I was wandering around my Barnes and Noble store recently and was struck by how large the mystery section was. In addition to almost two full rows of hardback mysteries, there were three long rows of paperback offerings. For me, seeing all those mysteries was like putting a meaty bone before a hungry dog.
It wasn’t just the number of books, but the variety of mysteries available that impressed me. By my count there were over twenty different kinds of books. But rather than list my twenty, let’s start our discussion with three basic categories–police procedurals, detectives and cozies.
In police procedurals the process within the police department is highlighted. The story focuses on the investigative techniques and the tools policemen use to solve the crime. Parker’s Jesse Stone, Dexter’s Inspector Morse or Hillerman’s Leaphorn stories are some examples that give us a look at very different types of police departments. These books focus on the clues uncovered by the police process and how these clues lead to the solution.
I think Cornwell’s medical examiner Kay Scarpetta is another great example of a procedural—or is it a different category because it’s not about a policeman. See how the categories start to expand.
In the next grouping we have both hard boiled and soft boiled versions of detectives. Hard boiled stories are usually written in first person and from the perspective of the detective. These novels tend to be very graphic with lots of blood, guts and gore when describing scenes. Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade are examples credited with launching this category. But hard boiled is not limited to men, we have Paretsky’s Warshawski and Grafton’s Millhone representing the ladies.
The Soft Boiled Detective is still a professional detective, but the descriptions are less graphic and avoid the gore. Additionally we often get as much information about the detective’s lifestyle as the crime. I would offer Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolf as good examples. The stories can be written from the point of view of the detective, but that’s not a requirement. In Sherlock Holmes we rely on Watson for all the details.
Cozy mysteries are the last group and offer a large and diverse selection. Cozy mysteries take place in towns where anyone one of us could reside and the crimes are solved by amateurs. The amateur detective uses personal knowledge and life experiences like the quintessential Miss Marple who relies on the knowledge she learned in St. Mary Mead to solve the crime.
Cozies have many categories. We have mysteries solved by members of the clergy, lawyers, psychics, doctors, school teachers and the aristocracy. We have amateur detectives who own stores such as bookstores, chocolate shops and antique stores to name a few. We have bachelors, spinsters and couples helping to put the bad guys behind bars. One of my favorites is the culinary mystery which includes the preparation of food along with the clues. We even have animal detectives pawing through clues for a solution. And I’m sure I have left out many more examples. What about historical mysteries. Do they belong in their own category?
What’s my favorite category of mystery you ask? To be honest, I’m not sure I have one. I like all kinds of mysteries as long as there is a good story and a good puzzle to solve. But what about you–do you have a favorite type of mystery?