Mystery, crime, and suspense are often used interchangeably to describe fiction in which murder and mayhem occurs. However, they're actually different genres, and not only will agents and publishers expect your book to accurately fit into one of these types of fiction, readers, too, have expectations for each type of book.
There are several reasons why you need to understand how fiction is categorized including:
- Not all agents and publishers do all types of mystery fiction. A noir novel pitch to an agent that only represents cozies will be rejected no matter how good it is.
- Publishers sell books to bookstores, which means their focus is on where the book will fit on the bookshelf. Is it a cozy that goes in the mystery section or a romantic suspense that goes in the romance section?
- SEO, metadata, and optimized keywords for online sales, or shelf placement for discovery in bricks and mortar stores, are critical to helping mystery readers find your book.
The first step to understanding how to pitch your book is knowing what general category it falls under. Then to make it even more confusing, each of these three general categories has sub-categories.
The predominant feature of a mystery novel is the puzzle of whodunit. Most mysteries involve the reader following a sleuth to learn who committed a crime, usually a murder, but sometimes it can be a theft or kidnapping. Lies, deceptions, and red-herrings (false clues) make it difficult for the sleuth to find the truth, but ultimately, the bad guy is caught.
Mystery Fiction Sub-Genres
When you think of mystery, do you think of Agatha Christie or Sue Grafton? While both of them write about a crime, usually murder, these two types of mystery novels are actually different.
- Hard-Boiled: Hard-boiled mysteries, often also categorized as private eye mysteries (P.I.), generally feature a professional detective as the main character, and the protagonists are often struggling with their own demons (often alcoholism) that haunt them as they solve the case. Murder and crime happen in gritty settings, and the violence is often graphically described. Hard-boiled detectives hearken from the noir days of Dashiell Hammett, creator of one of the most famous P.I.s, Sam Spade. Present-day protagonists include Dennis Lehane's private investigators in Boston, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, and Walter Mosely's ex-cop, ex-convict, turned P.I. Joe King.
- Soft-Boiled: A subset of detective fiction that is lighter in tone or with less explicit violence or sex is sometimes referred to as soft-boiled, though this is a less common term. An example would be Sara Paretsky's series featuring female P.I. V. I. Warshawski or Sue Grafton's "alphabet" series (A Is for Alibi, etc.), featuring Kinsey Millhone.
- Cozy Mysteries: Cozy mysteries involve an amateur sleuth, usually in a small town, solving a murder. Unlike grittier mystery genres, cozies don't have swearing, violence, or sex. With the exception of the fact that somebody has been bumped off, the cozy tends to be light in tone, and sometimes even humorous. The most famous cozies are Agatha Christie's elderly spinster Miss Marple. Today, Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swenson Mysteries and Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden Mysteries are so popular they've been made into movies.
- Procedurals: A procedural mystery has as its key factor a blow-by-blow, thoroughly researched, and specifically described analysis of how the crime is solved, using the specialized skills and knowledge of the main character. It may be authentically researched detective legwork, as in a police procedural ala Joseph Wambaugh, or a scientific investigation of the evidence, such as in Patricia Cornwell's books featuring the medical examiner Kay Scarpetta or Kathy Reichs' series with forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. These can sometimes be broken down more sub-categories, such as medical procedurals, which is what Cornwell and Reich's novels would best fit in. Another sub-sub-genre is the legal mystery, ala John Grisham.
This term is often used as a catchall for all crime-related books, but most publishing professionals report there is a difference between crime fiction and mystery, the most notable of which is that in crime novels, often the bad guy is known to the reader. The crime novel is usually a battle between good (hero protagonist) and evil (the bad guy). There is often an aspect that highlights moral or societal issues that each side represents.
The suspense novel is designed to take readers on an emotional roller coaster ride. In a mystery novel, the protagonist's role is usually to find the killer. There might be danger, but it usually shows up near the end.
Suspense novels, in contrast, start out with very high, usually life or death, stakes for the protagonist. The plot may or may not involve a murder at the outset, but the threat of danger is palpable from the get-go, and the plot builds and twists from there. Often, the protagonist is on the run from trouble, where as in mystery and crime fiction, the protagonist is seeking out the bad guy.
- Suspense: the protagonist is generally the one being pursued and must discover the whys and wherefores. But here the tension builds more subtly, often psychologically, such as the novels of Patricia Highsmith, or in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.
- Thrillers: Whether the stakes are personal (a man spots and pursues his father's killer years after the murder), patriotic (a bomb has been hidden somewhere in the White House), or international (a deadly virus will be released on a plane of 200 passengers heading from Hong Kong to Paris), the clock is ticking and the action and the pace are non-stop. An example is Alan Folsom's The Day After Tomorrow.
More Terms and Categories for Mystery Novel Types
Not only are mystery, crime, and suspense often used interchangeably, but there are a host of other terms and references used to describe these unique books. Here are a few you might hear or want to use to more accurately describe your book to agents and publishers.
- Capers: Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich are two authors who specialize in these novels that involve humor and/or humorous criminal escapades.
- Classics: The classic novels of murder and suspense include writers like Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Daphne du Maurier, Dashiell Hammett, Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
- Derivative: Some authors re-imagine historic or fictional characters as sleuths, often to appeal to existing fans of the author or period, as P. D. James did with Jane Austen's characters of Elizabeth and Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley.
- Domestic: Often found in cozies, the home front is rich material for murder. Cats (Lillian Jackson Brown), dogs (Susan Conant), cooking (Diane Mott Davidson), knitting (Maggie Sefton), mommies (Liane Moriarty), and tea (Laura Childs) are just a few examples of domestic mysteries.
- Investigator type: Some readers choose their reading by specific type of investigator, such as policeman, CIA analyst, private investigator, or an amateur sleuth.
- Location-based: These mysteries are anchored in their environments and give a great sense of place along with the mystery. Examples include Craig Johnson's Longmire series set in Wyoming, Greg Iles' hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, Alexander McCall Smith's detective in Gaborone, Botswana, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo Cape Cod Mystery series.
- Local interest: Also location-based, hyper-local mysteries are often set in beloved destination locales. For example, Deb Baker's sleuth Gertie Johnson is a "Yooper" from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ellen Crosby writes a Virginia wine country mysteries.
- Locked Room: These mysteries involve a crime that seems physically impossible to have committed. The name comes from a crime where the murder victim is in a room completely locked from the inside with seemingly no way for the killer to escape. Many authors, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, have penned a locked-room mystery or two, but writers who specialized in them include John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch.
- Historic: These are set in another era, such as Elizabeth Peters medieval series featuring the monk Brother Cadfael, or her series set in 19th and early 20th century Egypt with archaeologist Amelia Peabody Emerson. Sometimes mysteries will feature historic characters in major or minor roles, such as in Caleb Carr's The Alienist, set in New York at the time that Teddy Roosevelt was police commissioner.
- Multi-Cultural & Diverse: Mysteries that give readers a peek into diverse cultures and communities are popular both within their communities and as a window for readers into communities outside their immediate circle. Examples are Grace Edwards' Mali Anderson novels set in Harlem and Tony Hillerman, whose books involved Native American lands and issues.
- Noir: These hard-boiled mysteries are gritty, dark, moody, and often conjure up images of 1930s Bogart movies. The term fits the classics like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett but also can be applied to modern-day works, like Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series.
- Romantic Suspense: A mash-up of romance and murder, the romantic suspense involves a couple running from danger. However, it's important to note that if your novel's primary focus is on the couple's growing relationship, you'll do better to pitch it a romance. If the focus of the book is primarily on the murder, crime, or danger, but has a romantic element, then you should pitch to the appropriate mystery, crime, or suspense agents and publishers. Nora Roberts pseudonym J. D. Robb's In Death books are police procedurals with a couple, but the books' primary focus is on Lt. Dallas solving a crime. In contrast, Sandra Brown writes romantic suspense, where it's the relationship between the couple running from danger that readers like.
- Supernatural/Paranormal/Fantasy: Many of these have mystery elements but, if the alternative world element is the primary focus, they are generally shelved in those respective areas where fans can better find them. The exception is in the cozy sub-genre in which there are many witches and psychics who are solving crimes. Darynda Jones has a series in which the sleuth is a part-time P.I. and full-time grim reaper, with her love interest being the son of the devil.
- Vocational: Procedurals and thrillers often have protagonists with a special career or vocational knowledge, such as legal (John Grisham and Scott Turow), forensic pathology (Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs), medical (Robin Cook), psychology (Jonathan Kellerman), political (Vince Flynn), military (Tom Clancy), and sports (Dick Francis).
- Heist: The interesting thing about heist novels is that often the reader ends up rooting for the thief. One of the most popular of these novels is Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight, which was made into a movie with George Clooney. Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg's O'Hare and Fox books involve a thief and F.B.I. agent forced to work together to find bad guys, often involving an elaborate con and theft.
- Sherlock Holmes: Some stores, like Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, dedicate a section to "Sherlockania"—original works, derivatives, scholarly studies, etc.
- True Crime: While the other entries are all fiction, true crime involves the retelling of real-life crime. Truman Capote set the literary bar with In Cold Blood, but Ann Rule is the most well-known in this genre. Diane Fanning is another true-crime writer, who you can also see on IDTV's Deadly Women.
While the above categories have been fairly solid over time, trends can happen in mystery, crime, and suspense fiction. For example, imported and translated Scandinavian mysteries, which have been around since Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, developed into a popular trend after Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became a runaway bestseller.
Books that involve mystery and crime remain popular, but the popularity of any one sub-genre may ebb and flow on the strength of the marketplace. For that reason, it doesn't hurt to keep up to date on current trends in mystery, crime, and suspense fiction.