Great Mysteries (Where The Detective Is Not “Defective”)

Okay, in response to that post last week about “defective detectives” in a particular subgenre of mysteries and police procedurals and related fiction, let’s pull out some mysteries that are not that.

First, mystery subgenres:

1) Cozies.

Cozy Mysteries never have the alcoholic, self-destructive, deserted detective protagonist. This is because, I mean, they’re cozy. They have a quaint or interesting setting that is usually a small town or neighborhood; they have a quirky, protagonist who is not self-destructive, not deserted by her family, essentially always female, essentially always a small business owner or other non-professional; and they almost always center romance and follow romance beats.

I am not talking about the conception of a Cozy Mystery as anything, no matter how grim, set in a small town or little English village. I think that is a thoroughly outdated definition and one hundred percent not in line with the mysteries that are today called Cozy and marketed as Cozy, which fit the parameters above. One example of a Cozy series is the Wisteria Tearoom series, which I like quite a bit.

At one end of the spectrum, Cozy Mysteries become Cutesies. These are too cute for me. Exactly where Cozies become Cutesies is up to the individual reader, but if the title is a pun or play on words, it’s probably a Cutesie. One reason I like the Wisteria Tearoom series is because they aren’t overly cute.

At the other end of the spectrum, Cozy Mysteries segue into —

2) Mystery Romance

Not all mysteries that center romance are Cozy. If the mystery involves enough suspense and there is more of a sense of danger and a fast pace, then eventually it stops being Cozy and becomes something else. If there is a centered romance, then I suggest calling it a mystery romance, and you know who writes these? Jennifer Cruisie / Bob Meyer, as in for example Agnes and the Hitman, which I hereby declare defines the subgenre by example. There’s comedy as well, but still, I don’t think that makes this a Cozy. I think it’s not Cozy. I think it’s Mystery Romance, and I think that people who love mysteries should not think of Crusie and Cruisie/Meyer writing romance, but as writing Mystery Romance. There has been a very strong mystery component to all or almost all of Cruisie’s that I’ve read so far.

This category may also segue into —

3) Classic Mystery. These are mysteries that aren’t Cozy and don’t center romance, though romance may occur.

This is a big, diverse category. I guess I’d say they’re defined by tone (not being Cozy) and by what they don’t center (romance). The mystery is central, but character is also central and so is setting. Let me see. All right, I’d say Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great example that is also historical. This is my favorite mystery series, by the way, but it is very dark in places. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series is a contemporary example. Oh, and I really love Beverly Connor’s forensic anthropology mysteries.

4) Classic Mysteries with Iconic Characters

Here, I am thinking of series where the detectives go on and on and don’t change at all, or hardly at all. This is like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. It’s also like Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Allyn. It’s also like Brother Cadfael. The detectives might have basically no backstory that matters, like Archie Goodwin; or a really interesting backstory, like Brother Cadfael. There could be just a bit of character development over the course of the series, as with Roderick Allyn, but basically very little.

A lot of these are excellent, especially the ones which were being written in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. They are still being republished and sold now because they’re great. Whatever was in this category that wasn’t as good has probably vanished in the mists of time. They are not all great in the same way. For use of the English language and particularly for clearly hitting different “registers” in dialogue — from very informal to very formal — you can’t beat the Nero Wolfe series. For historical setting, you can’t beat the Brother Cadfael series. If you enjoy theatrical backdrops, that’s Roderick Allyn.

5) Puzzle Mysteries

I’m thinking of these as like Dorothy Sayer’s earlier books, before Gaudy Night. Gaudy Night brought the characters out way more and shifted subgenres — it’s a Mystery Romance. Puzzle mysteries are also the locked room type. And things like And Then There Were None. Stories like that. Sherlock Holmes, probably. I am not really interested in puzzle mysteries, which is one reason I never got into Sherlock Holmes and why I love Gaudy Night far more than earlier books in the series.

6) Hardboiled

I don’t particularly like Hardboiled Detective novels and don’t know much about them. I think of the style as curt; the detective as competent, one-dimensional, and isolated; the setting as gritty and filled with corrupt institutions. I wouldn’t defend any of this as definitive, though, because I haven’t read many, because I don’t much like them. If anybody has an example of a great novel in the Hardboiled subgenre, I would be at least mildly interested, although my TBR pile is so high, I really do not need to pile a lot of books on the top.

7) Noir

The setting is gritty. Institutions are corrupt. This is the subgenre that got swallowed whole by Everydetective. The detective is self-destructive, or morally very dark gray, or unable to push back effectively against the corrupt system, maybe all three. BUT, I don’t think Noir has to have detectives like this. I think it used to have detectives who were effectual, competent, not self-destructive, not recovering from awful pasts. In that case, the gritty setting and institutional corruption probably remain, but I’m not sure what else would define them. I mean, Noir is a tone more than anything else, right?

8) Police Procedural

I rather like police procedurals. Those are the ones that follow a case in detailed steps from discovery of the crime to arrest, and often have an ensemble cast. Lots of emphasis on procedures as the detectives collect and examine evidence. I like that part. You know what, I think the Hillerman mysteries might fall into this category, unless they’re Classic Mysteries. I suppose there’s a lot of overlap. I really like the Chee/Leaphorn mysteries because of the setting, but you know what strikes me now, thinking about it, is how this series contrasts with an Iconic Character series. Both Chee and Leaphorn change and grow quite a lot through the series. Their lives at the end are quite different than they were at the beginning. I like that too.

9) Mystery Horror

I’m thinking of Hambly’s Ysidro series here. Basically dark mysteries that are all about the historical setting, with vampires. But I really love both James Asher and Lydia, as well as Simon Ysidro. The first book is great and stands alone. As the series go on, the historical settings begin to take center stage and the pace can become quite slow. I like them, though, and I wouldn’t mind if she would pick the series back up.

10) Mystery SFF

For example, T Kingfisher’s White Rat novels. They all seem to have a strong mystery component, a strong romance component, and of course they are fantasy.

Another one, which is a Police Procedural Fantasy with a great secondary world setting, is River of Lies by R. Morgan.

Oh, there’s also The Tally-Master by JM Ney-Grimm. That’s an amateur detective mystery in a secondary world setting.

But I don’t know that Mystery Fantasy has to have a secondary world setting. The Shadow Unit series by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly, are fun contemporary mystery / police procedurals / superhero shared world stories. The series does get darker as it progresses, but I highly recommend the first one and then you can decide whether to go on with the series or not.

There are also mysteries with SF settings, such as Sharon Shinn’s Wrapt in Crystal, which she described to me as using Western tropes, and I can see that, but it’s definitely a mystery novel as well.

I wasn’t particularly trying to do a Top Ten List for Mystery Subgenres, but I guess I kind of did! So I’ll stop there, even though possibly there are other subgenres.

Okay! Favorite mysteries, any genre — drop ’em in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Great Mysteries (Where The Detective Is Not “Defective”)”

  1. I think Sayers’ Peter Wimsey is an iconic character; but part of what makes him iconic is that he does change. He starts out as a caricature; but slowly gets filled in and made into a more interesting character as the series progresses. Sayers is always interested in relationships- toxic ones; abusive ones; codependent ones and fulfilling ones; and not just romantic but also friendships, between men and women; men and men; and women and women. How they can go wrong or right; especially in the pressure cookers of class, money, family, gender and trauma. I particularly enjoy the audiobooks of these narrated by Ian Carmichael. The BBC radio dramas are also good but I prefer the unabridged full novels, I really enjoy her writing. She can shift tones in striking ways; and there’s regular flashes of sly wit.

  2. I really enjoy the “In Death” books by J D Robb / Nora Roberts. They would count as SFF police procedurals. I’ve been binging some of the backlist recently. I like some better than others; I tend to dislike the ones with any significant sections in the villain’s POV, but many of them don’t have that. One of the things I enjoy is watching the change and growth in the characters over the series.

    KJ Charles has a new mystery called “Death in the Spires” about a murder among a group of Oxford students in the 1890s, and their effort 10 years later to finally resolve the crime. This is the first of her books to be a straight mystery (with a very, very light romance subplot). Her others are mostly m/m romance, historical or historical fantasy. Some are mystery romance (e.g. the Will Darling series or The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen) but some aren’t. Her characters and her prose are consistently top notch. She’s on my auto-preorder list.

  3. Oh, forgot to list another favorite SFF mystery series, the Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. I like Peter, the main character, for his blend of hard work to develop his magic, sensible decisions about what to tell his police and magical supervisors, down-to-earth preferences for spending some leisure time, and his care for his family and friends. Plus snark.

  4. There’s quite an enjoyable series by Amanda Flower that starts with “Assaulted Caramel” (YES, a cutesy) – it’s an Amish murder mystery series, which wouldn’t have been a deliberate pick if I hadn’t been just scooping anything cosy-looking into my bag at the book sale that year, but it’s made me laugh quite a few times. I’ve only read a couple of that series (basically because the library doesn’t have them and I’m not about to buy them new).

    A really, really good cosy – rather than cutesy – murder mystery series is Emily Brightwell’s Mrs Jeffries. The library has the entire series of 41 books and I’m reading my way through all of them. Some are better than others and I’ve saved those titles in a separate list.

    I’ve enjoyed the Ellery Queen books I’ve read so far. I read on a blog somewhere that the earlier books were more about the mystery and later books were more about romance, which led me to instantly dump all the later books from my “to-buy” list. They come rather firmly under puzzle mysteries. These are the ones I read in German for a challenge, so even though I own about ten, I’ve only read a couple of them. The rest are waiting on my bookshelf!

    My favourite Noir one (and the only Noir one I ever aim to read) is the graphic novel series Blacksad. (And I probably ought to specify: ADULT graphic novel.) It’s about a private detective (John Blacksad) and follows his cases, but all the characters are anthropomorphic animals – human bodies… mostly… but with animal heads and features (like tails, claws…). And you haven’t seen a furious detective unless you’ve seen a furious FELINE detective snarling with his ears full-back and his fangs showing. Cats can be scary little beggars. I’d never buy it, but I’ve issued it from the library a few times.

    I’m more a fan of (the first two series of) BBC’s Sherlock rather than the books, but I did quite enjoy a Sherlock Holmes escape room mystery by Ormond Sacker where the reader plays Holmes, and how good the reader is at solving the puzzles leads directly to abject failure or Olympic-level success in foiling Moriarty’s plot. I’ve never actually managed the Olympic-level absolute success, but I’ve succeeded in coming silver-place. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book – if you think the solution’s one thing you go to Page 8, if you think the solution’s another thing you go to Page 142 – and if you choose the wrong path, it’s not always obvious until six hours later (book-time) when Moriarty’s laughing in your face. But you’ve got to like cracking codes to want to go with this one! There’s a code wheel on the front cover, and it takes Time.

  5. There’s the Apothecary Diaries manga. Where undoing mysteries — often not involving crime — is merely a major source of stories.

  6. Here’s a cozy rec: the Inspector Chopra mysteries by Vaseem Khan. It’s been a while since I read them, so mostly I just remember they were fun.

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