What’s in a Name?

Mystery subgenres explained.

The panorama of today’s mystery offerings can be bewildering, given the myriad categories and classifications. Definitions inevitably provoke debate, but researchers often turn to the work of critics and scholars such as Jon L. Breen, Howard Haycraft, H.R.F. Keating, and Julian Symons for help in painting the landscape. What follows below can serve as a starting point in understanding the many variations of the mystery form.

Crime Fiction vs. Mystery. The term crime fiction can include a wider scope such as the effect of violence or a crime, whereas the term mystery seems to be applied more often to an investigation of a case — that is, whodunit. Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox) might be described as crime fiction, because the reader knows the identity of the murderer at the outset; instead, the book focuses on this individual’s activities. An example of today’s crime fiction writers is Ian Rankin, whose novels center on the complex Inspector Rebus.

Cozy/Traditional/Malice Domestic. Cozy or traditional mysteries usually take place in a confined setting such as a village or house in the country. They are frequently identified with the British Agatha Christie, although the form was established much earlier with the work of Americans Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart (who lived in DC). Men, too, made significant contributions to this form, including G.K. Chesterton, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, and Melville Davisson Post. Works in Malice Domestic, defined by the mystery convention of the same name, usually feature an amateur sleuth as well as characters who know each other (e.g., no serial killers) and do not have explicit sex, gore, or violence. The diversity of contemporary works in Malice Domestic can be seen in Aaron Elkins’ series with anthropologist Gideon Oliver, Susan Isaacs’s Compromising Positions, Margaret Maron’s Southern mysteries, Barbara Neely’s novels with maid Blanche White, and Anne Perry’s books set in the Victorian era.

Golden Age. This era of mystery spans roughly the late-nineteenth century to the end of World War II and has both professional and amateur detectives. These works often had rules of fair play with the reader, which were articulated by writers such as S.S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”), Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (“Decalogue”), and Raymond Chandler (“The Simple Art of Murder”). Subcategories include the locked-room mystery typified by the work of John Dickson Carr, but a recent example can be seen in Carolyn Hart’s Dead by Midnight.

Hardboiled PI. The PI character is invariably a loner working for justice in a corrupt world. The first hard-boiled detective is believed to have appeared in Carroll John Daly’s “It’s All in the Game” (1923), but Maryland-born Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton agent, set an indelible stamp on the form. He inspired the work of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Walter Mosley, and Robert B. Parker. Regarding female PIs, early on the scene were Gloria and Forest Fickling’s Honey West (1957) and Maxine O’Callaghan’s Delilah West (1976), followed by Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone in 1977, Liza Cody’s Anna Lee in 1980, and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone in 1982.

Noir. These works present a pessimistic view of the world and began to emerge in earnest in the 1930s. They range from Hyattsville resident James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1934) and Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black (1940) to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), David Goodis’ Shoot the Piano Player (aka Down There, 1956), and Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem (aka For Love of Imabelle, 1957).

Paranormal/urban fantasy. Otherworldly elements are part of the universe of the paranormal/urban fantasy mystery such as Charlaine Harris’ Harper Connelly who has ESP, Lee Killough’s detective who is a ghost, and Barbara Hambly’s James Asher who investigates in the vampire community. Although these are of a fairly recent vintage, they have echoes of nineteenth-century Gothic fiction.

Police procedural. Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) popularized the form of mystery that follows cops in their investigation of a case, although roots of this form can be found in the books of J.J. Marric (aka John Creasey), Maurice Procter, Lawrence Treat, and Hillary Waugh. McBain’s work directly influenced TV series such as "Hill Street Blues." Police procedurals with female cops include the works of Eleanor Taylor Bland, Lillian O’Donnell, and Dorothy Uhnak.

Spy/espionage. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), and W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928) are three important works in the development of the novel that focuses on skullduggery between nations, although Buchan credited E. Phillips Oppenheim as his inspiration (see “Thriller”). Masters of the spy/espionage novel are Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene, Jack Higgins (aka Harry Patterson), John le Carré (aka David Cornwell), and Robert Ludlum. Female authors with women spies include Evelyn Anthony, former CIA analyst Francine Mathews, and ex-MI5 director Stella Rimington.

Suspense. Although suspense exists in all forms of mystery, this form can involve a naïve main character confronting evil. Daphne du Maurier and Charlotte Armstrong are classic authors in this category; modern purveyors include Mary Higgins Clark and Ruth Rendell. A subcategory is romantic suspense, best exemplified by Madeleine Brent (aka Peter O’Donnell), Barbara Michaels, and Mary Stewart and now penned by writers such as Susanna Kearsley and Lillian Stewart Carl.

Thriller. High stakes and swift action characterize the works in this subgenre, and their plots often can be summarized in a phrase. The modern exemplar of the thriller is the late Michael Crichton (“dinosaurs in the modern age” — Jurassic Park, 1990; “deadly virus threatens mankind” — The Andromeda Strain, 1969), but the form dates to E. Phillips Oppenheim, who was a favorite author of Woodrow Wilson, and Edgar Wallace. Oppenheim’s best-known book is probably The Great Impersonation (“German spy endangers British security,” 1920), and Wallace’s long and prolific career includes The Four Just Men (“ring of vigilantes pursues justice,” 1905). This form can cross over into spy/espionage as well as have subcategories within it such as the political thrillers of David Baldacci and the techno-thrillers of Stephen Coonts. Local thriller authors include Dan Fesperman, John Gilstrap, James Grady, and former Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter.

Elizabeth Foxwell is the managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection, the only U.S. scholarly journal on mystery and detective fiction, and editor of the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series. A cofounder of the local mystery convention Malice Domestic, she received the Agatha Award for Best Short Story for “No Man’s Land” (repr. World Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, vol. 5, 2004) and the George N. Dove Award for contributions to the serious study of mystery/crime fiction. She blogs on mystery history at www.elizabethfoxwell.blogspot.com.

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