I love mysteries. I love ‘whodunit’ mysteries where a murder takes place, there’s a cluster of possible suspects and the reader joins the protagonist in solving the puzzle that will uncover the face of the killer. Ideally, it’s set in an old country mansion where everyone has been invited to dinner and during the course of the evening, someone is bumped off. Unsurprisingly, ‘Clue’ is my favourite board game.
When you’re writing your own original mystery, you need to consider what type of mystery you’re writing. This is important when you pitch your novel to publishers, because they’ll want to know what to expect from your story. It may not be enough to simply state that your novel is a ‘mystery’. However, this can be difficult when there are so many different ways to describe a story that falls under the category of ‘mystery’.
Literary agent, Jessica Faust states in her blog post ‘Does Your Hook Match Your Genre?’ that there are three basic types of mystery – the cozy, the mystery and the suspense/thriller. The key words here are ‘basic types’. If we were going to be specific about all the different genres and subgenres of a mystery-based novel, which fall under an ever broader banner of ‘crime fiction’, I’d need to write a dissertation. And maybe I will. One day.
If the words ‘cozy mystery’ conjure up thoughts of snuggling into the couch on an overcast Sunday afternoon with a page-turner, you’d be on the right track. Despite the grisly subject matter of murder, a cozy mystery is usually light hearted. A cozy involves an amateur sleuth, often with a quaint hobby or occupation such as a librarian or florist, set in a small town and without graphic descriptions of violence or sex. An example of this is the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. Aurora is a librarian who lives in Lawrenceton, Georgia – a small town with a lot of murders, some of which are actually quite violent but are never explained in great detail. While there are police characters in the story, it’s Aurora who finds the missing piece of the puzzle that reveals the killer at the end.
The plain old ‘mystery’ may be better described as ‘modern P.I.’. The sleuth will usually have a connection to law enforcement, such as a medical practitioner or a private investigator. This type of mystery is darker than a cozy and may include descriptions of blood and gore. Robert Galbraith’s series of books about Cormoran Strike are among my favourite mystery novels. Strike is a war veteran and ex-SIB investigator who works as a private investigator in London and solves some really grisly murders involving disembowelment and severed body parts. In the most recent novel, Career of Evil, several chapters are told from the point of view of the unknown killer and getting an insight into his disturbed mindset is extremely unnerving.
A suspense/thriller involves a protagonist who is usually connected to law enforcement – often a police detective. Whereas in a mystery where we usually don’t know the killer until the end, in a suspense/thriller the killer may be revealed early (also known as an inverted detective story). This is often seen in television shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order. In this type of story, the suspense comes from the protagonist’s mission to catch the killer, or stopping the evil, rather than solving the mystery. However, this isn’t always the case with a suspense/thriller. Joe Nesbo’s series about police officer, Harry Hole, fall into this category. In The Snowman, Harry Hole is on a mission to stop a serial killer and the story plays out like a ‘whodunit’ and the ending where the killer is revealed is reminiscent of Golden Age detective novels.
It’s great to know all these formulas for mystery/suspense and suspense/thriller novels but your story is your story and you need to tell it your way.
What’s your favourite type of mystery and why? Do you like to get involved in solving the puzzle or is it more about the suspense? Do you think I should write a dissertation? Let me know in the comments below.