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The Ultimate Mystery Genre Vocab List

How to keep your Marlowe separate from your Miss Marple


If you’re new to mystery fiction – or just can’t keep your Marlowe separate from your Miss Marple – it’s time to take a refresher course in subgenres. As always, we’re here to help. Dive right in with this mystery genre vocab list.

Amateur Sleuth: These tales feature a sleuth who is not an official criminal investigator. Often the protagonist is an everyday Joe with a gifted sense of curiosity, or has a chatty pal on the force willing to divulge department secrets. Explicit violence is eschewed in favor of intriguing character puzzles and clever narrative twists. The perpetrator is usually hiding right beneath everyone’s nose. We Recommend: Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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Caper: Who doesn’t love an overly planned heist? Caper fiction features a cast of colorful characters who attempt to pull off the big one. Often this ragtag gang is composed of former criminals and their robbery targets a heavily guarded, highly valuable object. Alas, no matter how detailed the planning, their caper rarely works. Part of the fun is watching its spectacular implosion. We Recommend: The Light of Day, by Eric Ambler.

Cozies: Cozies are as gentle as the name suggests (think Angela Lansbury from Murder, She Wrote). The murder is quick if presented at all, and there is very little additional brutality. The mystery occurs in an enclosed space – a small town or leafy country estate – with all the suspects present. The sleuth is a sharp and perceptive, usually female, protagonist who uses her instincts to uncover the culprit. No weapons necessary, thank you. We Recommend: Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie.

Dark Thriller: A relatively recent entry into the field of mystery fiction, dark thrillers synthesize the appeal of a mystery with the graphic violence and psychological derangement of horror. The result is a moody and atmospheric experience that often resembles modern thriller films. We Recommend: The Shining, by Stephen King.

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Espionage: High on intrigue and overstuffed with nifty spy gadgets, espionage fiction focuses on the international conspiracies and intricate trickery of top-secret agencies. Original genre entries focused on the battle between nations, often pitting Soviets against the West. Newer entries explore the borderless realm of international terrorism. We Recommend: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré.

Hardboiled or P.I.: Here’s looking at you, kid. This classic genre conjures images of trench coats, fedoras, and foul-mouthed detectives with awful smoking habits. P.I. fiction follows a gritty investigator who struggles for justice in a seamy urban setting. Punches are thrown, cheap whiskey imbibed, and there is near-always a dame with a killer set of curves. We Recommend: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

Historical: Historical mysteries occur in a very specific, and highly recognizable, historical period. While mystery is still at the heart of this genre, increased emphasis is placed on the narrative’s unique surroundings and its time period pageantry. Expect noble knights and nefarious monks with your whodunit. We Recommend: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

Inverted or Howdunit: In this genre, the need to uncover the identity of the perpetrator is replaced by how he or she committed the crime. Howdunits often begin with the reader witnessing the crime in its entirety. The narrative thrust then stems from exposing the method behind the crime and finding out just how the criminal will be caught. We Recommend: Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles.

Locked Room: This genre is catnip for puzzle fiends. Locked room mysteries feature a perplexing murder committed under seemingly impossible circumstances, with a crime scene that no intruder could have entered or exited. While clues are present, they initially make little sense. It is only through the brilliant mind of the story’s sleuth – or its reader, if you’re quick enough – that a head-slappingly obvious solution is realized. We Recommend:The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” by Edgar Allen Poe.

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Medical: Medical mysteries combine the quick pace of a thriller with the life-or-death stakes of the medical world. Often the threat comes from a deadly pathogen outbreak, other times it is the immoral use of medical technology. In either case, expect plenty of graphic scenes set in the operating room. We Recommend: Coma, by Robin Cook.

Noir: Noir is the dark-eyed cousin of hardboiled fiction, with a far bleaker vision of humanity. While the central character is often a detective, this isn’t a requirement. Instead, the deciding factor is tone: Innocence and nobility are non-existent in noir; characters are greedy and desperate, often ensnared in a deadly web of their own devising. We Recommend: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

Police procedurals: Police procedurals break from the lone wolf model of P.I. fiction to capture the intricate investigative process of the entire police force. Often procedurals contain multiple narratives from a cast of forensic investigators. Together, they apply their specialized skills to nab the fiendish culprit. We Recommend: The Black Echo, by Michael Connelly.

Technothriller: Hackers unite! Technology takes center stage in this genre – often as a malevolent force in the hands of a highly dangerous individual. Annihilation induced by technology is a recurring topic, as is the threat of world war. Then again, where would Stieg Larsson’s Millenniumseries be without its brilliant hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander? We Recommend: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

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