A member of the Thriller Readers Google+ group recently asked if “certain sub-genre thrillers written by experts in those areas seem to portray more realistic stories than your everyday fiction writer?” That got me to thinking: I guess it depends on what genre and sub-genre you like to read.
The crime genre has developed many sub-genres over the years. While some stories cross those genres (like paranormal or romantic or romantic paranormal), your mystery should clearly identify its genre and sub-genre(s). That will help it land in the hands of the readers who will enjoy it, and help you as the author develop a following and appeal to the right publisher.
Despite the sub-genre or the cross-over potential, crime stories first divide into two structures: the Open Plot or the Closed Plot. In an Open Plot, the reader knows the identity of the Protagonist and the Antagonist from the very beginning, and generally understand the motives of each side. Its Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Think of the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. In the Closed Plot, the Antagonist and his or her motives are hidden from the Protagonist and Reader alike. This gives the reader the opportunity to engage in the process of deduction right along with the sleuth. All Whodunits are Closed Plots.
That structure branches off into a lot of categories and sub-categories, such as…
The Cozy Mystery
Detective stories, epitomized by Agatha Christie, that contains a bloodless crime and a victim who won’t be missed. Sex and violence generally occur off the page. The protagonist is often an eccentric amateur sleuth. And, the mystery is solved using emotional (Miss Marple) or logical (Hercule Poirot) reasoning.
Hard Boiled Mysteries
Detective stories, typified by Raymond Chandler, in which the characters and the dialogue are tough and colloquial. The sleuth encounters danger and violence around every corner – gunfights, fistfights, guys getting knocked unconscious. The sleuth is tempted by leggy blondes in seamed stockings and red headed femme fatales with bad intentions. Sex, sexual situations and sexual innuendo abound. And, there are lots of colorful locales with atmosphere – smoky gin joints, exotic Chinatown opium dens, moonlit harbors and shadowy back alleys.
Locked Room Mysteries
This is specialized kind of a whodunit in which the crime is committed under apparently impossible circumstances, such as a locked room where no intruder could have entered or left. Both the Cozy and Hard Boiled can cross into the Locked Room sub-genre.
Suspense Mysteries and Thrillers
Generally in suspense, the protagonist is in danger or is pursued by the antagonist. When a Whodunnit is a suspense mystery, the question isn’t just “Who done it?” but “How will the main character stay alive?” However, suspense thrillers can be – and often are — open plots, such as many of John Grisham’s books. A lot of medical and legal thrillers crossover into suspense, as well as some romance novels.
Noir refers to style more than content: dark, gritty, and bleak. It’s a story steeped in emotional (and often literal) darkness. Dread and doom suffuse a narrative that grinds inexorably toward an unhappy — even tragic — ending. A lot of hard boiled mysteries cross-over into Noir fiction, but they are two separate sub-genres.