Mystery genres: part two
In addition to mysteries, there are several other genres considered part of the crime fiction stable, each with its own format and reader expectations.
Thrillers are page-turners. If the classic mystery can be summed up as a whodunit, then thrillers are will-they-get-away-with-it stories. Usually the reader knows who committed the crime, as well as how and why; the thrill involves pitting the good guys against the criminals in a race against the clock, with a prize at the chase’s end. The prize can vary and possibilities include money, state secrets, military hardware, gold bullion, priceless artwork, and a person’s life or freedom. The broad category of thrillers is divided by subject matter and focus: medical (Robin Cook’s Coma), legal (just about anything by John Grisham), psychological (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), political (David Baldacci’s Absolute Power), espionage (“Bond. James Bond.”) and war and the military (Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare).
Techno-thrillers, a relatively new addition to crime fiction, were invented by Tom Clancy with his ground-breaking novel The Hunt for Red October. Here the focus is equally divided between the Soviet sailors’ attempt to defect, and the technical features of the new submarine they’re taking with them. This split focus, with its analysis of a technology’s inner workings, separates techno-thrillers from more traditional war and military thrillers, which may use the same technology but refrain from discussing it. A related and often overlapping genre, near-future speculative thrillers, creates the technology and projects it a few years or decades ahead, with the writer exploring how his creation can change the world. Note that, while Clancy created the technology of the Soviet submarine, he placed his story in the near past rather than the future. Also note that the “crime” in these categories of crime fiction are generally between political entities rather than individuals.
Suspense or adventure novels focus on what happens next, as the characters attempt to survive some disruption in their previously smooth and orderly world. These novels stretch the definition of “crime” yet again — a popular category, survival after an airline crash in the wilderness, may be caused by clearly criminal elements such as terrorism or hijacking, or by pilot error or a careless mechanic neglecting to fasten down a cargo container. No matter the cause, though, the characters must cope with the disaster that follows. War, espionage, and the military are common features in these novels (Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels of the Royal Navy), as well as natural disasters (crimes by nature), such as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm.
Caper stories tell the tale of a crime, from planning through execution and the subsequent aftermath, most commonly from the perspective of the perpetrators. The true caper involves a high-stakes game, with a superbly valuable prize protected by supposedly impenetrable security, and a team of experts determined to take it down. Common but not universal features include a charismatic team leader who organizes the heist, in-depth planning and practice sessions that are often organized by numbers or rhymes, and something going horribly or comically wrong at the penultimate moment. Capers can be funny (Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder series) or serious (Ocean’s Eleven, Kelly’s Heroes), featuring professional criminals (John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) or private citizens with a grudge against a corporation or political entity (Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). They require great imagination and involve a tremendous amount of work, including in-depth plotting, from the author, but are among the most popular of all crime fiction genres.
Romantic suspense adds a kiss and some personal chemistry to the crime fiction blend. Any category of crime fiction — mystery, espionage, thriller, war, caper, even techno-thriller — can be turned into romantic suspense if the hero and heroine are making eyes at each other. They may team up to more efficiently fight criminals, the political process run amok, a corporation or organization, to survive a war or natural disaster, or to steal a priceless Rembrandt. Less commonly, they may be on opposite sides of the fence, with one a criminal and the other a detective, and one of them must change sides in the name of love. Because this is a split genre, the two plotlines, the romance and the crime fiction, must roughly balance each other in intensity and quantity. If the suspense plotline carries more weight, the ending can be questionable, but if the romance plotline is more important, then happily-ever-after must prevail.
Finally, crossovers spread the elements of crime fiction into other genres, most recently including science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and horror. A police procedural may be set in an urban world of angels, a team of vampires may plot a caper to rob a blood bank, a time-traveling amateur detective may find herself up against a werewolf Jack the Ripper. In crossovers, anything and everything can happen, but the crime still must be solved.
While some mystery writers deplore these obviously speculative concoctions, others remember that in the 1920s, the ultra-realistic police procedural originated as a backlash against the unrealistic cozy. It’s possible these spec fic crossovers are another example of new genres breaking free, giving rise to new story opportunities for writers — and lots of new fun for readers.