12 Popular Subgenres in Mystery Writing Explained

What they are and how you can pinpoint the subgenre of your novel

Rachel Poli
Aug 3, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Out of all the various genres of books there are, there are subgenres. A subgenre is part of a larger genre. For example, epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy. Think of subgenres as branches on the genre tree. Today, let’s take a look at the mystery genre.

What is the mystery genre?

The mystery genre is what it sounds like. It’s a story where something mysterious happens or there is a crime that needs to be solved, usually something as big as murder.

There are a lot of moving pieces to the mystery genre. There are investigators, witnesses, suspects, victims, and, of course, the culprit. There are also evidence, clues, and red herrings. These can be shown within your mystery story in different ways through subgenres.

12 popular subgenres in mystery writing

A caper mystery is one that falls under the cozy mystery category, which we’ll get to in a minute. The story is normally light-hearted and comical.

The crime in this particular subgenre isn’t normally heavy with homicide but includes robberies or kidnappings. The culprits normally aren’t too competent with whatever they plan and even the detective may not be as reliable but they all tend to get their individual job done.

This subgenre allows the reader to relax and have a laugh despite the circumstances.

Speaking of cozy mysteries, this is a type of subgenre that’s light in tone. Murder is usually involved though it’s not described in a gruesome manner. The sleuth is normally an amateur and almost never actually works inside the police department.

Sometimes these cozies happen in small towns where little to no crime happens so it comes as a shock to the rest of the cast of characters.

Romantic cozy mysteries are common in which the amateur sleuth and the head detective on the case usually fall for each other.

Domestic mysteries can also fall under the cozy mystery category but it can be any kind of mystery. These types of stories normally have domestic, everyday life things added to it.

For example, domestic mysteries tend to include a cat or a dog in which they somehow aid their owner in solving the case. Food and baking is another common domestic mystery. Knitting, book clubs, and the like are also common.

Have you ever gone to your local bookstore and library and seen shelves of mystery books with animals or food on the cover with a title that uses a pun connecting mystery and the food, for example? That’s a domestic mystery.

This subgenre is easy to remember. You can easily think of “hardcore” and you’ve got a hardboiled mystery.

This type often has a detective who takes their job seriously, overworks, is professional, and often fighting their own inner demons (that sometimes connects to the case at hand).

Hardboiled mysteries aren’t exactly for the faint of heart. Violence, sex, and gruesome details are typically involved.

The investigator, also known as the detective, subgenre is one that focuses on whoever is solving the crime. The sleuth can be a private investigator, a nosy neighbor, someone who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time (who may also get blamed for the crime and want to clear their name), or anyone of the kind.

These kinds of mysteries normally revolve around homicide though they aren’t typically too graphic depending on the sleuth and the targeted age group.

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nancy Drew are classic examples of the investigator subgenre.

You may have heard of this genre through movies classified as “film noir.” However, you can have a noir mystery book as well.

This type of mystery is normally dark and gritty. The private investigator may be equipped with their classic trenchcoat and are often tragically flawed. They may break the rules of investigative work though they almost always solve the crime.

On the flip side, the crime may remain open-ended for the reader. Was the investigator in the right or in the wrong? What about the culprit? The theme of good and evil may not always be clear depending on the choices (and the reasons behind those choices) the characters make.

Also known as police procedural mysteries, this subgenre focuses on the police investigation. These stories are heavily-researched and focus on how the crime is solved.

For example, it shows off the autopsy reports, forensic science, and the like. This can easily fall under the true crime category, which is mentioned later.

This is real-life investigative work thrown into a fictional (or possibly true) crime. Readers can enjoy a classic murder mystery all the while learning something new.

Softboiled is similar to hardboiled mysteries. However, they are lighter in tone and ease up on the details.

For example, there’s less graphic sex and violence though they’re not grazed over.

A supernatural, or commonly known as paranormal, mystery is a subgenre that includes elements of the unknown. This can be the afterlife such as ghostly beings or it may even include mythical elements as well.

Of course, there’s almost always a logical explanation behind these phenomenons that the investigator solves. The paranormal elements add more spook to the story and allow things to get twisted.

The tension is high in a suspense mystery though it’s a slower pace. This keeps the readers always on their toes and wanting to turn to the next page immediately. Suspense is when the protagonist is often being pursued by someone or something. They have another problem they need to deal with.

Often times, things are so much up in the air that the readers themselves are desperately trying to figure it out themselves. This type of mystery builds the suspense up and up and up right until the very end when things all come together in a high-tension fashion.

The thriller subgenre is similar to suspense and oftentimes the two of them go hand-in-hand. Thrillers, however, are often faster in pace and the action is ongoing.

Tension and stakes are high. It may not have anything to do with the protagonist or the investigator but they’re usually racing the clock.

True crime is the non-fiction subgenre of mystery. These mysteries are based on real-life crimes that occurred. The books explain the story of the investigation of a popular well-known crime, or sometimes crimes that are not so well known and need the limelight.

How can you tell which subgenre your mystery falls under?

Sometimes it’s hard to know which genre or subgenre your book falls under. This is important to know as soon as you can so that you know which audience to market to as well as be able to talk about your book properly, especially if you’re querying to agents and publishers.

One way to figure out which subgenre your mystery falls under is to pinpoint aspects of your book and connect them to the subgenres.

For example, is your book light-hearted with little gruesome detail? It could be softboiled or cozy. Is your investigator an amateur? It’s most likely cozy over softboiled.

While you write your book, make notes of different qualities your book has so that it’ll be easier to figure out your genre and subgenre later on.

12 subgenres in mystery writing explained: a recap

Some of the subgenres in mystery writing are as follows:

  • Caper
  • Cozy
  • Domestic
  • Hardboiled
  • Investigator (or detective)
  • Noir
  • Procedural (or police procedural)
  • Softboiled
  • Supernatural (or paranormal)
  • Suspense
  • Thriller
  • True crime (non-fiction in mystery)

There are so many different subgenres within the mystery genre. We only discussed 12 so far but keep your eyes open for more.

When you read mystery books, think about the aspects of each novel and remember where you found them in your bookstore or library. It’ll help you learn about the different subgenres and further your knowledge of the mystery genre as a whole.

Happy writing!

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Rachel Poli

Written by

Author | Content Writer | Book Publicist | Podcaster | Creative Enthusiast | Runs on Coffee | RachelPoli.com/Book-Marketing-Help

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Rachel Poli

Written by

Author | Content Writer | Book Publicist | Podcaster | Creative Enthusiast | Runs on Coffee | RachelPoli.com/Book-Marketing-Help

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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