I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, and I’ve found that they are easily broken up into several categories, although these categories may not correspond with those you usually see at the bookstore or library. The largest 2 categories, are, of course, Fiction and NonFiction. It’s pretty easy to tell which book falls into which category, so I won’t talk about that here. I’ve been leaning towards the fiction category as of late, so my current classification system deals with fiction works. When you look for a fictional novel, you find they are grouped together by genre. The most common genres I have seen include General Fiction, Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, and Children’s. I haven’t gotten into the SciFi/Fantasy all that much, so I tend to lean towards the General Fiction and Mystery when I’m picking a new book to read. However, as I’ve read numerous examples of each, I’ve discovered that these books can be grouped into sub-genres, and I thought I’d present these sub-genres with corresponding characteristics in a two-part essay so that you may be able to more accurately choose the perfect book for your mood. You’re welcome.
I love mystery stories. I’ve always loved these types of books, and anyone who has ever read mysteries knows that there are several different types to choose from. First, you have your Silly Little Mystery (SLM). These stories are often in paperback, although the newest do come out in hardback, although they don’t seem to last in that form long. SLM’s are at their best in a soft, bendable covering. Often written by women, SLM’s tend to have a female protagonist. The protagonist has a somewhat quirky or interesting job: owner of a book store (always a mystery book store, if this is the case) owner of an herbal shop and tea room, psychic, professor of a dead language or other strange subject, etc. You never see the main character of an SLM as a simple office worker or the like. That just wouldn’t work. The main woman also tends to have man trouble–she is divorced with a teenage daughter, can’t keep a boyfriend, doesn’t want a boyfriend, or has just been dumped by her fiance. Rarely, you’ll get the protagonist who has lost her significant other in some horrible way and just isn’t ready to move one. I’ve only ever read one SLM where the main character was happily married, and this marriage was so badly written that I just didn’t believe it. It’s as if in order to solve cute mysteries you must have man trouble. Once the main character is in place (and this character is often featured in more than one book–SLM’s lend themselves to the series) then the mysterious circumstances start. Someone usually gets murdered, and the main character just happens to be on hand to either witness the murder or find the body. Either way, she is instantly put in mortal danger and ends up dancing with death for the rest of the 275 pages. She then must put her unusually good sleuthing skills to the test to find the culprit before the police do or, well, nothing really. There’s never any real reason the police couldn’t figure the crime out all by themselves, other than then the book would be in a different category. Anyhow, she always solves the crime just in the nick of time and ends up saving someone’s life, or her own life, or the job of her best friend, or the career of her new crush. These books are easy to read, very predictable (they almost never have some unforeseen twist or surprise ending), and don’t cause you to think too much. Take the SLM for a day at the beach or a plane trip.
The second major mystery sub-genre is the Super Serious Mystery (SSM). These are pretty much the opposite of SLM’s. The protagonist is almost always male (as is the author), and usually has/has had some sort of law enforcement job: cop, lawyer, FBI, private detective, etc. The main guy is always disgruntled for one reason or another–his career got derailed by politics, he was injured in the line of duty and had to retire, he hates breathing, whatever. No matter what the reason, he is a grizzled master of mystery that jumps into a case full force. The case is always murder–super ex-cop man would never bother with a simple robbery, and he’s almost never present to witness it or to find the body. He gets dragged in, usually against his will, by a friend, family member or acquaintance of the dead person who begs him, on bended, shapely and bared knee, to help her find who ruined her life in such a heinous way. Yes, there’s always a woman. And she always has a thing for the protagonist, and he always has a thing for her. Often, the woman ends up being the culprit or otherwise involved somehow, and the protagonist never figures this out until the very end. Sigh. Anyhow, the main guy goes into the mystery with guns blazing and figures things out in the end, after having to save his love interest from death numerous times. The authors are very serious about these stories–no light laughs or funny circumstances here; only grave dangers and tense situations. These SSM’s are very popular, although not my favorite sub-genre, and if you’re lucky enough to find a paperback someone left behind on a plane, I guarantee it’s gonna be an SSM. I’ve found, in my limited research, these types of books appeal more to those of male persuasion (my dad and grandpa will only read mysteries if they are SSMs; my mom and grandma won’t touch them with a ten foot pole). These books do give a good dose of drama, with very little fluff or comic relief. Prime example: John Grisham. If you want tense action and probably a generous helping of sketchily-written sex, then this is the story for you.
The third type is the puzzle mystery. This has got to be my favorite sub-genre, provided the books are well written. This category has a high hit-or-miss rate…either the book is fantabulous or really, really horrible. There’s seldom any in-between. The puzzle mystery always has a protagonist who is a genius of some sort–uncommonly good at math, the leading expert in his field, her father dedicated his life to the study of a subject and passed his passion on to her, that sort of thing. This genius is then dragged into a quest of sorts, the end of which promises untold richs/power/fame/mystical abilities for which he or she is unusually suited. The best part about these books are the puzzles. Bunches and bunches of puzzles, usually of all shapes and sizes which are presented to the reader and which the reader can attempt to unravel along with the characters. Its more of an immersion reading experience, which is why these books are often very hard to put down. It is common for these books to launch themselves into the “really good mystery” category (see below) due to their ability to engross the reader into the story. However, a bad puzzle mystery is the worst of disappointments. It takes a very talented author to craft an engaging quest, and any short comings in plot or character development seem to become glaringly obvious in this sub-genre. Pick up one of these stories if you which to block out the real world for awhile.
The forth type of mystery is the really good mystery. This sub-genre includes those mysteries that could technically be included in one of the three previous categories, but has some aspect that gives them an edge. Puzzle mysteries seem to rise into this category most often, although both SLMs and SSMs both have their representatives. In order for a story to move into this category, it must possess an unusual quality that sets it apart from others in the same sub-genre. This can be anything, really: an unusual narration style, a beautifully crafted character, a completely surprising plot twist. Even something as mundane as a unique view of a common story can send a book into the “really good” category. Of course, this makes inclusion subjective; it is possible to include a story one day, and send it back to mundane status upon a second reading. However, any book included in this sub-genre is mostly guaranteed to give a good read. At least, it has a much lower hit-or-miss rate than the first three groups. The real draw back is it can be very hard to find a really good mystery on your own in a bookstore or library. You have to wait for a recommendation, which is where the subjective part comes in. I take these books on “special” trips where I want to make sure I have a good time.
The fifth sub-genre is the uber mystery. This is an extension of the really good mystery; however, entrance into the uber mystery category depends upon the word of several people, not just one, thereby making it much more difficult to get in, and much more likely that the title will stick. Now, when I say “the word of several people,” I mean people you know and trust (or reviewers whose reviews you often agree with) not the New York Times best seller list. That list has no bearing on admission to uber mystery status, simply because most people tend to ignore the best uber mystery candidates, and opt instead for an SSM (once again, John Grisham is a prime example). Don’t trust the masses–I’m pretty sure they’re all on drugs. If you think a book deserves uber status, talk it over with your peers. Then read some reviews and see if you agree. Then reread the book. An uber mystery only gets better the more readings you subject it to…most often because of subtly hidden clues only noticed the second or third time around. Pick up an uber mystery if you don’t plan on putting it down until it’s finished. Because you won’t.