top of page

Let's Talk About Crime Fiction: A Look at Subgenres!

Kent Holloway

Managing Editor

If you spend any time talking about mysteries with friends or authors, or if you head to your local Barnes & Noble or peruse your favorite online retailer, you might notice something a bit confusing. You meander through the aisles, looking for the MYSTERY section, and what do you find? Agatha Christie, Lee Child, maybe some Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dashiell Hammett, James Lee Burke, Kotara Isaka, and Lilian Jackson Braun.

In other words, you find Golden Age Traditional mysteries mixed with crime thrillers mixed some horror/paranormal mystery, mixed with hardboiled detective fiction, southern gothic, international crime, and cat cozies. All bunched together. No rhyme. No apparent reason.

Only, there is a reason. A reason both traditional and pragmatic. First, the pragmatism. You see, brick and mortar bookstores have very finite space. They simply don't have room to fill their aisles with individual sections. So, in order to fulfill the wide variety of titles out there, they have to clump all those genres and subgenera into one big category. It's usually the MYSTERY category. Sometimes, it might be labeled MYSTERY/THRILLERS or some variation thereof.

Why this same practice of clumping everything together translates to online stores, I honestly don't know. There are no space shortages in cyberspace. And yet, sites like Amazon and BN dot com continue to follow the same 'clump everything together' categories. This, I believe, is where the 'traditional' aspect of the reasons come into play. They do so because somewhere down the line, publishers and book retailers got together and decided this was the best practice, so that's what they've done historically and what they continue to do whether it makes any real sense or not.

Now, this clumping of everything into the MYSTERY genre has been a source of annoyance for me for a very long time. When I want to read a mystery novel, I want to read a mystery. Meaning, I want a crime in which the culprit is hidden from me. I want to follow a detective or a sleuth as they try to discover the villain behind the crime. And in the best of circumstances, I want to be able to beat the sleuth in identifying who that person is. So, when I go the MYSTERY section of a bookstore and pick out a book, thinking it's going to be a whodunnit, only to discover upon reading a little into the story that it's about a cabal of assassins trying to kill a politician in a fast-paced race against time...well, I kind of get irked.

In my opinion, the industry has it wrong. Instead of labeling everything as MYSTERY, they should go broad and label it as CRIME FICTION. Then, they can sub-categorize everything from there. Charade focuses on CRIME FICTION and everything that falls under that umbrella (within reason).

That's why all future books in Charade will be clearly marked in their specific genres, not only in the descriptions, but on the back cover near the UPC code or logo. And to better understand what those genres/subgenres are, I thought I'd spend a little time today giving a bit of a primer on our definitions of these genres and what you can expect from there'll be no confusion down the line. Naturally, some books cross subgenres by the story they tell, but I promise, we'll give some indication of that to savvy book consumers.

So, let's get started on Charade Media's genres and how we define them:


Traditional Mystery -- As the name implies, it's the classic whodunnit. The sleuth can be either a pro or an amateur. Usually, they are lighthearted. They might include a locked room, or not. They have plenty of suspects, and often the killer is revealed in the climax among a gathering of all suspects by the sleuth. Mansion murder mysteries are a classic example of this. While many claim the Agatha Christie wrote cozy mysteries, that's actually a misnomer. There was no such thing at the time. She should be considered a traditional mystery writer.

Cozy Mystery -- Very similar to Traditional, but is usually set in a small town and the sleuth is typically amateur. Think Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote (even though she was obviously modeled on an 80s version of Agatha Christie). Cozies, as their name implies, are designed to make you feel comfortable. There's nothing troublesome or particularly thrilling about them other than the puzzle of the mystery itself. If the hero is in danger, it's a safe bet they'll be okay in the end. Cozies are clean, devoid of explicit sex, very limited cussing, and any violence that is committed is usually done "off screen."

Hardboiled Detective -- Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, even Jim Rockford (Rockford Files) are examples of the hardboiled detective. They are usually gritty, tough-as-nails sleuths. Hard-drinking, chain smoking, womanizing mugs who solve mysteries as much with their fists as they do their brains. Hardboiled mysteries are anything but cozy. They're not subtle. They're typically loud with lots of shootouts, fist fights, smacking wise-talking dames around. But they can be a lot of fun and there's quite a few with great whodunnit mysteries in them, although that's not a prerequisite (and neither is the sexism either...that's a bit of a stereotype I threw in because I got caught up in the moment). Expect some sex (although with Charade, there'll never be anything explicit) and some language (once again, with Charade, rarely anything above a PG13 word...and definitely no smacking dames!).

Crime Thriller -- As the name implies, these books are thrillers, first and foremost, with some type of crime pushing the narrative along. They are adrenaline-packed. Lots of car chases, cliffhangers, shootouts, and maybe a race against the clock. My own book, Clean Exit, is a good example of this. A professional criminal begins to be stalked by a mysterious enemy of his late father. The protagonist races up and down the state of Florida, avoiding the cops and a secret government agency while trying to protect his sister and save himself from the crosshairs of a North Korean criminal. Rick Chesler's upcoming Deadly Depths is another excellent example of this subgenre as well (I talked about this book in last week's blog post, so no need to beat a dead horse except to say, you won't want to miss it when it's released!). One final non-Charade example of a Crime Thriller, Kotara Isaka's excellent Bullet Train and Three Assassins are perfect reads in this category. Loved them both!

Paranormal Mystery -- This one is a little trickier to define, especially within the context of Charade Media. Paranormal mysteries often have no crime involved. At least, no human crime. They are, however, distinctly mysteries in that something peculiar is happening and the protagonist(s) must figure out what is going on and why. If they're lucky, they find a way to stop it from happening again. This isn't to say that human elements aren't involved in the mystery. In David Sakmyster's upcoming Blindspots, six strangers are brought together for a nefarious purpose. That purpose is supernatural in nature, however, it is instigated by a very human culprit. I don't consider most haunted house stories to be mysteries, although NYT bestselling author David Golemon's The Supernaturals distinctly has a mystery to be solved. This why I prefaced this section with the fact that it's tricky. Paranormal mystery and straight up horror fiction can often by very similar and I feel as though it's often in the eye of the beholder on which is which. For Charade's purposes, however, unless otherwise noted in a book's description, assume that any paranormal mystery that we publish will have some sort of a human criminal, or at least a human-like intelligence, behind the misfortunes that fall upon the protagonist during the story.

Spy Thriller -- Espionage is a crime, therefore, you can assume that Charade will eventually publish something within this genre. As the name implies, it harbors the same sense of action or suspense that a crime thriller might, but the focus is on the act or persona of a spy like James Bond or Jason Bourne or any number of variations. It might include a team of spies like Mission Impossible. At this time, we don't have any such books line up for publication, but I personally hope to have some in the future.

Legal Thriller -- There's no better known author of this genre than John Grisham. The classic thriller, centered around a lawyer or some legal battle that draws the protagonist into real danger. Often, in the form of conspiracies.


There are, of course, more subgenres out there, but I think this covers the gamut for the time being. I hope this little guide will help readers better understand the variety we will soon be offering in our book selection, as well as writers looking to submit their stories to us.

In the meantime, be sure to return here next week when we'll be interviewing NY Times Bestselling author Lisa Black! It is sure to be a fantastic discussion with a real life crime scene investigator and fantastic author.

46 views0 comments
bottom of page