The mystery genre is about forcing your audience to the edges of their seats by asking them to flex their brain to unravel the clues you’ve tangled together like Christmas lights or spread out like bread crumbs.
But there is a wide array of mystery base plots that all have their own unique flavor. Mystery fans usually have a favorite type of mystery book that they devour by the dozens, and they want to know quickly whether your book meets their preferences. Publishers are even more persistent in their desire to understand exactly where your mystery novel fits in the market. To provide that answer, you need to understand the subgenres. In mystery, especially, it’s wise to uncover which genre you’re aiming for before you write a single word.
Ah, the one that started it all. This is the ultimate interactive puzzle game. A fully narrated CLUE. Your reader follows along with your detective’s perspective, learning new information only as the detective does. The crime is pretty much always a murder, though there are exceptions to every rule. Somebody’s dead and your reader is going to feel like they personally solved “whodunit,” if you do your job right. By the final climactic scene where the killer is revealed, your reader should have all the clues necessary to solve the murder, even if they haven’t actually put them together yet and need your detective to tell them.
Think Agatha Christi’s classic Poirot series. She’s sold more books than any other single author in history (I believe only The Bible beat her out in the multi-author department as well). This formula works, especially if you can add your own unique touch to it.
Like a classic whodunit, your reader will typically follow along closely with your lead’s perspective, unraveling a murder mystery, but this time, your protagonist isn’t a detective. Sometimes they’re a ragtag bunch of teens solving it for fun. Other times, they’re an ordinary Joe out for blood, trying to find a loved one’s murderer before the cops. Or maybe a daughter trying to understand why her mother disappeared in her youth. But most often, they’re a niche specialist of some sort hired by the real detectives due to a unique skill or insight required to solve the case.
Think Castle, both the TV series and the corresponding book series.
Ah, the Private I. The brooding, chain-smoking, misunderstood tough guy unraveling mysteries faster than the corrupt or bumbling police. In the past, you could often add misogynist to that list of characteristics, but there’s been some pleasant trends shifting into more palatable territory in that regard. And nothing says your detective can’t be a woman either. While Sherlock Holmes’ adventures could technically be called Private Detective stories, because all you really need to fall into the category is the official title of your protagonist as a licensed PI. However, I’d personally Sherlock’s tales as leaning more toward the classic whodunnit that happens to have a Private I as the hero. However, the more recent films starring Robert Downey Jr. do lean more toward the typical private detective story. Why? Private detective novels in their most common form (“hard boiled”) focus just as much on the protagonist’s inner demons as on uncovering the culprit who wielded the gun, knife, or candlestick . They are also often distinctly more violent than your standard Holmes story. My favorite private detective novels I’ve read in recent years are J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series. You may also be familiar with classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Sue Grafton has also created a contemporary female private investigator in Kinsey Millhone, of “A” is for Alibi.
These are the “beach reads” of mystery. Technically, cozy mysteries are a sub-sub-genre, because they’re a very specific type of amateur detective novel. They’re most commonly tailored toward middle-aged women, but not always. As a general rule of thumb, the protagonist is a woman the same age as the target audience. A common trope of cozies is the always quirky, oftentimes eccentric, and ravenously curious nature of the leading lady. She can hold any occupation other than detective or law enforcement.
Another staple is the “wrap it up in a bow” format of the climactic scenes. Usually, your gal runs into a sticky situation that gives her the final clues and provides the reader with some excitement. Then your sassy sleuth gathers everyone around while she confronts the killer, pointing her slender finger right at their face with a declaration of “It was you!” Lastly, she’ll of course go on to explain why and how and the clues that led her to the truth. These tropes are beloved by avid cozy readers, so if you’re wanting to mix things up and add some spice to the format, make sure you still pay homage in some way.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is the go-to example. However, Lillian Jackson Braun turned things on their head a little later down the line with a male sleuth with a cat sidekick in her The Cat Who … series. You get all the quirk, but not the feminine. Thanks to Braun, however, you’ll often see cute, cuddly pets tagging along with cozy leads. However, they usually don’t have Koko’s seemingly extraordinary sleuthing prowess. But if you’re looking for a prime example of the modern day cozy mystery, go no further than anything by Susan Isaacs. If Nancy Drew wasn’t a teen, her stories would likely be considered cozies as well.
I actually ghostwrote five cozy mysteries very early in my career, all for the same client, and I had a blast. Are they the most profound? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But if done well, they’re a snappy, smile-inducing experience. The best ones know exactly what they are and refuse to pretend they’re anything else; they just have fun with it.
Police Procedurals are all about realism, so you’d best get a real life cop on the horn as a source and park yourself at your computer for some major research. You typically have two protagonists—partners—who fight to make headway amid all the bureaucratic red tape. The story is as much about the process as about the clues. It’s basically true crime with a fictional murder, and an emphasis on the leading cops’ relationship with each other and with their superiors, whether it be genial or tense.
Think Along Came a Spider, by James Patterson, although it has a touch of courtroom drama and thriller thrown into the mix also. My mother is a huge fan of J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series, if you’re looking for a procedural from a female character’s perspective.
This subgenre is all about the motive. It’s about diving deep into the mind of the killer and uncovering what makes his wicked heart tick. You’ll often see suspense authors switch between two or more third person limited perspectives—most often the protagonist and the antagonist.
You don’t necessarily have to deal in murder here. Your villain may be a rapist, a terrorist, a stalker, a kidnapper, you name it. The point is, they do what they do for some deep-seeded reason that your hero must uncover in order to defeat them.
The rules are just as loose when it comes to your hero’s occupation. Want her to be a by-the-book cop? Go right ahead. But she can also be a reporter, an amateur detective, a private investigator, a curious housewife, a criminal psychologist, a doctor, a lawyer, you name it. But your protagonist must have a unique skill that makes him or her the perfect person for the job of taking down your antagonist.
This is the cat and mouse game. This is the story where the clues are blurred and there is no breadcrumb trail leading right to the answer. It’s a game of wits and luck and determination on both sides.
One of my personal favorites in this subgenre is Thr3e, by Ted Dekker (mostly because it was my introduction to the subgenre). Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a maddening but genius modern take on the genre. But James Patterson also has a ton of good, classic options in this area. And if you want to study onscreen versions of this genre to help make your writing more snappy and concise, you can’t go wrong with the Criminal Minds series (love me some Dr. Spencer Reid).
Heists and Capers
If you love weaving complex, daring robbery plots, heists and capers are for you. These are all about the crime itself, and the characters are crafted based on the skills needed to make the plot a reality. You’ll typically follow the brains of the operation the closest: the leader who’s bringing all this together and making sure everything runs smoothly.
Heists take the more serious angle. It’s never in doubt that your characters are criminals, even if they’re witty and charismatic. Typically, your characters are caught or killed in the end, or at least most of them. Those who make it out aren’t unscathed or entirely in the clear.
A Caper is more lighthearted, and a lot of the time, your “leader” will have a semi-honorable reason for performing this crime. Maybe he’s robbing a real bad dude who screwed over tons of people, or maybe his kid is deathly ill and he needs money for medical bills. Capers are usually less violent and include more humor.
Personally, when I think of Heists and Capers, screenplays come to mind before book titles. Namely, The Town for Heists and Ocean’s Eleven for Capers. However, if you’re looking for book titles, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is on my to-read list, and Ally Carter has a popular series actually titled Heist Society, but keep in mind that those are both also Young Adult books.
This one’s pretty self-evident. Most of the action takes place in the courtroom, and your protagonist is a lawyer. Most commonly, he’s a defense attorney who’s certain his client is innocent and must do a little digging on his own because the cops aren’t giving him enough. But hey, you can always switch it up. Just make sure all the tension occurs in court and you know all the appropriate terminology.
Again, self-evident. Your hero is a spy traversing the murky waters of international politics, trying to prevent a national disaster completely under the radar, and probably running into an enemy spy or two in the process.
Unlike a courtroom drama, all your action doesn’t need to go down in a hospital if you’re going for medical drama. However, the mystery must revolve around something medical related. Maybe there’s a dangerous outbreak of a lethal new virus that your doctor protagonist must investigate, helping the police find the madman who created and unleashed it. Or maybe the doctor is your villain, committing malpractice on your protagonist or someone she loves.
The late Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, was actually a pioneer in this genre. He has several books that helped define it, such as A Case of Need, and he even created the Medical Thriller TV Show, ER.
Essentially, you can mix the techno-thriller genre with other formats to make it lean more toward sci-fi or up the stakes to world domination. The only key plot point that comes along with techo-thrillers is that some new technology is being used to cause harm and must be stopped.
Michael Crichton mixed medical thriller with techno-thriller in The Andromeda Strain, where attempts at bio-weapon research lead to a deadly outbreak. You get the picture.
This is another “add-on” subgenre. Choose any other subgenre you like, drop it in a unique historical setting, and make that setting play a role in the mystery and drama. But be warned. If you dive into this sub-subgenre, you’d better do your research on that town, region, and time period, and do it thoroughly.
Woman in Jeopardy
I almost didn’t put this one on the list just because it sounds so antiquated, but I decided that, hey, anything can be reworked in riveting ways for a modern audience in the right hands. And it’s also quite common for women to write these stories, to great success, from an intelligent, honest female perspective. The main gist of a Woman in Jeopardy story is that a woman, who is typically not a detective or sleuth of any sort, is targeted by a criminal or simply wanders into a dangerous scenario by some misfortune.
The crime is often murder, but it doesn’t have to be. Regardless, the leading lady always has some special skill up her sleeve, in the spirit of a Cozy Mystery, and solves the problem on her own, or with only minor aid from close family or friends. The thing that differentiates it from Cozies is that the danger is more violent and urgent/suspenseful, and the focus is solely on the leading woman, her predicament, and her perspective. At it’s core, if done well, it’s about female empowerment and overcoming obstacles with intelligence and talent, and I can get behind that.
One of the queens of this genre is Mary Higgins Clark, who’s been at it for many years to great acclaim. Her most recent novel (2017 from Simon & Schuster) is called All By Myself, Alone and follows a young jewelry expert who boards a cruise as a lecturer after being dumped the night before her wedding, only to have the old lady she befriends aboard the ship be murdered and robbed. If that’s not the perfect title and description for a Woman in Jeopardy story, I don’t know what is.
If you’ve already read my other subgenre lists, Flavors of Fantasy and Heaps of Horror, you probably have an idea where this is going. Juvenile and Young Adult mysteries can fall into pretty much any other subgenre, they’re just aimed at younger audiences. Juvenile means middle graders, between ages 8 and 12. YA is 12 and up. Your protagonists should be in the same age ranges. In Juvenile, the crime is less likely to be murder, but that’s not unheard of. But you’d better bet your tweed hat that it does not occur “in scene,” meaning your reader doesn’t “witness” it. And stay away from describing blood and maiming entirely. In YA, murder is definitely on the table, and you can even do it “in scene,” but don’t get crazy graphic or sadistic (this isn’t horror, people). Even in juvenile, you’re aiming for suspense and some real fear when your characters are in trouble, and your villains better not be cookie cutter. Middle grade kids appreciate a great, complex web of clues and a realistic villain as much as teens and adults. Don’t even try to slip a mustache-twirling cartoon character by them unless the whole book is set up in a similar comedic, cartoony, “let’s have major fun with it” way.