By Sally Carpenter
What does that mystery say about its author and readers? All mysteries are written with a particular worldview; that is, the story takes place in a certain type of setting with characters of a certain ilk. If the setting or people were change, the story could not occur.
Some people only read or write in a certain subgenre of mystery. Some prefer the darker forays into the sinister side the human soul and others prefer the lighter side of life.
Here’s my take on the worldviews of the various types of mysteries:
Noir: The name comes from the French word for “night.” Appropriately enough, the setting is dark, sinister, foreboding. Much of the story takes place at night or in the dark. In the movie “Murder, My Sweet,” for example, I can’t recall a single scene set in daylight.
The characters are likewise dark, with secrets to hide. The people are often greedy, cold, calculating, violent and they lie.
The mood is bleak and unforgiving. The settings are often back alleys, rundown neighborhoods, lonely roads where evil lurks.
The characters doomed to destruction, headed down a one-way road of no return that that can only no happy ending. The main characters often fail to get what they want.
Women are sexy, sly, and generally up to no good. The female fatale leads the hero astray. Often the hero will commit murder in order to get the female fatale.
The two best examples are “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
Hard-boiled: The hero/sleuth is generally a private investigator. This world is cynical, violent. This has some similarities with noir in that it also uses dark setting and the characters are likewise rather scuzzy.
The PI must solve the crime because the police are corrupt and can’t be trusted. The cops hate the PI and look for ways to bring him down.
The stories are set in large, crime-ridden cities with a closed circle of suspects.
The PI often works with slimy underworld characters to get the information and help he needs.
These stories are violent, with plenty of fights and shootings. Language is often course and profane.
Sex is physical and rough with no connection to love. The PI sleeps around and shows no commitment to any of his lovers. Sex can also be a weapon or a way for the PI to get information or someone to do an errand for him.
Soft boiled: A softer edge to hard-boiled. Still dark, but not as rough. These stories sometimes have female sleuths.
The violence is often more psychological more than physical. Instead of fistfights, the author probes the darker emotions and memories of the characters.
Police Procedural: More factual, a realistic look at how the police solve the crime. These stories often use graphic violence, hard language and sex.
Along with the solving the crime, the detective is also fighting inner demons. He/she has past issues to resolve. The crime affects the hero personally—perhaps it reminds the detective of a past cold case or the hero knows someone involved.
The detective is human and subject to error. The reader sees the hero work through his/her shortcomings to solve the crime.
Traditional: Often an amateur sleuth but sometimes a PI or detective is involved. The best examples are Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle.
The emphasis is on solving the puzzle/crime. The reader sees little of the detective’s past or personality beyond what is required to catch the criminal. Characters are often stereotypes. The plot overshadows character development.
An amateur sleuth/PI is used because the police fail, are not interested in the crime, or come to the wrong conclusions. This worldview says that authority is not always trustworthy or reliable.
Caper: These stories are often humorous and the hero is sometimes a bumbler. The hero/antihero is a criminal; the reader roots for the bad guy.
The criminals set out to commit a crime, often to steal something, not for their own personal gain but to return stolen property or to help someone else. Other bad guys or the police get in their way. This worldview says sometimes the “bad guys” are the good ones.
The goal of the story is: will they get away with it? Examples are “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Hot Rock.”
Cozy: A favorite for those who like their murders gentle and fun.
The setting is often small town but generally an intimate and closed community. The suspects know each other and are often pillars in the community; how could the mayor be a killer?
The sleuth is always an amateur, generally a female. The sleuth often becomes involved because of a personal connection to the victim or a suspect.
These stories contain no graphic violence, sex or language. There are few action scenes and little gunplay.
Solving the crime is often through emotional, logical deduction than in forensic procedure or multiple clues.
The emphasis is on character, not the crime. Some cozies spend more time discussing the lives of the characters than in working the crime. The hero often has colorful family members that he/she deals with. Romance may be involved.
The murder takes place off page with a minimal amount of gore. The victim is generally a jerk that nobody likes, someone who won’t be missed and “deserved it.” That way, the reader has little sympathy for the victim.
Since the victim is despicable, the point of the story is not so much to solve the crime but to restore order to the community. The murder had disrupted the daily routine and happiness of the residents. Once the crime is solved, the characters can return to their lives as usual.
The goal of the cozy is to leave the reader with a warm, content feeling that justice has been served, loose ends have been tied up, and life is once more back in order.
What is your favorite type of mystery and why?