The mystery genre has developed many sub-genres over the years. While some stories straddle categories, correctly labeling your mystery will determine how an editor responds to your submission. Following are thirteen of the most common slots.
Cozy: When the rich uncle is found poisoned, the kindly lady from across the heath skips her afternoon tea to discover which of the family members committed the dastardly deed.
The cozy, typified by Agatha Christie, contains a bloodless crime and a victim who won't be missed. The solution can be determined using emotional (Miss Marple) or logical (Poirot) reasoning. The Malice Domestic convention celebrates this tradition and produces an annual anthology.
Amateur Sleuth: Even though his business partner's death is declared a suicide, Frank can't shake the feeling that his partner was killed to sabotage the defense contract.
The amateur sleuth tries to solve the murder of someone close. Either the police have tried and failed or misread the murder as an accident/suicide. Both the loss and need for a solution is personal. These are usually single-shot stories and novels since lightning rarely strikes the same person again and again (outside of a television series). [Editor's Note: This is changing, however, and there are a large number of amateur sleuths who are normally engaged in such businesses as selling tea or making quilts, but who manage to stumble across dead bodies on a regular basis.]
Professional Sleuth: Although Swiss banks were world-renowned for discretion and secrecy, Hans knew he needed to explain the dead body in the vault before Monday morning.
The professional sleuth is an amateur sleuth in a professional setting, preferably a setting which is unique and intriguing. Not only is inside information used, but solving the crime returns order to a cloistered environment. Think Dick Frances and the world of horse racing.
Police Procedural: As Lieutenant Dickerman watched the new guy blow too much dust across the glass table top, he reached for the antacids in his pocket. The killer had struck four times now and Dickerman had to depend on clowns fresh out of the academy to gather evidence.
The police procedural emphasizes factual police operations. Law enforcement is a team effort where department politics often plays a large role. If you plan to write one of these, you need to spend time with police officers and research the tiny details which will make your story ring true. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels describe the workings of a fictional big-city department.
Legal/Medical: The defense lawyer knew that the surgeon was going to be a difficult expert witness.
Lawyers and doctors make effective protagonists since they seem to exist on a plane far above the rest of us. Although popular, these tales are usually penned by actual lawyers and doctors due to the demands of the information presented. To find latest legal/medical mystery look no farther than the bestseller list.
Suspense: Despite the fact Greg hadn't seen the killer flee the scene of the crime, the two attempts on his life convinced him the killer believed otherwise.
Instead of the sleuth pursuing the criminal, in suspense the protagonist is the one being pursued. Here the question is not so much "Who done it?" but "How will the main character stay alive?" These thrillers are often blockbusters.
Romantic Suspense: Despite the fact Vanessa hadn't seen the killer flee the scene of the crime, the two attempts on her life made her wonder if she shouldn't have said anything to Richard.
Add a hefty dose of romance to a suspense and produce a romantic suspense. Not only does justice prevail, but love conquers all. The spectrum runs from Mary Higgins Clark to mystery lines from the paperback romance publishers.
Historical: When Sam Adams turned the Boston Massacre into a call for revolution, he neglected to mention that one of the men killed was shot not by the British but by someone firing from a second story window.
Move your mystery into the past, near or far, and you've entered the realm of the historical mystery. Crime has always been in fashion and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination and ability to research. The Historial Mystery Appreciation Society can be found at http://www.mysterynet.com/organizations/#appreciation [Editor's Note: Another interesting resource on historical mysteries is Crime Thru Time, at http://www.crimethrutime.com/.]
Mixed Genre: As if it wasn't bad enough that a clone had terminated a robot, Inspector Ji suspected the killing had been ordered by the Velusian ambassador.
Move your mystery into the future and you've entered the realm of the mixed-genre mystery. Although mixed-genre isn't confined to SF, science fiction is a healthy market which welcomes the marriage. Isaac Asimov's ROBOT series is one example of a future police detective.
Private Eye: He fingered the retainer in his pocket, tried to remind himself that the client was always right. It didn't wash. She thought she could buy him but he wasn't for sale.
The Private Eye is as much an American icon as the Western gunslinger. From the hardboiled PIs of the 30s and 40s to the politically correct investigators of today, this sub-genre is known for protagonists with a strong code of honor. While Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an unofficial PI, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is licensed.
Noir: He fingered the check in his pocket. He knew it would bounce, but so had Mac when he hit the pavement from seven stories up.
While much PI is Noir, Noir also covers stories from the other side of the fence. Noir is a mood: gritty, bleak, and unforgiving. The usual brutality is about as far from Cozy as you can get. Plug "noir" into your favorite search engine to find a wealth of sites offering original and reprinted fiction.
Crime: They had thirty seconds to cut the alarm. Best time during drills had been fifteen. Now, twenty seconds after opening the faceplate, Allison slipped and dropped the pliers inside the wall.
Suspense in the crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We're rooting for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one. This sub-genre works well in film. Consider renting The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Entrapment, or The Thomas Crowne Affaire.
Caper: The gun had been loaded when he left the house this morning so why wouldn't it shoot now? Gus cursed as he throttled the lump of metal and then glared down the barrel.
A caper is a comic crime story. Instead of suave and calculating, the caper chronicles the efforts of the lovable bungler who either thinks big or ridiculously small. Finally we get to laugh.
Lucky Thirteen: Take your next idea and test how the different mystery sub-genres give shape to the story. Who knows, you just might produce thirteen of them.