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On Genre: Mystery Novels

Mystery novels are arguably one of the broadest categories in fictional writing. Much like sci-fi or fantasy, the mystery genre includes other standalone genres within it.

To understand this better, let’s look at mystery novels, the genre as a whole, and some of the biggest names in mystery writing.

What is Mystery Fiction?

We can define the mystery genre as one in which, unsurprisingly, something mysterious happens. Typically, it’s a crime, such as a murder, and the key events remain a mystery until the very end of the novel. Like other genres, the big reveal of who committed the crime is the novel’s climax.

Mystery fiction is perhaps one of the easiest to define because it has such a clear-cut series of tropes. Even so, there are plenty of branches within the mystery genre that favor some elements over others.

The Tropes of Mystery Novels

In some ways, we could argue that mystery is more of a style of writing than a genre. Much like realism, there are obvious mystery writers, but numerous novels that aren’t typically mysteries involve the genre’s key tropes.

Here are some of the most important tropes in mystery novels.

The Event

As mentioned, mystery novels usually revolve around a crime of some kind. Although murder is common (because it’s one of the juicier crimes), it could also be theft, fraud, or just about anything you might want.

Of course, some are more interesting than others. For example, not many people would enjoy a mystery novel about tax evasion, but there are probably plenty out there!

The Protagonist

Generally, the protagonist in a mystery novel will be someone in law enforcement, although this isn’t always the case. Police officers or FBI agents make good protagonists in this regard because they allow the reader access to the inner workings of a case, which the average bystander wouldn’t have.


Mystery novels will usually have a closed circle of suspects, most of whom have “justified” reasons for committing the crime. We as readers can interact with these suspects in different ways depending on the authors’ desired level of suspense.

Let’s take two mystery novel authors as examples: Thomas Harris and Ian Ranking. In Harris’ novels –Hannibal, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs – we often know quite a bit about the suspect. Sometimes, we even have them as a POV character.

In Rankin’s novels, however, the suspect is usually kept at arm’s length in order to create more suspense and mystery. While we might have interactions with the suspect through the protagonist, it’s typically less obvious.

Order of Events

Arguably one of the most interesting things about mystery novels is that they basically happen backwards. It’s common for the crime to happen at the beginning of the novel, sometimes even in the prologue. We then work backwards from the event as the novel progresses, as the protagonist unpicks the details to determine the suspect.

In this way, mystery novels stand in contrast to other genres where the main event is the climax. Instead, a mystery novel’s climax is the protagonist naming (and hopefully catching) the suspect, even if we as readers have already worked out who it is.

Types of Mystery Novels

We can consider mystery fiction as much a style of writing as a genre because of how many distinct genres fall into it. To continue the comparison above, realism was a genre pioneered in the 19th century, in which authors strove to create the highest levels of realism possible. However, it's also a style of writing, as plenty of novels that don’t consider themselves realism have realistic elements.

The same is true for mystery novels. The tropes above fit many different stories, settings, and events, even ones we wouldn’t consider to be inherently focused on mystery.

Let’s go over some of the more popular and clear-cut types of mystery writing that fall into the larger genre.

Crime Novels

Crime novels are the most obvious type of mystery fiction. We could also call them detective fiction because they focus on a detective following and solving a crime. To an extent, we could include true crime novels in this category, but we won’t be focusing on those here.

One of the most popular crime authors is also one of the genre’s biggest pioneers: Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlock Holmes stories were incredibly popular in the late 19th century and established many of the tropes we still see in crime novels.

Cozy Mysteries

Despite the name, cozy mysteries are no less thrilling than other mystery novels. The main difference is that these stories don’t typically feature violence, although they might still have a murder as the crime. Also, murder methods are less violent, such as poison, and we don’t see injuries used as clues.

Other tropes in cozy mysteries include closed communities, typically “well bred” characters, and solving the crime through intuition rather than police procedure. If all this sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, it’s because she’s considered one of the pioneers of cozy mysteries.

Mystery Romance Books

Mystery romance books are a category where mystery is more of the style than the genre. As the name suggests, mystery romance books have a love story along with a mystery. The love story will be between the protagonist and a related character, but doesn’t always have any relation to the mystery itself.

Some mystery romance authors include Linda Howard, Nora Roberts, and Kendra Elliot. Although we could argue that mystery romance books are typically trashier than cozy mysteries or crime novels, it doesn’t mean they’re any less entertaining.

Final Thoughts

Mystery novels will always be one of the most enduring categories of fiction. As humanity’s love of true crime shows, we enjoy the crime aspects of a mystery, particularly when we can consume it safely. This is exactly what mystery fiction plays into and is partly why it’s so ubiquitous in other types of fiction. Hopefully, this has whetted your appetite to go out and read (or write) some mystery novels!

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