Beginner's Guide to Mystery Fiction
June 13, 2023
Stories about uncovering hidden crimes (with or without supernatural assistance) go back a long way in many cultures. A Sophocles play from about 425 BCE–Oedipus the King–was an early example. Shakespeare’s Hamlet followed some 2,000 years later, and during the Chinese Tang and Song Dynasties, the gong’an tradition of mystery-solving heroes appeared.
When exactly the solvers of riddles became “detectives” is open to some interpretation. I once attended a webinar where the presenter quite confidently stated that Sherlock Holmes was the beginning of detective fiction. However, when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the character in A Study in Scarlet, he has the Great Detective proclaim his superiority to a few of his obvious fictional predecessors. That Holmes’s creator felt the need to insist that his character was an improvement over what had come before meant that he understood there was a “before” he could be measured against. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had also already imagined Scotland Yard detectives by that point.
Trying to delineate what a “detective story” or “mystery story” is is a bit like trying to nail the proverbial Jello to the wall. Writing mysteries and thinking about mysteries appear to go hand in hand. The 1920s saw the beginning of the so-called “Golden Age” of detective fiction, and of numerous attempts to come up with “rules” for the genre, most of which were promptly subverted by some of its leading practitioners.
That was the era that produced both “fair play” mysteries, scrupulously designed to give the reader no more clues than the detective, and “hardboiled” fiction featuring detectives with no desire to be “erudite solver(s) of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner,” as Dashiell Hammett described them. Never mind that at the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, whom Hammett was talking about, uses a detail mentioned in passing much earlier in the book to solve the central mystery in a decidedly Holmesian manner. The borders are always blurry.
With that said, let's attempt some definitions.
Mystery vs. Thriller
There seems to be rough agreement that a mystery must have as its focus a detective's efforts to solve a case, whereas a thriller treats suspense as an end in itself. “Mysteries are about a puzzle...thrillers are about adrenaline,” according to book editor Neil Nyren.
A police procedural is a mystery in which the detective is a police officer who investigates the case in the course of their professional duties, whether alone or as part of a unit.
Hardboiled vs. Noir
Editor Otto Penzler admits that the difference between these two terms is a tough one. Some claim that hardboiled mysteries present the detective as an archetypal hero fighting to bring some measure of justice (seldom synonymous with the law) to a corrupt world, while noir offers no alternative to its cynicism. Or maybe it’s that hardboiled mysteries seek to present a realistic view of social problems while noir is fundamentally concerned with individual psychology. Such distinctions are respected by neither practice nor marketing. Much of “Scandi noir,” “Tartan noir,” “rural noir,” etc. is actually hardboiled. Or not. Nobody knows.
Traditional vs. Cozy
In The Life of Crime, Martin Edwards recently thought it necessary to explain to his (presumably British) readers that “cosy” was “a popular label in the U.S. for...books which have few counterparts elsewhere.” Despite their extraordinary variety, such mysteries generally keep their violence (and, if applicable, sex) offstage, their sleuths amateur, and their endings tidy. These traits are also common to much older detective fiction, though equating the two styles doesn’t quite work. Calling Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Mystery series “cozies” seems to be a bit like saying that Jane Austen wrote Regency romances or that Jules Verne wrote steampunk--they all predate both the label and its modern meaning.
It might be helpful to think of “traditional” mysteries and their descendants as trying to come as close as possible to being pure puzzles. This “makes their books far more of an intellectual than an emotional pleasure,” according to my colleague Steven, who prefers this subgenre to all others. Cozy mysteries are far more interested in the lives of their protagonists, who tend not to be professional detectives, and the communities they inhabit. Cozy fan and library staffer Lynnanne cites the appeal of “seeing how a baker or a college professor solves a murder before the police do.”
Historical mysteries take place at least 50 years before the time of writing. That’s pretty much the only guideline.
While all these distinctions can be helpful to varying degrees, it is helpful to remember that mysteries are written by people who often aren’t dogmatic about genre, let alone subgenre, distinctions, and that the most interesting stuff is often what’s happening at the margins.
A big question is why? What is it that accounts for the genre’s appeal? The word that came up again and again when I asked my colleagues was "puzzle." “I am a puzzle fiend.” “I really like the puzzle aspect.” Many of my coworkers speak of the sensation of being in collaboration or competition with the fictional detective. “I love the feeling of accomplishment when I’m able to solve puzzles before the author reveals them.” “Other genres are engaging, but with mysteries, I always feel as though I’m a part of the story.”
This vicarious connection becomes a focus for mental energy, allowing the reader to feel fully engaged yet safely removed, “to explore what is behind closed doors along with the protagonist yet return...to your home and be thankful for it,” according to Bill.
Favorite Staff Mysteries
Enjoy our annotated lists of staff favorites:
Many of my coworkers date their interest in detective/mystery stories to their childhoods. Cam Jansen Adventures and Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, these long-running series provided the gateway for generations of young American mystery fans.
I’m not the only one for whom a parent’s love of the genre was both an inheritance and a source of bonding. My colleague Sharon recalls reading her mother’s paperbacks (much as I read my father’s), while Amber H. still remembers her mother’s “audible gasp” when they jointly reached the solution in David Patneaude’s young adult mystery Someone Was Watching.
I think the first mystery I encountered that didn’t come from my father’s collection was A Study in Scarlet, entrusted to me by Sr. Carol, a dues-paying member of the Baker Street Irregulars, in the summer between 6th and 7th grade. I devoured the entire Holmes canon in a matter of months--I’m not sure if this was before or after I witnessed Data and Geordi doing their Holodeck-Holmes-and-Watson routine on Star Trek.
Agatha Christie retained her hold on the imaginations of all ages. Even my colleague Chris, who is not a mystery fiction fan, recalls his peers' fascination with And Then There Were None’s macabre nursery rhyme and steadily increasing body count. Teen Librarian Grace assures me that YA “is really killing the murder-mystery game these days,” heaping particular praise on Maureen Johnson’s Golden Age-inspired whodunits and Leigh Bardugo’s genre-bending mystery/fantasy novels.
Reading about everyone’s adult tastes, I can see the full range of the mystery genre’s variety. There is praise for Elizabeth Peters, for the Thursday Murder Club, for Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB procedurals (a favorite of self-proclaimed “true crime junkie” Amber H.), and for Wanda Morris. Agatha Christie is still in the running (“my lodestar,” according to Steven). Lynnanne suggests we also pay attention to “the American Agatha Christie” Mary Roberts Rinehart, who is one of many authors whose work is getting new life through imprints like American Mystery Classics and British Library Crime Classics.
Those who prefer their sleuthing with an otherworldly twist include Grace, who in her prior career actually edited Stuart Turton’s mind-bender The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and Farishta, who loves listening to the audiobooks of C.J. Archer’s Glass and Steele series. Historical sleuths enjoyed by staff range from C.J. Sansom’s Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake to Deanna Raybourne’s Victorian lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. Steven and Bill enjoy the expanding range of honkaku (the Japanese equivalent of “fair play” puzzles) available in English translation. Sharon describes herself as “a cozy fan through and through” and praises the subgenre’s versatility: “food-themed, senior sleuths, romantic, historical, and magical--all within the cozy format.” Multiple sources praised the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen mysteries, which are set in Illinois, as an excellent cozy series for those who don’t normally read cozies.
- The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators. Martin Edwards. London: Collins Crime Club, 2022
- How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America. Lee Child and Laurie R. King, eds. New York: Scribner, 2021
Genre research aside, both of these are fun books to poke around in. Learn the 20 flavors of “locked room” mystery, Chris Grabenstein’s thoughts on middle-grade mysteries that stand the test of time, and the story of 19th-century “sensation” novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose popularity earned her the title “Queen of the Circulating Libraries.”