I just finished my first book in John Sandford’s mystery series about Virgil Flowers. I’d already read a couple of books about his character Lucas Davenport, and the Virgil Flowers is a spin-off of that. Other than following a different character, the series are also different in that the Davenport series seems to be more of a detective novel, and the Flowers is more of a procedural. All of which made me think–maybe it would be helpful to describe some of the most popular types of mystery novels.
Detective/Whodunit: These are the traditional mysteries in which neither the detective nor the reader know who the killer is. The detective may be a law enforcement agent, a private investigator, or an amateur sucked into the events, but the plot is generally one of looking for clues and figuring out who the murderer is.
Procedural: These novels are probably the most realistic. They appeal to the reader who likes all the details. Often, the detective knows who the killer is, they just need to find enough evidence to convict or they need to hunt down and catch the bad guy. These only work well when the author has done ample research into the detective’s line of work: whether that be police officer, CSI investigator, prosecutor, etc.
Suspenseful: Most mysteries have some element of suspense, of course, but there is a certain type that really banks on suspense being the driving force. In many cases, the bad guy is known, but instead of being a methodical unraveling of clues (as in the procedural), the good guy is usually some kind of amateur and/or victim, and may very well wind up dead before they catch up with the bad guy.
Caper: Not all mysteries are murder mysteries, some involve heists or thefts or other crimes. Oddly, many caper novels are written so that the criminals are actually the main characters, and seemingly the “good guys.”
In addition to plot types, there are also some very familiar writing styles to look for. Any of the above types can be written in the below styles:
Cozy: Cozy mysteries are almost always whodunit’s, with the following caveat: they do not involve violence, and generally avoid suspense. Originally, they were merely intellectual puzzles to be solved, often by an armchair detective. In the past several decades, they have become increasingly humor-based, with titles often being a pun, and frequently with the series having some kind of theme: cooking, hobbies, sports, paranormal activity, etc.
Noir: Noir is really a mood, but there are certain elements that frequently turn up: terse but clever dialogue, a nihilistic outlook on life, a woman who shouldn’t be trusted (maybe a guy in more modern stories), and first-person narrative.
Psychological: Like noir, these frequently have a first-person narrative, and the narrator is usually paranoid or somehow doubting themselves. The story becomes one of “Do I trust myself or the facts that are presented to me?”
Figuring out the style and type of mystery that you most enjoy can help you quickly find new authors to read!