialized and often dotty detectives.

Wilke Collin's The Moonstone (1868) is generally regarded as the first true whodunit. Others include Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), A. A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922), John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), and Rex Stout's The League of Frightened Men (1935).

Also called a whodunnit (two 'n's'), who done it, or who did it.


Not even a remotely exhaustive list of potential categories, breakdowns or tags with which to identify and classify a mystery, but a good start. Remember when looking at your mystery, whether one you're reading or one you're writing, that it may not fit cleanly in a single classification. Make a mental list of the various characters, settings, scenes and then decide what subgenre best describes your story.

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