The Genre of Mystery

When we say that a book was  “such and such” a type of mystery.  What do these terms mean? And if we want definitions – what is a mystery? A librarian, when asked the difference between mainstream novels and mysteries replied, “If it’s got a dead body in it, it’s a mystery!” I don’t know who she was, but I think she has it pegged.

The English Manor Mystery – The suspects and the victim of the crime are members of a closed group (for example: in a snow-bound manor house, on a non-stop train or a ship at sea).  Read Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, Dorothy Sayers’ story The Queen’s Square and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral.

The Locked Room Mystery – The crime has been committed under impossible circumstances and the villain has escaped into thin air. The “king” of this genre is John Dickson Carr. His book The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) is considered by many to be the best mystery novel of all-time. Also try Jeffery Deaver’s The Vanished Man.

The Hard-boiled Detective – The USA’s contribution to mystery fiction features a tough-guy main character that faces danger and violence on a regular basis. Originally short stories in the ‘pulp’ magazine ‘Black Mask’, and later as novels in paperback (called pulp), the genre has become known as ‘pulp fiction’. Best known are Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

The Noir Mystery – The difference between the ‘hard boiled mystery’ and the ‘noir mystery’ is that in the latter genre the protagonist is tied directly to the crime, he isn’t an outside detective brought in to solve the crime.  Check out Elmore Leonard’s La Brava.

Police Procedural – These feature the detailed investigation of a crime from the police point of view. Their immense popularity came not from a novel but from the radio program ‘Dragnet’. Try Ed McBain’s Sadie When She Died, Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions or Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead.

Historical – The definition of historical mysteries is quite loose. All agree that the story must take place before the book was published, but there is no agreement on how long before. Many think it should take place before the birth of the author; again no one agrees on how long before.  And there seems to be no agreement about how accurately the period must be portrayed.  There are mysteries set in every time period from ancient Rome to WWII.  Try Charles Todd’s A Test of Wills which takes place post-WWI.

Alternative History – Alternative history is when the author has changed the past. A good example is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.  The State of Israel was destroyed in its infancy and many of the world’s Jews now live in a strip of Alaska.  His Yiddish policeman is in Sitka.

Secret History – Here, events that are not known to have happened are used, but they have not changed the past. This popular style has real life people (Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Truman, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare among others) becoming amateur detectives.

The Cozy – Cozies are “comfortable”. Instead of graphic violence, language or sex they feature a series character that solves cases through intuition, gossip and knowledge of human nature rather than forensics. (They all require a suspension of belief – after all, how many murders can a nice, elderly lady in Maine stumble across in a year?)

The Inverted Mystery – In these, the reader sees the crime committed and knows the identity of the villain. The attraction is in seeing how he, or she, is caught. On page one of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought you learn of a man’s plan to murder his wife. You are privy to his thoughts until a surprise ending.

Cross Genre – These are becoming more and more popular. They feature a setting that would normally place the book in the genre of science fiction, fantasy, or romance but, because the hero is a detective (willingly or otherwise), they are mysteries as well.  My favorites are Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series, starting with Storm Front, featuring Harry Dresden a wizard in Chicago, Mike Resnick’s Fable of Tonight series, beginning with Stalking the Unicorn,  and  Kate George’s romance-mystery, Moonlighting in Vermont.  Hopefully we will see more of Kate George.

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