Copyright

Mystery Fiction: Books, Authors, & Charactertistics

Bethany Calderwood, Bryanna Licciardi
  • Author
    Bethany Calderwood

    Bethany is a certified Special Education and Elementary teacher with 11 years experience teaching Special Education from grades PK through 5. She has a Bachelor's degree in Special Education, Elementary Education, and English from Gordon College and a Master's degree in Special Education from Salem State University.

  • Instructor
    Bryanna Licciardi

    Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Learn the definition and meaning of mystery fiction, explore its characteristics, and discover its sub genres. See popular mystery genre books and their authors. Updated: 12/04/2021

Mystery Fiction

Fiction is the class of literature based on imagined events, people, or places. Fiction may be realistic or fantastic. Fiction can be divided into numerous genres, such as historical fiction, science fiction, romance, and mystery. What is mystery? Mystery fiction is a genre in which a protagonist must uncover the truth behind an unknown event. The mystery definition is often associated with detective stories or crime fiction, and the name is derived from the term mystery, meaning something difficult to explain or understand.

History of Mystery Fiction

The style of mystery fiction popular in western literature has its origins in the mid-nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" features many of modern mystery's conventions: a crime, police who struggle to identify the perpetrator, and an amateur detective who uses clues and motives to put the puzzle together. Poe wrote other mystery stories, and the genre began to spread with authors such as Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame). In 1878, Anna Katharine Green brought the detective novel to America. The genre continued to blossom as the 20th century progressed, with popular authors creating detectives who appeared in numerous novels.

Sherlock Holmes is an example of early mystery fiction and follows many of the key conventions of the genre.

Sherlock Holmes is an early example of mystery fiction and follows many of the genres key conventions.

Mystery Fiction Characteristics

Generally speaking, mystery fiction involves a number of predictable attributes. Mystery characteristics include:

  • A realistic plot grabs reader attention with events that have just enough familiarity to be relatable and exciting.
  • Suspense keeps readers engaged as the mystery unfolds and the protagonist determines what exactly is going on.
  • A shocking crime such as murder or grand theft makes it necessary for a good protagonist to take action.
  • Foreshadowing allows the reader to try to piece together the puzzle while reading and try to race the protagonist to the correct conclusion.
  • A detective or other crime-solver, usually the main character or protagonist, works to determine who committed the crime and why.
  • A villain or antagonist is key. The villain is not usually the most obvious suspect, adding to the suspense.
  • A resolution to the mystery, usually provided at the last minute, completes the mystery cycle.

Some mysteries also incorporate elements such as an outside detective who counters police incompetence, a wrongfully accused suspect, and misleading or misunderstood clues.

Definition of Mystery Fiction

Maybe as a kid you remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries or The Hardy Boys. These stories were well-liked because of the mysteries they solved. Most who appreciate the human mind can appreciate a good mystery, and, in fact, that is how the mystery genre came about. Mystery fiction is a genre in literature that focuses on someone solving a puzzle or a crime. It is also commonly referred to as crime fiction or detective fiction for this reason.

The genre includes novels and short stories that are written for a special kind of audience, because people who read mysteries expect the standard rules for the genre:

  • A realistic, yet suspenseful plot with a lot of twists
  • A shocking, yet realistic crime
  • Foreshadowing evidence
  • False leads
  • A crime solver, aka the protagonist or detective
  • An unexpected villain, criminal, or culprit
  • A last-minute resolution to the plot
  • An expectation that the situation will work itself out

Over the years, the mystery genre has been divided into a few sub genres. Hardboiled mysteries are those that are gritty and violent. Soft-boiled mysteries are just as realistic as hardboiled, yet more optimistic and humorous, and without the gory details. Cozy mysteries are light and less violent, with amateur crime solvers in small or tight-knit towns. Police Procedural mysteries always follow a professional detective or police officer who solves crimes. Locked Room mysteries are those whose crimes seem impossible to have been committed. And the most recent edition to the genre is the thriller, or compelling mysteries where the protagonist is put up against extraordinary odds (sometimes by supernatural means) that keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

In any mystery story, however, just remember that there are three basic questions to be answered: 'What happened? How did it happen? Who did it?'

Subgenres of the Mystery Genre

Mystery fiction is a broad genre that over time has evolved into numerous subgenres. The following table elaborates on these classifications.

Subgenre Description Example
Hard-boiled Hard-boiled mysteries tend to feature graphic details including gore, violence, and sex. The hard-boiled detective may be a workaholic and is often disturbed in their personal life. James M. Cain The Postman Always Rings Twice
Soft-boiled Soft-boiled mysteries are less detailed and graphic than hard-boiled, but tend to follow similar themes. Janet Evanovich's Plum series
Cozy Cozy mysteries are light-hearted stories that often involve amateur detectives in a small-town setting. The crime is present but without focus on gore or violence, and the relationships and life of the amateur sleuth receive more attention than in other mystery subgenres. Blaize Clement's Dixie Hemingway mystery series
Police procedural Procedural mysteries follow a crime-solving professional and focus on the official steps of crime-solving. Police procedurals might contain carefully researched details about forensic procedures, autopsies, and other true-to-life tools. Lawrence Treat V as in Victim
Locked room A locked room mystery features a crime that seems impossible, particularly a crime where there is no obvious way for the villain to have entered and left the crime scene. John Dickson Carr The Hollow Man
Thrillers Thrillers consist of fast-paced, suspenseful action and may contain supernatural or paranormal elements. Gillian Flynn Gone Girl

It is possible for some mystery fiction to fit into more than one subgenre, but the categories can help a reader to choose between mystery story options.

Mystery Book Authors

Many mystery book authors are prolific, writing series of books following the same detective and utilizing a common setting and style. Some popular mystery novel authors, sorted by subgenre, include:

  • Hard-boiled: James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Robert B. Parker, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler
  • Soft-boiled: Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Misa Ramirez
  • Cozy: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Lilian Jackson Braun, Joanne Fluke, Elizabeth Daly
  • Police procedural: Ed McBain, Craig Johnson, Michael Connelly, Douglas Preston, Ian Rankin
  • Locked Room: Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John DIckson Carr
  • Thriller: Dan Brown, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Harlan Coban

These are only a few of the myriad mystery authors writing past and present. It is also true that some authors write in different subgenres at different points in their careers.

Mystery Fiction Books

The long history of mystery fiction books ensures that there are plenty of mystery examples to choose from. Some famous mystery genre books include:

  • 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' by Edgar Allan Poe, the short story credited with starting the trend of detective fiction
  • The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr, considered one of the best ever locked room mysteries
  • Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, definitive in creating the template for detective fiction
  • Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, pitting her distinctive sleuths against the skill of Scotland Yard
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a classic and sinister Gothic tale
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, an example of a domestic thriller
  • One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, debuting her famous protagonist Stephanie Plum
  • Fear No Evil by James Patterson, and the rest of his Alex Cross series of hard-boiled mysteries

Books

Mystery fiction first made its mark in the 1800s, with Edgar Allan Poe and his character Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin from 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' (1841), 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' (1842) and 'The Purloined Letter' (1845). These stories, considered locked room mysteries, followed the intelligent amateur detective as he solved seemingly impossible crimes by getting into the psyche of the criminal. Poe was one of the first writers to move away from mystery's supernatural and more towards the intellectual. His writing began to focus on the mind of the villain or culprit rather than rely on 'strange' and 'spooky'. Thus began the mystery genre's shift towards realism.

Illustration of Dupin from The Purloined Letter, published in 1864
Auguste Dupin sketch

Of the most popular men of mystery are the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, many first appearing in magazines, between 1887-1927. The tales of Sherlock's fantastical mystery-solving abilities grew so popular that they permanently influenced the mystery genre. The name Sherlock become synonymous with 'mystery', while Watson, the benevolent and less clever sidekick, became a classic literary character. Sherlock's focus on the science of psychology to solve crimes rather than forensics sparked a trend. During the 1900s, crime psychology began appearing in many mysteries. Some of Doyle's Sherlock story titles include A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear.

Sketch of Sherlock and Watson from The Adventure of Silver Blaze, published in 1892
Sherlock Holmes sketch

John Dickson Carr's novel The Hollow Man became the textbook for the perfect crime novel, after it was voted the best 'locked room' mystery in 1981. It is to this day used in many classrooms and lectures. In the story, an illusionist approaches a professor and claims to know men who can walk through walls. A few nights later, a masked man appears at the professor's house and the two men lock themselves in his study. Later, when the door is broken down, the professor is discovered dying on the floor and the other man disappeared. The professor manages to point the finger at the 'brother' before he dies, but it's unclear how the mysterious man escaped the room or who he actually is.

Cover art of The Hollow Man
Hollow Man cover

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Additional Info

Definition of Mystery Fiction

Maybe as a kid you remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries or The Hardy Boys. These stories were well-liked because of the mysteries they solved. Most who appreciate the human mind can appreciate a good mystery, and, in fact, that is how the mystery genre came about. Mystery fiction is a genre in literature that focuses on someone solving a puzzle or a crime. It is also commonly referred to as crime fiction or detective fiction for this reason.

The genre includes novels and short stories that are written for a special kind of audience, because people who read mysteries expect the standard rules for the genre:

  • A realistic, yet suspenseful plot with a lot of twists
  • A shocking, yet realistic crime
  • Foreshadowing evidence
  • False leads
  • A crime solver, aka the protagonist or detective
  • An unexpected villain, criminal, or culprit
  • A last-minute resolution to the plot
  • An expectation that the situation will work itself out

Over the years, the mystery genre has been divided into a few sub genres. Hardboiled mysteries are those that are gritty and violent. Soft-boiled mysteries are just as realistic as hardboiled, yet more optimistic and humorous, and without the gory details. Cozy mysteries are light and less violent, with amateur crime solvers in small or tight-knit towns. Police Procedural mysteries always follow a professional detective or police officer who solves crimes. Locked Room mysteries are those whose crimes seem impossible to have been committed. And the most recent edition to the genre is the thriller, or compelling mysteries where the protagonist is put up against extraordinary odds (sometimes by supernatural means) that keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

In any mystery story, however, just remember that there are three basic questions to be answered: 'What happened? How did it happen? Who did it?'

Books

Mystery fiction first made its mark in the 1800s, with Edgar Allan Poe and his character Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin from 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' (1841), 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' (1842) and 'The Purloined Letter' (1845). These stories, considered locked room mysteries, followed the intelligent amateur detective as he solved seemingly impossible crimes by getting into the psyche of the criminal. Poe was one of the first writers to move away from mystery's supernatural and more towards the intellectual. His writing began to focus on the mind of the villain or culprit rather than rely on 'strange' and 'spooky'. Thus began the mystery genre's shift towards realism.

Illustration of Dupin from The Purloined Letter, published in 1864
Auguste Dupin sketch

Of the most popular men of mystery are the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, many first appearing in magazines, between 1887-1927. The tales of Sherlock's fantastical mystery-solving abilities grew so popular that they permanently influenced the mystery genre. The name Sherlock become synonymous with 'mystery', while Watson, the benevolent and less clever sidekick, became a classic literary character. Sherlock's focus on the science of psychology to solve crimes rather than forensics sparked a trend. During the 1900s, crime psychology began appearing in many mysteries. Some of Doyle's Sherlock story titles include A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear.

Sketch of Sherlock and Watson from The Adventure of Silver Blaze, published in 1892
Sherlock Holmes sketch

John Dickson Carr's novel The Hollow Man became the textbook for the perfect crime novel, after it was voted the best 'locked room' mystery in 1981. It is to this day used in many classrooms and lectures. In the story, an illusionist approaches a professor and claims to know men who can walk through walls. A few nights later, a masked man appears at the professor's house and the two men lock themselves in his study. Later, when the door is broken down, the professor is discovered dying on the floor and the other man disappeared. The professor manages to point the finger at the 'brother' before he dies, but it's unclear how the mysterious man escaped the room or who he actually is.

Cover art of The Hollow Man
Hollow Man cover

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines the mystery genre?

The mystery genre requires a protagonist to solve an unknown event such as a crime. Conventions of the genre include a realistic, suspenseful plot ;a shocking crime; a crime solver such as a detective or police officer; a villain; and a resolution to the puzzle.

What are examples of mysteries?

Mysteries showcase a crime or puzzle and a protagonist who solves it. Some classic examples include the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie's novels about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Alex Cross stories by James Patterson, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mysteries, and many more.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account