Updated: 1 day ago
Fall is fast approaching, and I love curling up in a blanket with a cup of cider and a great crime novel. Whether it’s mystery, suspense, or thriller, I’m hooked. Don’t bother talking to me, I won’t hear you; I’m too engrossed in my novel.
So, what makes crime fiction so exciting to me?
It’s a fast-paced a puzzle. I’m involved in the story, looking for clues, finding the right details, trying to identify the perpetrator, and how and why they committed the crime.
Crime is a broad genre encompassing mystery, thrillers, and suspense. Mystery being the most diverse of these subgenres with the subgenre having subgenres. LOL But, there are conventions of each which readers expect when they pick up a crime novel.
Let’s start with the basic conventions before we dive deeper into the subgenres.
At the core of every crime story is the crime. Seems obvious, right? Maybe not. Crimes include the threat of a crime and perpetrating a crime as well as stopping or solving a crime. And while murder may be the first thing you think of, the crime can be anything that breaks socially acceptable behaviors. From theft to arson, from forgery to kidnapping.
The crime drives the plot and the characters’ actions motivate, influence, and affect the outcome. You read that right. The characters don’t drive the plot; they influence it. Don't get me wrong, the reader must still bond with and root for the characters, and the characters must be well-rounded with flaws, wounds, wants, and needs!
In this subgenre, the crime has already occurred when the story begins or happens soon after. The goals are to find out who perpetrated the crime and why.
Detective novels either have a police detective or a private investigator finding clues and talking to a few suspects to solve the case by deduction. These novels may reveal the perpetrator to the reader before the main character figures it out, though their identity is often veiled at the beginning.
Think Sherlock Holmes, Morse, and Bosch!
These stories concentrate on the technical details. They show multiple aspects of the case and how they are used to solve the crime and find out who did it.
Procedurals should be thoroughly researched to have authentic detection, evidence-gathering, forensics, autopsies, and interrogation.
They can involve lawyers as well. Maybe they are trying to prove the accused either did or didn’t perpetrate the crime and can even be set in a courtroom.
Since I’m a scientist as well, I enjoy forensic procedurals where minute details are extremely important to solving crimes!
Think Temperance Brennan series for forensic, Kurt Wallander series for police, and A Lincoln Lawyer for courtroom procedurals.
Puzzle crimes/Locked-room mysteries
Puzzle crimes may not be a term you’ve heard of before, but they are where the reader’s experience is based on finding the clues and paying close attention to the characters’ actions and reactions to questions posed to them set in a closed space where no one can leave.
Readers know only what the investigator does, no further information is given to the reader. Their goal is to identify the perpetrator before the protagonist does.
Puzzle crimes/locked-room mysteries are making comeback!
Think The Hollow Man, And Then There Were None, and The Woman in Cabin 10.
The detective in these stories is an amateur sleuth who has a special skill and/or knowledge and uses their intellect to solve the crime. As part of the community the crime takes place in, they may know the people involved and the ins and outs of the setting.
These stories are usually set in a small town and show more of the protagonist’s life than the other subgenres. The tone is lighter, and the crime is not described in detail. They don’t have sex, violence, or profanity.
Think Bad Hair Day Mysteries, Agatha Raisin series, and Reserved for Murder.
Like the name suggests, these have a much darker tone with more uncertainty of the characters involved. The detective or someone close to them may even be the criminal! They are predator-prey stories.
Usually, the crime is of a serious nature, and the setting or where the story leads is dark, mysterious, and dangerous even into the gritty underground parts of the city.
Think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential.
Thrillers are more based on the threat of a crime where the main character is trying to stop it. Or it could be that a crime has already happened, and the protagonist is trying to ensure a second crime isn’t committed. Whatever the case, it’s a race against time.
Personally, I enjoy psychological and spy thrillers. The inner workings of the human mind, the secrecy, and lies thrill me!
The uncertainty and danger in thrillers keep readers turning the page and their hearts beating fast.
Think The Housemaid, The Stand, and Wrong Place Wrong Time.
In suspense novels, the reader usually knows who the perpetrator is and why they committed the crime while the detective doesn’t. Tension is built by the danger the main character is in and when they will figure out who the criminal is.
Suspense novels are more about the anticipation of the outcome, not the outcome itself, and certainly, high stakes and danger! The atmosphere is usually sinister, the hero is the target, and a character that the detective thought was against them is an ally or vice versa.
Think Big Little Lies, Shutter Island, The Silence of the Lambs.
Obviously, there are more subgenres of crime, like true crime, historical, reimagined—taking a classic character and adding a twist, hard-boiled—sex and violence are described in detail, soft-boiled—sex and violence aren’t explicitly described, but the crime is horrifying, and the caper mystery—possibly a humorous take on a crime or one where the reader roots for the baddie.
Since there are commonalities between these subgenres, the stories often have elements of more than one. What you want to be careful about is not creating something that is convoluted. The reader’s expectations still must be met, the facts must be able to be followed, and the outcome makes sense to them.
You don’t want to throw in the perpetrator so late in the game that the reader is confused by the reveal. They must have met them somewhere in the story before the climax.
Please keep in mind, victims should be honored and treated with respect and sensitivity by you, if not the detective.
All crime fiction must have high stakes, the right setting, compelling characters, clear motivations, and great plot twists.
What are some of your favorite crime novels?
You've probably guessed or know I edit most of these fiction subgenres. Got a crime fiction novel you need edited? Let's chat!
Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor