Genre in Depth: Mystery

Genre in Depth is a new series on Fictionally Sam where we delve into different genre and see how they began, their characteristics, and books within that genre, etc. New genre every first and last Wednesday of the month!

I spy with my little brown eyes a very late post. I know what you are going to say, “aren’t these suppose to be posted on Wednesdays?” and yes Karen, yes they are supposed to be up on Wednesday– but who would have thought that mystery had so…much? I wanted to do this genre justice, and as I got deeper into my research I realized that this one was going to take more time than I originally planned and allotted for. So here we are.
Today’s installment we are going to look at the genre of mystery and all that it holds (which is a whole of a lot). As I probably have only read two series and a standalone that could be considered part of the mystery genre (thank you Nancy Drew and the Sammy Keyes series!) I found that I too learned so much about this genre, and now I am honestly really intrigued to pick up a few books in the Mystery spectrum and delve into their stories! With that said, I would like to point out that I took to my lovely friends for recommendations for books specifically for this post as I haven’t read much in the genre to be able to fully give you a recommendation. I trust their judgement 100% and if they rec it than I rec it too!
So grab your chair, get comfy, and let’s evaluate the clues!

Many believe that Mystery fiction began with the 1794 classic The Adventures of Caleb William by William Godwin, a story of a man who suspects his master of killing his neighbor and pinning the crime on a tenant with planting incriminating evidence at the murder scene. However, the predecessors of Mystery fiction actually date back to before Godwin’s novel; with roots that can be traced back to the advent of movable type it was during the 16th century that the genre took up speed and caught popularity as readers had begun to get a taste of crime solving fiction through pamphlets, chapbooks, and broadsides.
During the sixteenth century time period it was common for newspapers and other publishers to print brief and highly sensationalized accounts of criminal confessions and crimes that were going on in the city and surrounding areas of the country, which more often than not would be dispersed during the accused’s execution. These papers were usually printed eight times a year by the City of London and the County of Middlesex Sessions; The Ordinary (the chaplain) would also publish his own findings and accounts of the crimes committed, however, the Ordinary’s papers usually had a focus on the accused’s last days as well as the state of their souls.
Bending the Truth
As the years progressed, mystery fiction became something for the middle class to enjoy as the upper class turned away from the genre claiming it to be too gory and unsuitable for refined and respectable readers. In the 18th century, Daniel Defoe brought a breath of new life the genre. As a professional journalist, Defoe had a peculiar eye for spotting and writing viral stories. He recognized there was indeed a market and a people who yearned for “truth” and decided to begin defining what exactly that meant. Taking advantage of the time’s current popularity with pirates and piracy, Defoe published his 1719 novel King of Pirates, which tells the story of the real pirate Captain Avery. To give himself more logos and superiority over other biographies about Avery, Defoe included in his work two letters claimed to be written by Avery himself that spoke out on the inaccuracies of other published biographies. Defoe continued writing about the life of pirates as he began to blend in reality with fiction.
Defoe used that same technique with the Biography of Jack Sheppard–a criminal turned hero after his escape from death-cells in both New Prison and Newgate–as the piece gives a blood pumping account of certain events in his escape that was allegedly written by Sheppard himself before his final capture. The pamphlet, which can be now said is almost certainly written by Defoe, is hardly rooted in true reality. Defoe’s journalistic style and use of toying the line between truth and fiction would become a technique heavily used in the mystery fiction genre for centuries to come.
Vidocq_MemoirsDuring and before Defoe’s career, readers were intrigued by the story of the criminal making him in their minds a sort of anti-hero. Everyone wanted to know his side of the story, what pushed him towards the brink of sanity and his perspective on the events that took place. However, this all began to shift towards the end of the 18th century when people’s interest switched to that of the detectives POV. According to writer, Kristen Masters, “The last significant work with a criminal as hero perfectly embodies this shift. French criminal Francois Eugene Vidocq published Memories(1828-1829), a memoir about his own exploits. Vidocq recounts how he repented and became a police informant, eventually coming to hold the post of Chef de la Surete. The book would influence authors like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. It would also mark a new era for the crime novel, one where the protagonist is not a criminal, but a detective or other agent of the law.”
Mystery comes to America and the Golden Age
However, throughout all of this shifting, the first true detective novel would not come from neither France nor England–but rather America. Known to all as the Father of Horror, Edgar Allen Poe created in 1841 the detective, Auguste C Dupin in The Murders on the Rue Morgue. In this story, Poe introduced a new trait to mystery fiction dubbed “the locked room” where a crime is committed in an apparently sealed or locked enclosure. Rue Morgue was such a phenomenon, that Poe continued his venture in mystery fiction with The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1845). With these three novels under his belt, Poe became the first author to solely focus on the workings of the criminal mind.
By the roaring twenties, mystery fiction had attained global popularity. Most set in small villages, with heroes from slightly aristocratic backgrounds and upbringings, murder weapons that reached from exotic poisons to letter openers, and red herrings that temporarily misled the detectives investigation. Even with all of the standard structures of a mystery at play with each novel that’s published, readers swarmed in drones to them, soon creating the golden age of Mystery Fiction.

Memorial to Agatha Christie in Central London

The Golden age of the mystery genre not only refers to the time period but also to a prescribed formula that gives little room for variation. Stories from this genre are typically called the “apex of the [mystery] genre, embodying all of the important elements that make the form so appealing.”1 The Golden age introduced the concept of “fair play” on the author’s part, though it isn’t uncommon for the writer to withhold a vital clue until the very last possible moment. One author that has become synonymous with the Golden Age is the mystery queen herself–Agatha Christie. Bringing the legendary detective Hercule Poirot to life in her piece The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie is considered the master of suspense, plotting and characterization.
As Christie gained traction and popularity in shaping the adult mystery world, mystery fiction made more headway in America as it took a new turn with the creation of the police procedural and hard-boiled subgenre as it gained traction through the television medium. Mystery novels also began to venture into children’s fiction as series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were “often written by corporate authors and followed variations on the formula so successfully used by the English country house murder school–though the crimes were generally much less shocking than murder.”2
Today, these series remain a classic as the genre continues to be a globally thriving one. Though the genre has changed and evolved throughout time, it is one that has kept readers throughout time searching for more.
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“Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark.” ― Stefan Zweig, The Burning Secret and other stories

The definition of the mystery genre is “a type of fiction in which a detective, or other professional, solves a crime or series of crimes. It can take the form of a novel or short story. This genre may also be called detective or crime novels. The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience.”
The main goal/focus in mystery is to solve the case and/or puzzle. The protagonist or main character is typically entrusted the position of detective and the rest of the cast are their suspects. Typically a mystery genre plot will begin with the inciting action (ex. the murder) and will heavily lean on the use of suspense to further the plot and story along and to draw the reader in further into the story. Typically time is taken within the storyline to focus on each of the supporting characters (suspects) to garner new clues and find out the motive/background story.
More often than not, Mystery genre is heavy-handed with foreshadowing (literary device that hints at events to come) as a means to raise the bar of dramatic tension. According to author David Corbett, “The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.”
Mystery novels tend to have a thematic emphasis on the question of “how can we know the truth?”
Structural Distinctions of the Mystery Genre:

  1. The Crime
  2. The Motivated investigator (typically our MC)
  3. The Hidden Killer
  4. The Cover-up (this is usually more important than the actual crime within the novel, and is what authors really are trying to solve as it is what is hiding our hidden killer)
  5. Inference Gaps – gaps in knowledge that forces the reader to make assumptions and be apart of the investigation
  6. Discovery and elimination of suspects (red herrings galore here folks)
  7. Evaluating clues
  8. Revealing and capturing the killer

Subgenres within Mystery:

  • Traditional Mystery – Usually take place in a confined setting like a village or country side home. Typically identified with Agatha Christie’s work. Focuses more on the investigation of the case rather than the case itself.
  • Legal Thriller/Mystery – Crime/investigation is seen through the eyes of the lawyers on the case.
  • Medical Thriller/Mystery – Almost like Police Procedural (defined below), except it follows the investigation from the stand point of the doctor, medical examiner, forensic pathologists or other medical experts. Use of intelligence and knowledge instead of violence is favored as they are heavy descriptors of unusual evidence.
  • Cozy Mystery – Violence and sex are downplayed and the crime takes place in a confined setting like a village or country side home like Traditional Mystery. Think Hallmark mysteries for this one.
  • Police procedural – follows cops in their case investigations
  • Hard-boiled (I know it sounds like the egg) – similar to crime fiction. This subgenre typically has a detective who witnesses the crime and has to work to solve it while dealing with a corrupt legal system (more often than not, the legal system is just as bad as the crime being committed). The MC’s in this tend to appear bitter because of the circumstances with those who work in law enforcement. Violence and Sex are more explicit

Themes explored within Mystery:

  • Human Condition
  • Psychology
  • Corruption

Character Traits:

  • The Protagonist/Hero – Usually or more often than not, you will find the hero to be either a cop (present or former), a reporter of some level (present or former), or an amateur sleuth. The hero tends to possess a passion and drive to see justice through to the very end as well as an interest in human nature. The hero will always have an acute sense of empathy.
  • The Antagonist/Villain – Commits crime either by accident or planned. Typically under the nose of the Hero. Uses the cover up as a unifier to the act of the violence. Great deceiver and manipulator of emotions and settings.


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What do you love about Mystery Fiction? Any Recommendations?




  1. Jordyn

    March 8, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    So interesting, so much research! Mystery is one of my all-time faves, thanks for the analysis and suggestions!!

    1. Sam || Fictionally Sam

      March 8, 2019 at 1:56 pm

      Indeed! And you are welcome!

  2. Rosie Amber

    March 8, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    Here are a few:
    Carol Hedges writes fantastic Victorian mystery.
    William Savage has a great Georgian period mystery series.
    Harriet Steel writes vintage mystery set in old Ceylon.
    J. New writes vintage (1930s) British mystery.
    Kirsten Weiss has written a paranormal mystery series. The Witches Of Doyle

  3. BrigidDowney

    March 8, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    This is so interesting and I respect the work you put into this! I grew up loving mystery as a kid (I was a Nancy Drew girl all the way!), but can’t find myself getting into it much as an adult.

  4. Para

    March 9, 2019 at 9:37 am

    These posts are so in-depth! I read a lot of German children’s mystery books as a kid. Unfortunately I don’t remember the names of the authors, but there was one long series with two friends and an old lady who had a pet sheep and another where it was a group of friends with a dog. Then at some point I just kind of…stopped. Lost interest?

  5. TheCaffeinatedReader

    March 9, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Ah! My a tie for my favorite genre! This and sci-fi! Let me tell you! I have too many mystery recs but if you ever decide to read an Agatha Christie, I would recommend ‘Five Little Pigs.’ And I loved your in-depth cover of Mysteries, thank you so much!

    1. Sam || Fictionally Sam

      March 12, 2019 at 5:41 pm


  6. Loverofromance

    March 10, 2019 at 12:50 am

    I do love a good mystery, all those Nancy Drew I read when I was younger I just fell in love with. I read only romance, so I am always on the lookout for a good mystery. I do find a good mystery done in espionage historical’s and romantic suspense has quite a few of those as well. And sometimes we see a mystery happen in a romance novel that you don’t even suspect. I read Alpha Instinct last week by Katie Reus, and its a paranormal shifter romance, but what a great mystery, its basically a serial killer trying to kill a pack, but its someone they trust and don’t expect. So well done.
    Love your blog and following now through feedly and bookmarked!! 🙂

    1. Sam || Fictionally Sam

      March 12, 2019 at 5:40 pm

      I’ve been meaning to try out a few paranormal romances as that’s a branch of romance I haven’t ventured into yet, so I may waddle to that one soon! Thank you for the rec!
      and YAY! Thank you!!

  7. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

    March 13, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    holy hell this is the coolest and most well researched post I have read in awhile! I had no idea that confessions and whatnot were printed in papers, but of course they were in the days of the pillory and sensationalization. I am surprised its roots don’t go much further to be honest, because I feel like mysteries kind of tap into almost an innate fascination with the macabre. Then again, I am not sure how much genre fiction exists prior to the printing press in general — that invention really revolutionized so much! (imagines some monks transcribing a Sherlock Holmes-style tale by candlelight and cackles.)

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  9. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic

    March 15, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Oh, Sam! This is some quality post. I really liked it.
    When I was little, mistery books were my favorite. I read tons of Agatha Christie’s novels and I tried to keep my passion alive when I grow up but… I guess it lost the charm? Something I still end up reading some mystery, but more thriller like.
    And there was a certain point in which I was very interested in Arsene Lupin books (but the sexim bored me to death).
    Right now I stick to mistery YA and… tend to guess the culprit pretty soon 🤷

    1. Sam || Fictionally Sam

      March 16, 2019 at 12:20 pm

      Thank you! I grew up not really reading mystery but fantasy and scifi, but through this little bout of research I’m super intrigued and am planning to read more soon! I’ve heard great things about good ol’ Agatha but I’ve never heard of Arsene Lupin, may have to check him out! (though if the sexism is huge may pass cause who has the time for that nonesense?)

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