It Isn’t Always the Butler: A Beginner’s Guide to Mystery Novels

Are you looking for a mentally stimulating story that will keep you on the edge of your seat? If so, you'll definitely want to pick up a mystery novel. Mystery stories keep the reader in suspense of or in the dark about something that has occurred off-page, typically a crime. It is one of the most popular types of genre fiction, and as such it contains a multitude of subgenres.

Not all mysteries are constructed the same. Some readers want an R-rated story with a grisly murder in graphic detail, while others prefer something more PG in nature where the explicit details are left off the page. Some mysteries are going to meet somewhere in the middle, while others won’t involve a murder or disappearance at all, but instead will focus on a missing object or a puzzle.

Beyond the story details, there is also the setting to consider as well as the types of characters who are featured. Many mysteries wind up being series that revolve around a central crime-solving protagonist.

Here are just four mystery subgenres to start with (or some new ones to try for those seasoned mystery-readers out there).

Cozy Mysteries

These are gently tantalizing PG-rated stories usually set in small, quiet communities until, for instance, the local baker winds up dead. Any violent or sexual situations will take place off-screen, so the “cozy” descriptor indicates a story focused mainly on the atmosphere and characters.

The Maid – A charmingly eccentric hotel maid discovers a guest murdered in his bed, turning her once orderly world upside down—and inspiring a motley crew of unexpected allies to band together to solve the mystery.

Miss Marple: the Complete Short Stories – This collection of 20 stories features Miss Jane Marple, the famous amateur sleuth who bases her solutions to crimes on past experiences and on an insistence that human nature is the same everywhere.

The Thursday Murder Club – In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves The Thursday Murder Club.


For history and ancestry buffs, historical mysteries are a great option. They are period pieces that follow usual mystery plotlines, but they are set in a time period prior to that of the author. This can mean technology and forensics techniques that may exist now are absent from these stories, adding a layer of authenticity and intrigue. Sometimes the cast of characters features fictionalized versions of historical figures.

Strong as Death – A former novitiate in the Order of the Paraclete, Catherine LeVendeur has had more than her share of adventures. In fact, intrigue—and murder—seem to dog her path. When Catherine chose love over churchly devotion by falling in love with her Saxon nobleman, Edgar, her family has the earnest hope that married life would settle this most headstrong and unusual woman. But fate has a way of playing with mortals, and after suffering several miscarriages and the birth of a stillborn child, Catherine is driven by a prophetic dream. She and Edgar will embark on a pilgrimage to the fabled monastery of Compostela, to petition St. James for a child, to take the holy waters, and to pray. On the journey, Catherine and Edgar will encounter mad monks, some less-than-penitent crusaders, and a motley collection of pilgrims whose past deeds bind them all in a bizarre game of chance. When several pilgrims are gruesomely murdered, the trail of evidence points to an old sin left unshriven and a hidden villain whose quest for revenge may end in Catherine's death.

The Anatomist's Wife – Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage, a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.

A Curious Beginning – London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.


Classics offer the type of mystery most people think of when it comes to the genre: this usually involves an inciting crime/incident disrupting a community that is eventually resolved by a policeman or non-professional through gathering clues and investigating. The settings in this genre are often Euro-centric, specifically taking place in England most of the time. Many are defined by their iconic characters who have appeared in numerous sequels and adaptations on film and television. 

A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles – In this novel, one of the most famous of Doyle's mysteries, the tale of an ancient curse and a savage ghostly hound comes frighteningly to life. The gray towers of Baskerville Hall and the wild open country of Dartmoor will haunt the reader as Holmes and Watson seek to unravel the many secrets of the misty English bogs.

Death on the Nile – Beloved detective Hercule Poirot embarks on a journey to Egypt in one of Agatha Christie's most famous mysteries. The tranquility of a luxury cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish and beautiful. A girl who had everything... until she lost her life. Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: "I'd like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger." Yet under the searing heat of the Egyptian sun, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

The Moonstone – The Moonstone is a beautiful yellow diamond that was stolen from the statue of a moon god in India. When Franklin Blake brings it to Rachel Verinder's house in Yorkshire for her birthday, bad luck accompanies it. How many people will the Moonstone hurt? How many must die before the diamond's revenge is complete?


Noir is a distinct area of the mystery genre often characterized by its gritty and edgy cast of characters. The main character is often a brooding, loner private investigator, known for having quick wit and a penchant for dangerous living. Some famous noir works are those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series. This genre is sometimes also referred to as “hard-boiled” for its intense and graphic nature. It shares a lot of commonalities with the police procedural subgenre.

The Long Goodbye – In noir master Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe befriends a down-on-his-luck war veteran with the scars to prove it. He then finds out that Terry Lennox has a very wealthy nymphomaniac wife, whom he divorced and remarried—and who ends up dead. Now, Lennox is on the run, and the cops and a crazy gangster are after Marlowe.

The Maltese Falcon – A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grifter named Joel Cairo; a man named Gutman, accompanied by a vicious young gunman; and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett's iconic, influential, and beloved The Maltese Falcon.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – The disappearance 40 years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, gnaws at her octogenarian uncle, Henrik Vanger. He is determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder. He hires crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, recently at the wrong end of a libel case, to get to the bottom of Harriet's disappearance. Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, pierced, tattooed genius hacker, possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age—and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness—assists Blomkvist with the investigation.