Friday, July 13, 2012


This is the final post about the mystery and suspense genres.

Mystery Genre
Previously, defining a mystery was easy. A mystery was a riddle or a puzzle e.g. Murders in the Rue Morgue. The reader and protagonist had to determine the secret, solve the crime and find the guilty party. The clues were buried throughout the story. Originally the mystery genre was divided into three sub-genres – the cozy, the soft-boiled mysteries and the hard-boiled mysteries and the classifications were based on the level of violence. Hard-boiled fiction originated in the U.S. e.g. The Big Sleep.
Today the mystery genre has been divided into many different subgenres such as romantic suspense, police procedurals, amateur sleuths, noir, private eyes, whodunits, etc. (Amateur sleuth novels are similar to cozies but are usually more violent. The murder is solved by someone close to the victim i.e. the sleuth has a vested interest in the outcome). Professional sleuths are not police procedurals per se but can be crimes solved by people such as a judge or medical examiner or someone experienced in the working background of the victim i.e. they have a knowledge of the circumstances. (Think Dick Francis). Sometimes these are turned into a series.
In mystery writing, plot is everything. Dorothy Sayers and the Detection Club wrote the rules that now define mystery and detective fiction. They struck a balance between intellectual integrity and artistic licence. (Remember that mysteries and cozies are defined by the intellectual skills of their protagonists rather than their ability to overcome their antagonists using power i.e. rather than using esoteric weaponry or complicated fighting skills, they use their brains).
Hercule Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey all owe their existence to Detection Club members. Even though their books would now fall under the cozy subgenre, their writings and influence established a pattern for the entire mystery and detection genres.
The main four rules of the Detection Club were first that detectives must solve cases by using their wits i.e. no divine revelations or coincidences. The second rule was that the writer must not conceal any vital clues from the reader. The third rule was that authors promised to use contrivances such as super-criminals or secret entrances in moderation only. And the last main rule was that poisons unknown to science were forbidden. The conclusion was always that justice must, in some fashion or another, be brought about by the action of the ‘detectives.’

Cozies were originally known as English country house mysteries. Prominent during the 1920s and 1930s, this style focused on the members of a closed group such as the members of a village. The stories always involved a puzzle and were often solved by the study of human nature (and a reliance on local gossip). This style was so popular that the abovementioned Detection Club was founded in 1928. Some examples of that era are Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie and The Queen’s Square by Dorothy Sayers.
There’s not a lot of on-screen sex, violence or graphic murders in cozies. The detectives are amateurs, frequently women who have been dismissed as busybodies by the local constabulary (think Miss Marple). They become involved for personal reasons.
The murderers are usually neither psychopaths nor serial killers as in other genres but are more likely to have their motives set in greed, jealousy or revenge. Sometimes these motives are the results of occurrences many years in the past.
Frequently the supporting characters in cozies are broadly drawn and sometimes used as comic relief. The eccentrics of village life loom large in these books but remember that cozies can take place in small closed communities anywhere, not necessarily in small villages.
Cozies are told in the first or third person. The victim is rarely someone who will be missed or who will leave a yawning gap in the lives of others. Also, cozies are not roller-coaster rides like thrillers and suspenses but are a progressive examination of the human psyche. They are gentle gifts to be unwrapped – see Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy Mehl on Nike Chillemi’s blogsite.
Examples of this genre are the Miss Marple novels as abovementioned, the Hetty Wainthrop Investigates series, Murder She Wrote and Rosemary & Thyme (British settings).
And this concludes my blogposts on the suspense/mystery genres. Hope you enjoyed them.


  1. I never fully understood the distinctions between the various types of crime novels. Just knew that I enjoyed certain authors.

    Thanks, Vonnie, for shining the spotlight so I could identify, for myself, the type of mysteries I enjoy reading. Now I can search the genre much more specifically.

  2. I enjoyed reading this blog post, Vonnie. I teach a class on mystery writing and classifying mysteries can sometimes be confusing. You did a great job in clarifying the different sub genres. I'd long forgotten about The Detection Club; thanks for the reminder.

  3. I've enjoyed your explanations. I read a lot of crime fiction, mystery and other kinds, and I like most of it. Perhaps my favorite is Margaret Yorke and her psychological suspense stories.

    If I could figure out an alternative, I would not post this as anonymous.

  4. Thanks Beverley, Kathleen and the famous Anonymous (!) I seem to be on the right track, at least. The whole thing is so confusing and now of course there are the legals and medicals...

  5. Vonnie--interesting and well-researched post. Read the earlier mystery and suspense posts, too, and learned a lot.

  6. Paul - glad you found the posts useful.

  7. Hi Vonnie, interesting summing up. The main thing is for us writers that mysteries, suspense and cozy crime are all eternally popular (thank heaven). I've written one which seemed to go down well and am at present on another. Before turning to crime (!) I wrote straight romance which is entirely character driven. With romantic crime/suspense I find that, as you say, plot is all important. I do however have to fight to ensure that the romance gets as much of a look in as the crime otherwise the dark stuff takes over! Good luck with yours.

  8. A wonderful series of posts. Of course I was especially interested in the cozy as I have just entered the genre myself. Enjoyed all of these posts.

  9. I'm another cozy writer, so thanks for this, Vonnie. It's certainly helped to clarify the varieties of the genre in my mind.