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Mysteries Demystified

I read mostly mysteries during the holiday seasons. The writing is more simple and requires less brainpower to read between the lines. But sometimes looking for the right mysteries could be a challenge. Mystery fiction has had many labels attached to it over the course of the genre’s history and there have been many attempts to classify it. The easiest is to stick with authors I like and branch out from there.

Thrillers, whodunits, mysteries, crime fiction, detective fiction, noir: all of these, and more, have been used, separately or interchangeably, to describe basically the same thing. They are all essentially referring to the same overall genre of literary fiction, the mystery or crime story. I divide them up in three categories and keep that mind when I’m browsing:

1. Puzzled Mysteries. One book that comes to mind is the recently read, lesser-known Bodies in a Bookshop by R.T. Campbell. A murder victim is discovered in a room or enclosure with no apparent exit, leaving the detective to ascertain the killer’s means of escape. What if the killer never escaped? The locked-room format uses such devices as misdirection (red herrings) and the illusion to deceive the reader into thinking that escape from the sealed room is an actual impossibility.

2. Cozy Mysteries. Some bookstores now have a separate section of these mysteries. This genre is generally acknowledged as the classic style of mystery writing. Prominent in England during the 1920s and ’30s, this style focused on “members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who became suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.” (Crime Classics) The stories almost always involved solving some form of puzzle, and invariably, observation, a keen understanding of human nature, and a heavy reliance on gossip were indispensable tools used in the solving of the crime. Representative authors are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

3. Hard Boiled/Noir. Born in the 1920s with the rise of pulp magazines, these stories captured the reality of life in America at this time in history. Most stories featured a tough guy main character, an isolated protagonist who managed to obey his own code of ethics and achieve a limited and local justice in a less than perfect world. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the quintessential hard boiled mystery novelists.

4. Police Procedural. The main characteristic of these types of stories are their realistic portrayal of police methods in the solving of crime. Police novels, or procedurals, usually center on a single police force or precinct, with each individual within becoming a part of the story. Often showcasing several cases at the same time, procedurals concentrate on the detailed investigation of a crime from the point of view of the police. Most of the supermarket bestsellers fall into this category.

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