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Mysterious Terms: Mystery Genre Definitions

Every author, publisher, bookseller, reader, collector ... probably anyone who reads mystery books! ... maintains their own definition of what is a mystery and of the genres that comprise the category. The Hidden Staircase Mystery Books is no exception!

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction (or the crime novel) is probably the best description of the top level class of books that includes mystery and detective fiction. There are several requirements for a book to be classified as Crime Fiction:

It must be fiction. Names, places, and events may be real, but the plot must be fictitious. Therefore, True Crime (a separate category where the story is based on historical fact) is not a subcategory of Crime Fiction.

There must be a crime. Typically this is a murder, but in principle, it could be any crime.

There must be an investigative process.

There must be a solution to the crime (or a satisfactory conclusion to the investigative process).

Mystery and detective fiction are two broad categories within crime fiction. The difference between mystery and detective fiction is subtle, and in practice, there are many examples of books that can be characterized as both.

Detective Fiction

Detective fiction typically has a recurring character who is usually the investigator of the crime. The word “detective” here is something of a misnomer: the principal character may be a professional, an amateur, a child, a couple, an animal, a computer, or almost anyone or anything from the imagination of the author.

A classic example of detective fiction is the Private Eye. Independent, intelligent, and often physical, the heroes of these books are professional private investigators or ex-police officers. Private eyes typically fall into two sub-genres: hard-boiled and soft-boiled. The former are characterized by gritty descriptions of people and places, depict violent crimes, and are almost always set in urban environments. The latter are similar in style, but are lighter in tone. There is frequently wry humor in soft-boiled detective fiction.

The Cozy is a popular form of detective fiction. Cozies more often than not feature a non-professional investigator as the principal character. And they are overwhelmingly female with occupations ranging from caterers to retired school teachers. Other than the murder itself, there is rarely any significant violence depicted. Small towns and country villages are often settings for cozies.

A relatively new derivative (of sorts) of the cozy is the Chick Lit Mystery. Chick Lit novels are almost always written by women for women and have a female lead. The characters seem to enjoy amazingly active lifestyles with the usual romantic entanglements and decisions involving which designer shoe to wear with which designer dress. Chick Lit Mysteries combine all the elements of a Chick Lit novel with a crime, usually a murder, in which principal character also takes on the role of amateur sleuth.

Police Procedurals are another type of detective fiction. In these books, the investigative process is often more important to the story than the investigative characters who tend to provide the solution to the crime as a group effort rather than through individual efforts.


The Whodunit is a good example of a mystery. In the whodunit, the primary objective is to solve a puzzle by ascertaining the truth through a combination of logic, observation, deduction, and inference. Often there is a recurring character (in which case, these books might be classified as detective fiction), but it is not a necessary condition of the subgenre. Locked room mysteries also fall into this category but with the focus on how the crime was committed rather than who did it.

The Mystery Novel has the story as its main purpose. The writing is often atmospheric and stylized and the reader often gets to know the character of the perpetrators of the crime as well as the investigators of the crime.

The Thriller can also be a mystery. Frequently preceded by an appropriate adjective (legal thriller, political thriller, etc.), the emphasis is often on action. The plot typically involves a hero and villain, with plenty of close calls before the hero prevails.

Psychological thrills rather than physical thrills typify the Suspense Novel. Often moody and disturbing, suspense novels may be considered crime fiction if all other conditions for the definition are satisfied.