Mystery Genres

How does one describe a mystery? Besides being hard or soft-boiled mysteries can also rub shoulders with thrillers, classics, crime, fantasy, espionage, and other genres. Even within the pure mystery genre, there are police, private-eye, amateur sleuth, and other sub-genres.

Years ago, when people used to ask me what I write, I would tell them I wrote mysteries. I would often have to explain that, no, I didn’t write thrillers, horror, or medical suspense. I wrote more old-fashioned mysteries, more like Agatha Christie’s stories; classic whodunits, with a fairly small cast of characters, a clever sleuth, a charming location, and nothing too offensive or graphic. You know; just fun, old-fashioned murder mysteries.

Until one day, someone nodded approvingly and said, “Oh, you write cozies.”

Cozies, I learned, are a subgenre of mystery where the sex and violence happened “off stage,” and the primary focus is on solving the “puzzle” of the crime. So far, so good. I did some research. Stephen D. Rogers (who knows his stuff) even wrote that cozies are “typified by Agatha Christie.” Brilliant. My books apparently had a home; they were cozies.

But not so fast.

With two completed books, I boldly went to my first writers’ convention. And a prominent agent (who also knows her stuff) promptly informed me that my books were  certainly not cozies. She explained that cozies absolutely must have an amateur sleuth (sorry Poirot!) and even though I have an amateur sleuth in my character, Victoria, the very presence of my handsome Inspector Riggs disqualifies my books completely.

Fair enough. (And I’m not giving up Riggs!)

I did a little more research and while I couldn’t find a universal definition, most people in the cozy-loving world seemed to agree (more or less) that cozies should: 1) balance the protagonist’s personal story with the mystery, 2) contain a cat, dog, or some other adorable animal, and 3) should not contain more than two victims per book.

That’s 3 strikes against me. (2 strikes if you happen to consider seagulls “adorable”). But either way, I don’t seem to write cozies. And if I could suggest a 4th criteria, I would add the presence of desserts in the cozy genre (and rightly so!). It’s easy to spot a cozy (or a hard-core mystery) by its cover but spotting a traditional mystery by its cover is far more difficult.

As a debut author I volunteered for the ACA convention, and I suddenly found myself in the historical mystery writers panel. I hadn’t really thought of my works that way, but my books are in fact written in the 1950s, so historical they are.

These days, if you ask me what I write, I’ll say I write mysteries. If you don’t walk away or change the subject, I’ll probably add that they’re historical and “traditional” because readers can sort through clues and red herrings to solve the puzzle of the crime before the hero does. Not too dark or graphic, just fun, old-fashioned, murder mysteries.

You can read Roger’s excellent article: From Cozy to Caper: a Guide to Mystery Genres at And for further insights on the exact definitions of the various mystery sub-genres, just ask anyone who reads mysteries.

I’d love to hear your opinions. As a mystery lover, how do you define “a mystery?” And if you dig any particular sub-genres or cross-over, how do you explain them to your friends?

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