Genre Basics - Mystery - article

What is a Mystery Novel?

Going as far back to the Sherlock Holmes series in the late 1800s, the mystery novel has been a popular genre for a long time. These novels are centered around a crime (usually a murder) where the protagonist is an investigator who must uncover and follow various clues, find suspects, and ultimately identify the criminal and bring justice.

Mystery stories do not normally involve a lot of violent conflict, but rather create intrigue and suspense by discovering suspects and eliminating potential clues until the shocking truth is revealed. Various “reveals” that take place throughout the story are a hallmark of the genre.

Mystery novels can be very difficult to write because they require a delicate balance between surprising the reader while still being realistic. Your reveal can’t come out of nowhere just for the shock effect—it must tie-in with everything the reader has learned up to that point. All the clues must come together perfectly at the end for a satisfying reveal where the strings are tied and the criminal is caught.


Mystery vs. Thriller

In a mystery, the plot normally centers on a protagonist trying to get to the bottom of a crime. Readers are following a detective as he/she uncovers clues and works toward solving a puzzle. The majority of suspense in mystery novels comes from clues that mislead readers and the anticipation for solving the mystery, rather than a fast-paced plot with extended scenes of violence. 

In a thriller, the protagonist is suspended in an almost constant state of danger. These stories create excitement more because of their quick-pace than the building of plot. Unlike mystery, thrillers are not about solving a puzzle, but rather about the pressure of high-stakes scenarios. 

Occasionally books will blur the lines between these two genres, but your story will likely fall more into one than another.


Types of Mystery Novels

Mysteries form a broad genre with multiple sub-genres, with novels often fitting into more than one at a time. Here are four of its most popular categories.

Cozy Mystery

Cozy mysteries are set in a confined setting such as a small village or home. They often feature minimal violence, sex, social relevance, and they often solve the crime using intellect or intuition rather than procedure.

Popular cozy mysteries include Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke and Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs.

Classic Detective Mystery

Detective mysteries generally feature a mysterious death, a closed circle of suspects, and a central character who is a detective. The protagonist is able to solve the mystery using logical deduction from the facts in evidence.

Popular detective mysteries include And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Police Procedural

In a police procedural mystery, the detective follows police protocol to catch a criminal. These stories normally require a strong understanding of the ins and outs of how the police force runs.

Popular police procedurals include The Black Echo by Michael Donnelly and Naked in Death by J.D. Robb.

Hard-Boiled Mystery

Hard-boiled mysteries are generally defined as more realistic fiction with an objective viewpoint, fast-paced and slang-filled dialogue, and graphic violence.

Popular hard-boiled mysteries include The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and Killing Floor by Lee Child.

To learn more about genres, whether you need them, and how to choose the right one, make sure to check out our comprehensive article on The Basics of Genre.

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  • Thanks for the insight. I love watching mystery/suspense (Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Bones) and reading Stephanie Plum novels to name a few. I may consider changing my focus on when or how things are revealed. Either way, it's food for thought I'll hold on to.