You have probably interacted with a mystery story at some point. It might have been during your childhood, with lighthearted kid sleuthing books, or throughout your school years as assigned readings. You probably sought such tales for their exciting puzzles and challenging plots. The mystery genre has evolved rapidly, providing readers with various timeless stories. 

Let’s  explore the vital characters, intriguing plotlines, and skillful authors who craft intricate plots and enigmatic mysteries to establish this widely-read and thriving genre. 

The Development of The Mystery Genre 

Throughout the years, the mystery genre has taken on different forms. At its core, the story typically revolves around  a protagonist, whether an amateur or experienced detective, investigating unusual circumstances ranging from theft to murder. They try to solve the mystery by collecting evidence, talking to suspects, and drawing conclusions. Regardless of the format, the story generally takes the reader through twists and turns, often involving a deeper puzzle than what was initially presented. 

Early Detective Stories 

The first piece of literature considered a mystery story was Edgar Allan Poe’s short 1841 piece titled, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, who employed distinct techniques such as evidence collection and witness interrogation, became an example to guide other authors for centuries. 

The Golden Age

Following Poe’s lead, stories in the mystery genre evolved into what was known as the Golden Age. This era was filled with primarily British authors who introduced specific patterns such as “a cast of questionable characters”, or “a cozy country home” as a setting. They also introduced “locked rooms” and “red herrings,” according to Novel Suspects.

This Age also introduced the widely popular whodunnit subgenre, which “offers up a mystery like a puzzle that is complicated to solve but not impossible.” Readers are equally involved in the mystery as they are presented with all the clues and challenged to solve them before the detective. Star authors of this genre include Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, who gave us famous and timeless characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple. 

The Hard-Boiled Detective 

In the 1930s and 1950s these stories began to include dire societal implications, shifting from solvable, light-hearted mysteries to dark, dangerous crimes. Mystery & Suspense Magazine categorizes this era as “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” 

Crime solvers in this genre were generally rash private detectives, unafraid to bend the limitations of the law throughout the case. The heavy violence and questionable, immoral endings engaged and surprised readers who desired stories that more closely mirrored true crime in society. Authors who pioneered this new genre include Dashiell Hammett, James M. McCain, and Raymond Chandler. 

The Modern Thriller 

Despite the popularity of brutal crime in the Hard-Boiled era, interest in such tales eventually faded, making way for the Modern Thriller. Crime Reads explains this genre as using “elements of the traditional detective story to explore more complex, psychological mysteries.”, Authors expanded the mystery genre structure by creating characters forced to solve “both an actual mystery and a related personal trauma whose clues are buried in their unconscious.” 

Readers are challenged to follow along with the crime committed and its connections to the detective on the case. These efforts are rewarded as they watch the character finally begin to heal following the closure of the case. Dan Brown, James Patterson, and John Grisham have mastered the complexity required for this version of storytelling. 

Subgenres 

The mystery genre has since grown to welcome over 60 subgenres. Writers and readers can find  spy, supernatural, political, romantic, medical, military, juvenile, nautical, religious thrillers, and more stories. This list highlights just a few examples within the wide range of subgenres to emphasize the most popular or most widely used outlines by authors.  

Private Detective 

This subgenre accentuates the efforts of the professional investigator. Rather than the amateur detective, who stumbles into the plot, the private detective is often hired under questionable circumstances. The rugged, experienced, and intelligent individual solidified with the Philip Marlowe character, created by Raymond Chandler. Other authors in the genre include Donald E. Westlake, Laura Lippman, and Sue Grafton. 

Police Procedural 

According to Novel Suspects, a police procedural “focuses on the investigation process of a police officer or officers” rather than on a private detective or amateur investigator. This subgenre satisfies those more interested in the workings of real, employed crime investigators while providing insight into “forensics, autopsies, gathering evidence” and “obtaining warrants.” Experts in this subgenre include James Patterson, Ian Rankin, and Patricia Cornwall.  

Paranormal Mystery 

Celadon Books categorizes a paranormal mystery as investigating “the appearance of ghosts, UFOs, or other unexplainable mysteries.” These stories tend to breach the realm of reality, featuring magic, superpowers, portals, or non-human enemies. Stephen King, Juliet Blackwell, and Victoria Laurie explore this subgenre, taking readers to new dimensions with their baffling plots. 

Cozy Mystery 

This subgenre often handles the gruesomeness of villainy less intensely and dangerously  than its counterparts. A crime typically occurs off the page in a small, close-knit community, which is later solved by the efforts of an amateur sleuth simply attempting to uncover the truth. Cozy mysteries feature less violence and closely mirror the stories told during the Golden Age. New  authors in this subgenre include Donna Andrews, Jenn McKinlay, and Dianne Mott Davidson. 

Mystery Thriller 

The Mystery Thriller amplifies the intensity of the mystery genre, being “more plot-driven, action-packed, and full of heart-stopping moments,” according to Celadon Books. This subgenre breaks down into categories, from psychological to legal thrillers, including dramatic plot points and gruesome crimes. David Baldacci, Alex Michaelides, and Gillian Flynn contribute to the mystery thriller by taking their readers down twisted rabbit holes. 

Historical Mystery

MysteryFry defines the plot of a historical mystery as a “combination of historical episodes (and persons) and fictional events” while capturing the “details of the period as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms, manners, customs, and traditions.” Writing in this genre requires significant research and dedication to accuracy. Conveying a new story that occurs during a time that has passed is a challenge, but many readers appreciate and value such adaptations. Boris Akunin, Jacqueline Winspear, and Michael Jecks are just a few authors who have mastered this subgenre. 

Mystery Genre: Invaluable and Intriguing 

Ultimately, the mystery genre has grown and welcomed new authors at an increasingly impressive rate, with stories ranging from cozy and familiar tales to brutal, intense scenes of violence. Beyond the stories told on paper, this genre has adapted and satisfied readers for generations. It explores trauma and tension, questions society and decisions, and presents a powerful structure for storytelling. 

Most readers can identify with aspects of the detective’s story. This could be an  insatiable thirst for answers, a desire to help those in need or a yearning for true justice. The puzzles introduced are solved through remarkable twists and turns that fulfill society’s quest for entertainment and challenge. The mystery genre features some of the most unique and engaging stories and authors who will continue to stock bookshelves for centuries to come. 

For writers, that mean there are readers waiting for you around every dark corner, regardless of the subgenre you choose. Publishing a series of books in a single genre allows you to capture the curiosity of mystery readers and not let them go until the last mystery unfolds.

Lauren Ullman“Exploring the History of the Mystery Genre” written by Lauren Ullman, a junior Honors English student at the University of Delaware. She has written two novels of her own and hopes to pursue a career in writing, editing, and/or publishing.

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