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What We Write

What do our members write?  The mystery genre has developed many sub-genres over the years. While some stories straddle categories, correctly labeling a mystery will determine how an editor responds to the author’s submission, and how willing a reader might be to buy the book, depending on which sub-genre they love to read.  Enjoy this glossary of some of the more common mystery fiction terms and sub-genres. Many of our members are authors who represent one or more categories listed here:


Cozy.  These mysteries are usually set in a small town, with an amateur yet highly educated woman as sleuth. The murder takes place out of sight and is over quickly, if it's depicted at all. There is little violence or sex and only the mildest of profanity in these stories. The sleuth’s gossipy connections in her community give her ample opportunity to gather evidence. Agatha Christie is perhaps best-known for this sub-genre, with her wonderful character, Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster who uses her native intelligence and intuitive feel to gather clues from among the inhabitants of the village where she lives, St. Mary Mead, and solve the crime. Cozy mysteries almost always feature an amateur sleuth, and tend toward the light and humorous.  A few popular Cozies are R.P. Dahlke’s Lalla Bains series starring a New York model turned crop duster in Modesto, CA; Mary Daheim’s hilarious Bed & Breakfast series featuring Hillside Manor hostess Judith McMonigle Flynn; Laura Levine’s Mysteries starring freelance writer Jaine Austen and her fearless cat, Prozac; Cleo Coyle’s Coffee House mysteries with protagonist Clare Cosi; Elaine Viets' protagonist, Helen Hawthorne, stumbles over dead bodies in her Dead-End Job mysteries; and Wendy Lynn Watson’s Mystery Ala Mode series starring Tallulah Jones, proprietor of an old-fashioned Texas ice-cream parlor.

Amateur Sleuth.  The amateur sleuth is a protagonist who is not a law enforcement officer or private investigator, but just an ordinary person. A large number of amateur sleuths are normally engaged in such businesses as selling tea, making quilts, pet sitting, but manage to stumble across dead bodies on a regular basis.  The victim is usually someone they know, or a friend of a friend.  Either the police have tried and failed to solve the murder, or have misread the murder as an accident or suicide. Both the loss of the victim and a need for a solution are personal for the Amateur Sleuth. Susan Cummins Miller has crafted a wonderful Amateur Sleuth in her Frankie MacFarlane Geologist series. D.R. Ransdell’s Amateur Sleuth, Andy Veracruz, is the leader of a mariachi band. Postcards from the Dead by Laura Childs and The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder by Mary Jane Maffini both feature amateur sleuths.  Harry Kemelman's Rabbi series is a great example. Marcia Muller's novel The Tree of Death features a female museum curator in Mexico, and the hero of Edna Buchannan's Miami, It's Murder is a male newspaper reporter. Donna Andrews' Turing Hopper novels overlap with science fiction and feature an artificial-intelligence-computer detective.

Professional Sleuth. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the amateur sleuth is the Professional Sleuth, protagonists who are really in a different category than the Police Procedural sleuths. The Professional Sleuth is an Amateur Sleuth in a professional setting, preferably a setting which is unique and intriguing. Not only is inside information used, but solving the crime returns order to a cloistered environment. Think Dick Frances, a British steeplechase jockey who writes crime novels about the world of horse racing; or Donna Leon’s best-selling series featuring the principled, warmhearted Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti. J.M. Hayes’ Mad Dog and Englishman series features the amusing and darkly gothic Sheriff English and his part-Cheyenne brother, Mad Dog. Bumbling detectives are sometimes humorous and often endearing, and usually are Professional Sleuths. The Peaches Dann series by Elizabeth Daniels Squire features an absent-minded female investigator; while David M. Pierce's Victor Daniel series stars a quirky Los Angeles crew.  Blake Edwards' 1963 film The Pink Panther introduced the hilarious cultural icon, Inspector Clouseau.

Furry Sleuth.   These tales feature a cat, and sometimes a dog, as the principle investigator. Shirley Rousseau Murphy's novel, Cat on the Edge, and its sequels put an extraordinary cat in the lead role. In Lillian Jackson Braun's long-running Cat Who novels, the human investigator is a newspaperman who is given subtle clues by his psychic house cat. Rita Mae Brown's mysteries depict many clue-following mystery-solving animals as intelligent and fully communicative – but only with each other, not with the humans. Brown's real-life cat, Sneaky Pie, is formally credited as her co-author!  Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series is quite humorous, probably because Quinn nails dog personalities with such accuracy; Chet is the canine narrator of the series and his human, Bernie, is a down-on-his-luck private investigator.  Most, if not all, of the Furry Sleuth sub-genre tales overlap with Cozy mysteries in their tone and settings. If any of them feature a bird, reptile or other non-mammalian animal as the detective, it is rare.

Private Eye.  The Private Eye, or PI (short for Private Investigator) is as much an American icon as the Western gunslinger. From the hardboiled PIs of the 30s and 40s to the politically correct investigators of today, this sub-genre is known for protagonists with a strong code of honor. While Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an unofficial PI, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is licensed. This sub-genre features a wide variety of memorable private investigators working in many different situations, though most are set in the urban United States. J.P. David’s tough, tender and dry-witted PI Hank Hammond is a former store detective cum football player, now carrying 20 pounds too much around his middle. Candi Cornell’s detective is Maggie Moretti, a detective with a gun and a talent for solving crimes in Tucson, Arizona. Rex Stout's detective Nero Wolfe is so obese he seldom leaves his residence, letting a younger Archie Goodwin do the footwork. George Chesbro's detective Mongo, in his novel Shadow of a Broken Man, is a former circus dwarf with a black belt in karate. Gary Stewart's novel The Tenth Virgin is infused with the protagonist's Mormon upbringing. Marcia Muller helped break the gender divide with her 1977 novel Edwin of the Iron Shoes, which launched a whole Sharon McCone series – and many other genre heroines. Hercule Poirot, the famed Belgian detective, is one of Agatha Christie's most famous and long-lived characters, appearing in 33 novels, one play and more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975 and set in the same era.  Poirot has been portrayed on radio, in films and on television by various actors, making his first appearance in 1920 (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and his last in 1975 (Curtain), the year before Christie died.  Poirot was the only fictional character ever to be given an obituary in the New York Times.

Police Procedural.  This is a vast descriptive category. The police procedural emphasizes factual police operations. Law enforcement is a team effort where department politics often play a large role. If you plan to write one of these, you need to spend time with police officers and research the tiny details which will make your story ring true. The protagonist is a police detective or team of officers and technicians tasked with catching a fiendishly clever killer. Usually, the story switches back and forth between the viewpoint of the investigator(s) and the criminal as the crime spree continues. Elizabeth Gunn’s Jake Hines series features a tough but likeable police captain in the small town of Rutherford, Minnesota, while her Sarah Burke mysteries center on a stoic yet feisty Tucson, Arizona cop struggling with her own life while dealing with illegal immigrants, working mothers, drug busts and stomach-churning crime scenes. Laurie Steven’s protagonist, Sheriff Gabriel McRay, relies on forensics as he hunts down a psycho-serial killer in The Dark Before Dawn. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels describe the workings of a fictional big-city department. Lawrence Treat's 1945 novel V As In Victim, and Hillary Waugh's 1952 Last Seen Wearing, are early examples of Police Procedurals. Michael Connelly’s fictional Harry Bosch character is a retired L.A. Policeman. Real-life policeman Joseph Wambaugh used his experience to write The New Centurions and several other novels. Jack Webb's 1951 series, Dragnet, was followed by numerous similar TV shows. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter character rules the serial killer category of this sub-genre. Faye Kellerman's novel Stalker and James Swain's The Night Stalker are also clear examples. The TV empires of Law and Order and CSI dominate the forensic investigation area of the Police Procedural sub-genre.  Criminal Minds is another good example. 

Forensic.  Popular television shows such as Bones and CSI have encouraged viewers to learn more about forensic anthropology, made especially enjoyable through well-written forensics-based mysteries such as Aaron Elkins' well-liked series known for its "Skeleton Detective." Police Procedural mysteries and television shows such as Law & Order routinely use scientific techniques to prove connections linking suspects to the crime. While modern audiences take forensic evidence for granted, the subject was once politically charged and controversial. The Keepsake is Tess Gerritsen's seventh novel featuring medical examiner Maura Isles and homicide detective Jane Rizzoli. The novel begins with excitement over a new mummy owned by the Crispin Museum. Devil Bones, in the series featuring anthropologist Dr. Temperance (Tempe) Brennan, finds Dr. Brennan called to the scene of a grisly discovery in the sub-basement of a Charlotte, North Carolina house that is being renovated. The fictional character Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a Medical Examiner, is the protagonist in a series of Forensic crime novels written by Patricia Cornwell whose stories are noted for the use of up-to-date forensic technology in Scarpetta's investigations.

Legal & Medical.  Lawyers and doctors make effective protagonists since they seem to exist on a plane far above the rest of us. Although popular, these tales are usually penned by actual lawyers and doctors due to the demands of presenting factual information in their fields. To find the latest legal/medical mystery, look no farther than the bestseller list. Medical mysteries feature physicians who encounter and then solve an amazing number of murders. Josephine Bell launched this sub-genre with her 1937 novel Death on the Borough Council. Tess Gerritsen's novel, Life Support, is a modern example. Bell and Gerritsen are real-life doctors. Several TV shows fit this category, such as Dick Van Dyke's Diagnosis Murder.  Outstanding Medical mystery novels that are also Thrillers are The Eleventh Plague by John S. Marr M.D. and John Baldwin, A Cold Mind by David Lyndsey, Blood Memory by Greg Iles, Toxin by Robin Cook, and Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell.  Legal mysteries typically take place in a courtroom setting. The protagonist in these stories is a lawyer or court official who solves the case, while the stubborn or corrupt police are on the wrong track. An early example is Ephraim Tutt's Arthur Train short stories.  Courtroom mysteries are often set in England, and much of the drama takes place within the walls of that ultra-formal environment.  P.D. James' Commander Dalgliesh tales fit this bill.  Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason is the dominant American example, and Mary E. Martin's award-winning Osgoode Trilogy is another.

Historical.  Move your mystery into the past, near or far, and you've entered the realm of the Historical mystery. Crime has always been in fashion and the possibilities are limited only by the writer’s imagination and ability to research. This sub-genre places clever detectives in many historical settings. R.M. Vassari and Lucia Olivia Lampe combine intrigue and murder in politically tense 13th century Sicily in their well-crafted Murder At The Leopard (first in The Vespers Trilogy) historical mystery. Silver Pigs: A Detective Novel in Ancient Rome by Lindsey Davis has a self-explanatory title. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is set in a medieval monastery.  Josephine Tey's 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time has a different twist in that a modern Scotland Yard detective sets out to posthumously prove the innocence of King Richard III. Another flourishing Historical mystery sub-genre is British, set in Elizabethan England. Kathy Lynn Emerson's Face Down series is one example. The hero of Edward Marston's Nicholas Bracewell series is a theater company manager. A few historical whodunits have cast famous individuals as the investigator.  Chinese historical detective stories are a tiny sub-genre. The novel Di Gong An was translated by Robert van Gulik, who then followed up with a series of Judge Dee mysteries set in ancient China.

Inspirational. These are wholesome stories that offer suspense, danger and crime-solving sleuths combined with a faith element. Elise M. Stone’s protagonist, Faith Anderson, faces danger, romance, smugglers and religion in Faith, Hope and Murder, the debut novel in Stone’s Community of Faith Mysteries. Other examples are Double Blind by Brandilyn Collins, Truth Stained Lies by Terri Blackstock, Journey’s End by Dora Hiers, Hazardous Duty by Christy Barritt, Code Blue by Richard L. Mabry, Miracle in Madison by Jane Priest Wilson, and Dead Reckoning by Ronie Kendig.  Some Inspirational mysteries have a metaphysical twist, such as Mary Clay’s Daffodils mystery series.

Culinary.  These mysteries feature a professional chef as the protagonist and have become numerous enough to set them apart from other Amateur Sleuth tales. Rex Stout kicked off this sub-genre with his 1938 novel, Too Many Cooks. Nan and Ivan Lyons' novel, Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, is an obvious example.  Diane Mott Davidson's bestselling novels featuring the irresistible caterer Goldy Schulz in such titles as Fatally Flaky, Sweet Revenge, Dark Tort, and Dying for Chocolate are good examples of Culinary mysteries. Real-life chefs Takis and Judy Iakovou wrote So Dear to Wicked Men.

Caper.  A caper is a comic crime story. Instead of suave and calculating, the caper chronicles the efforts of a lovable bungler who either thinks big or ridiculously small. Finally we get to laugh. These stories place a crook or band of crooks in the role of anti-hero. The protagonist plans a major crime with intricate detail, though it never goes right. Often the word "Caper" appears in the title itself. Donald Westlake was the reigning master of this story type with his Dortmunder novels. In Elmore Leonard's oddball novel The Switch, a wealthy kidnap victim ultimately takes the side of her abductors. The Oceans Eleven films fit this category. Heist novels focus on spectacular thefts, often of heavily-guarded precious objects. Eric Ambler's 1962 novel The Light of Day, filmed by Jules Dassin as Topkapi, helped launch the modern "evade all those high-tech alarms" format.

Spy.   Literature concerning espionage began in the nineteenth century, then evolved into a distinct sub-genre before World War I when governments established modern intelligence agencies in the early twentieth century. Spy fiction is thematically related to Thrillers, novels of adventure, and stories with politico-military themes. Early examples of the espionage novel are the American stories of The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831) by James Fenimore Cooper.  The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, is a spy hunter for Britain in early novels, such as The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904) and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1912). In His Last Bow (1917), Holmes served Crown and Country as a double agent, transmitting false intelligence to Imperial Germany on the eve of the Great War. After the Russian Revolution, the quality of Spy fiction declined.  But Helen MacInnes began the revival in 1939 with Above Suspicion, a fast-paced novel about an anti-Nazi husband-and-wife spy team. In the 1950s, Desmond Cory and Ian Fleming introduced the secret agent with a license to kill, the government-sanctioned assassin. Former British Intelligence officer Graham Greene examined the morality of espionage in his left-wing, anti-imperialist novels such as The Heart of the Matter (1948) set in Sierra Leone.  The noteworthy Cold War spy is the heroic upper-class James Bond, secret agent 007 of the British Secret Service, a mixture of assassin and counter-intelligence officer introduced in Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming. Despite the commercial success of Fleming's novels, other authors such as John le Carré and Len Deighton created anti-heroic male protagonists who used immoral tactics antithetical to James Bond. In 1955, Edward S. Aarons began writing the Sam Durell CIA Assignment series, and in 1960 Donald Hamilton began a series featuring Matt Helm, a CIA assassin and counter-intelligence agent. The 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. reawakened interest in the people and politics of the world beyond American borders and espionage genre elders such as John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth,  Robert Littell and Charles McCarry resumed their work.

Noir.  Noir is a mood: gritty, bleak, and unforgiving. The usual brutality is about as far from Cozy as you can get.  These stories occupy the heart of Crime novels, featuring a cynical, hard-boiled male private investigator in a violent and corrupt urban setting that suits his demeanor. This sub-genre was launched in 1920 by Black Mask magazine, which in turn launched the career of Dashiell Hammett. In 1929, Hammett published his iconic The Maltese Falcon, later filmed by John Huston. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were followed by Robert B. Parker and a host of others.  The Noir sub-genre focuses on the plight of down-and-out urban denizens. With his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain dominated this category. Dave Zeltserman's novel Small Crimes is another example.  Contemporary Swedish author Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels bring a literary element to the field.  Tart Noir tales always feature a female protagonist who fits the style. Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Henderson is one example.

Locked Room.  These mysteries are a narrow sub-genre in which careful observation and extraordinary logic reveal the means of a seemingly impossible crime or escape. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. The Greek historian Herodotus is credited with the very oldest known example of this sub-genre with his tale of the robber whose headless body was found in a sealed stone chamber with only one guarded exit. In modern times, Edgar Allen Poe launched this sub-genre with his 1841 short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Another early example is Gaston Leroux's 1907 novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, first published in French. Edward D. Hoch's numerous stories in Ellery Queen magazine have long dominated this category.  Steven Saville's short story Bury My Heart at the Garrick depicts Harry Houdini both exposing and performing similar (nonlethal) feats.

 Suspense.  Instead of the sleuth pursuing the criminal, in a suspense the protagonist is the one being pursued. Here the question is not so much "Who done it?" but "How will the main character stay alive?" These thrillers are often blockbusters.  Good examples Darrell James’ Del Shannon Mysteries featuring a gutsy missing persons investigator as the protagonist; Twisted by Gracie Roberts; Intensity by Dean Koontz; and Tell No One by Harlan Coben. Add a hefty dose of romance to a suspense and you have  Romantic Suspense, a relatively new mystery sub-genre. Not only does justice prevail in Romantic Suspense, but love conquers all. Instead of a romance style plot-line, these novels follow Police Procedural and other sub-genre patterns, with long story arcs and numerous crossover characters. What sets them apart is an emphasis on strong and compassionate heroines who enjoy successful and fulfilling personal relationships with men.  Brenda Novak, Karen Robards, Karen Rose, Nora Roberts and Roxanne St. Claire are top of the line Romantic Suspense authors.  Julie Miller's The Precinct series novels also are a good example. Suspense in a crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We root for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one. This sub-genre works well in film. Consider The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Entrapment, or The Thomas Crowne Affaire.

 Supernatural.  These mysteries comprise a small yet venerable sub-genre, overlapping with fantasy. These stories follow the standard mystery format, with a strange crime or murder where the villain turns out to be a ghost, a vampire, werewolf, shape-shifter or other fantastic supernatural being. Mother-and-son authors Kate and Hesketh Prichard's 1899 novel Ghosts depicts the brilliant scientist Flaxman Low discovering same.

 Third World.  These mysteries are a fast-growing sub-genre, with settings and characters drawn entirely from those often unfamiliar cultures. Among the first was Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and its sequels, set in Botswana and featuring detective Precious Ramotswe.  The book recently was made into an HBO TV series actually filmed in Botswana. Another example is H.R.F. Keating's Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote novels, featuring a Bombay/Mumbai policeman. The novel Wife of the Gods and its sequels by Kwei J. Quartey, a native of Ghana, feature Detective Inspector Darko Dawson solving crimes in Ghana’s capital city of Accra.

Thriller. This is a broad genre of literature, film, and television that uses suspense, tension and excitement as the main elements driving the narrative.  Thrillers heavily stimulate the reader’s or viewer’s moods, giving them a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, surprise, anxiety and/or terror.  Thrillers tend to be adrenaline-rushing, gritty, rousing and fast-paced, and the plots keep the reader on the edge of their seat as the suspense escalates.  Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby obstacles are presented for the protagonist to overcome. Suspense is a crucial aspect of the Thriller genre. Homer’s Odyssey is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and is regarded as an early prototype of the Thriller. Contemporary categories and examples include: Psychological Thriller (Blood On His Hands by Mark Sadler, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris); Legal Thriller (In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt); Medical Thriller (Coma by Robin Cook); Sci-Fi Thriller (Mammoth by John Varley); Military Thriller (One Shot by Lee Child); True-Crime Thriller (Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule); Action-Adventure Thriller (Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson); Spy Thriller (The Avenger by Frederick Forsyth) –The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré (1963) is the quintessential Espionage/Spy Thriller; and Techno Thriller (The Blue Nowhere by Jeffery Deaver). The British novel Firefox (1977) by Craig Thomas, detailing the theft of a superior Soviet jet airplane, established the Techno-Thriller. The first American Techno-Thriller was Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) with CIA deskman-analyst Jack Ryan being introduced as a field agent. The Classic Thriller, The War of the Worlds, was introduced to the world as a novel in 1898 by H. G. Wells (and broadcast on radio in 1938). Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang helped shape the modern-day Thriller genre beginning with The Lodger (1926) and M (1931), respectively. For a recent Classic Thriller, try Whiteout by Ken Follett (2004), also author of Eye of the Needle. Whiteout is the chilling story of what happens when biological weapons fall into the wrong hands, and the blizzard that builds over the course of the book will cool you right off at the beach.

Mixed Genre.  Move your mystery into the future and you've entered the realm of the new Mixed-Genre category. Although Mixed-Genre isn't confined to mixing a mystery with Science Fiction, Science Fiction is a healthy market which welcomes the marriage. Isaac Asimov's Robot series is one example of a future police detective. J. D. Robb delivers a potent combination of futuristic suspense, romance and thrills in her Eve Dallas novels.  Other examples are Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey and Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. Barry Longyear's Jaggers and Shad Police Procedural stories feature two British detectives who, in a high-tech future, have their minds transferred into a variety of animal bodies, most notably a gorilla and mallard duck.  For witty, Urban Fantasy/Mystery mixes, read Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitc  and  Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green.  Spy-Fi (Espionage and Science Fiction) are integral to glamorous escapist fantasies emphasizing derring-do rather than detection and investigation in thwarting either world domination or world destruction.  Spy/Comedy stories parody the clichés and camp elements characteristic of espionage.  Spy/Horror mixes Spy fiction with Horror fiction.

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