Maybe it’s just me, but I’m constantly having to look up genre conventions. Traditional mystery? High concept? Thriller? Suspense? Domestic Suspense? Cozy? We’re told we need to stick to the rules of our genre, and read widely in it so we know what to do. But there are so many sub genres! I’m ALWAYS getting lost.
A Handy, and Hopefully Less Mysterious, List
(this is not inclusive, and I’m sure I missed some. But I tried)
But first! What IS a mystery novel?
The Super Genres
There are three super genres that are often used interchangeably: thriller, mystery, and crime. However, they have some key differences that are important to understand, especially when you’re trying to pinpoint where your own work belongs.
THRILLER: Either the protagonist or someone the protagonist must protect is in danger from the first chapter, and the danger level intensifies as the story goes on. The protagonist needs to not only solve a puzzle, but eliminate the danger, usually within a short space of time. Or else.
MYSTERY: The protagonist needs to solve a crime, but the danger level is milder, and solving the crime gives closure and maybe brings justice, but the stakes of failure are usually not life or death.
CRIME: Unlike a mystery, where a crime is committed and the sleuth needs to solve it, in a crime novel the criminal is generally known from the first chapter. The energy of the story comes from the officers of the law hunting the criminal and the presentation of their opposing wills and outlooks on society.
The 3 essential elements of a mystery, crime, or thriller:
A CRIME! Yes, you need a crime. In all three super genres. And, it needs to happen in the first chapter. (or so they say). But really, if you’re writing a mystery and you’re waiting until chapter five to kill someone, you might be starting in the wrong place.
A SLEUTH! You gotta have someone solving the thing, right? Whether it’s a police detective, a PI, a librarian, or a cat, someone needs to be determined to find the culprit, and the sleuth needs to be invested in the solving. It is through them that we, the reader, also get to care.
A VILLAIN! You can’t have a crime without a criminal. The murder can’t be an act of God. Or, if is, then God is a character and there’s a genre definition for it. I love a good villain, and if you can make me care about why he’s a villain, then I’m yours and I’ll buy all your books. Seriously.
Confusingly–or amazingly–these can often be applied to any of the three super genres.
- As the name suggests, this is the gentlest of the bunch. The violence is muted and sorrow is bittersweet, but not gut-wrenching. The sleuth is smart and determined, and is almost never law enforcement. The crime is a clever puzzle. Everything is explained at the end, and justice is served.
- The hero is a detective with law enforcement or a PI. The story is realistic and harsh in its portrayal of crime and the mean streets that spawn it. Although the hero more often than not will solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice, the experience leaves its mark and the world stays grim.
- Private Detective
- This one is close to my own heart to read and write. The interesting thing is that PIs don’t generally solve crimes. Law enforcement solves crimes. PIs do something else entirely, though they can be crime adjacent. A PI can star in a mystery or a thriller, but if you’re writing a private detective story, make sure you know what they realistically can and cannot do. For example, a PI will not be investigating a murder that just happened, but it’s possible that once law enforcement closes a case, a family member might turn to a private detective to look into the case further.
- The crime and main suspects are known up front, but the details are revealed as the case proceeds. The tension comes from these reveals and, if you do it right, the twists that subvert reader expectations.
- Legal Drama
- A bit of a cross between courtroom and PI, in the sense that the investigation is done by the legal team and the tension comes from the twists and details the lawyer unearths.
- Spy novels are more than just mid-century men in fedoras skulking around, speaking into their pens. The main plot of my novel Behind the Lie centers around a woman who commits espionage against her own husband in order to save her family from financial ruin. There are historical spy novels, modern ones, novels where regular people are recruited to spy and ones where the spies are nearly superhuman.
- Told from the criminal’s point of view, these generally have elements of humor and adventure. The main plot line concerns the perp’s attempts to evade capture.
- Police Procedural
- Another one close to my heart. In a police procedural you have professional law enforcement doing their thing. Readers love looking under the hood of how the police go about solving murders and other vicious crimes. If you write this, and you are not or have never been in law enforcement, make sure you find a source who has.
- Tartan Noir
- Relatively new genre, but what’s not to love? Crime fiction with a Scottish heritage. Hard-boiled and tormented. Dark. Flawed. Although Tana French is Irish, her Dublin Murder Squad novels are fairly perfect examples.
- Psychological Thriller
- Yes, Gone Girl catapulted this subgenre into the stratosphere, and I love it. The crime here is almost secondary to the THREAT of a crime. The main character is a regular person who is under increasing psychological pressure to both understand the threat and to save themselves. Eerie, dark, and deliciously evil. In some ways, this is my favorite genre, and also one that is the hardest to fit into the mystery box because so often the crime is either something from the past, or something that is not what the hero thinks it is.
- Domestic Suspense
- Okay, I take it back. Domestic suspense is my favorite. The definition seems to be psychological thrillers that focus on interpersonal relationships, usually within a family setting. Often with a woman in the lead and facing trouble.
- Is it silly for me to say this is also my favorite? I can’t choose just one to be my favorite. In a historical mystery or thriller, the action takes place in the past. (duh). And, hold on to your hats here, stories set in the 1980s are considered historicals nowadays. But let’s go further back in time, and enjoy an alienist detective in the 19th century or a constable in 17th century Paris. All other rules of the genre apply, whether it’s a mystery, thriller, or crime.
- Romantic Suspense
- Simply put, this is romance first, mystery second. So, all the rules of romance novels come first, and murders, detectives, and kidnappings are plot points that drive the romance plot points.
- Very similar to caper, heists are told from the criminal’s point of view. However, they are more serious, and, much like the police procedural, give the reader a peek at how a crime is committed. From the other side.
- Locked Room
- These are novels with a seemingly unsolvable crime. On the surface, the crime could only have been committed by supernatural means. There is no way in or out of the place where the victim lies quite dead, and it is up to the hero to find the solution. These can be PI, cozy, procedural, and even thrillers.
- Supernatural Thriller
- I’m guessing this one is self-explanatory. But my favorite crossings are supernatural romance thrillers :-). A shapeshifting weregoat detective? Yes, please. After all, it’s all about escapism.
Did I miss any? What are your favorites?
Her short stories appear in A Stranger Comes to Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.