How do you like your murder?

My wife is fan of English murder mysteries and for her birthday recently one of her friends gave her a boxed-set of the first eight seasons of Midsomer Murders.  She was excited, however, the rest of us were not looking forward to the prospect of having to sit through fifty episodes of murder at the village fete. I prefer my crime fiction a little more visceral (the The Bridge or Luther).

But how can one crime fiction drama can be so different from another? I decided it was time to don the deerstalker and set out to investigate the mystery of crime fiction sub-genres. My sleuthing uncovered the following factsl!

Whodunnit crime fiction

You know you are in a whodunnit when the quirky detectives invite you to the drawing room. There they will slowly disentangle all the knots in the plot and explain the red herrings (a red herring being a false clue—supposedly the term originated when very pungent smoked herrings were used to create false trails to divert hunting hounds away from the trail of a fox) and eventually, after a long monologue, expose the dastardly perpetrators and their evil motives for murder.

Therefore a whodunnit or whodunit has become the term for a piece of crime fiction, film or TV in which the identity of the murderer is not disclosed until the very end. Although the Sherlock Holmes stories, written in the 1890s, follow this plot pattern, the word was coined in the 1930s during the heyday of the genre’s pioneer writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey. It is a parallel and more venacular construction to who did it, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Cosy crime fiction

Cosies are modern recreations (in new novels or TV serialisations) of the works of the classic whodunnit writers. The term was coined in the late 20th century to describe murder mysteries that seek to recreate the idyllic lifestyles of previous, more romanticized times (usually pre-war).

Cosies are usually set in small villages and follow the investigations of amateur detectives (like Miss Marple, Poirot, Father Brown; or in Australia, Dr Blake and Miss Fisher, or in the US Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote) or of friendly policemen (Midsomer Murders, Hamish MacBeth). The murder victims are usually extremely reluctant to bleed even if shot several times at close range by a shotgun. The middle-class murderer is seldom a psychopath and their serial killing spree is justified by some deep-buried, motive of revenge.


As an alternative to too many Poirots, Miss Marples and Father Browns an inverted narrative will reveal the murderer at the beginning of the crime story. The subsequent plot follows how the detective works out who the identity of the criminal while we watch on. This is a howcatchem. The most famous detective of this crime fiction genre was Columbo, portrayed also as an “inverted” detective, being absent-minded, disheveled and apparently bumbling in contrast to the sharp and efficient stereotype.

Crime caper

Crime capers are crime stories told from the criminals’ point of view. This is a type of howcatchem told from the perspective of the criminal. Some of the great caper films include The Italian Job, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Three Kings and Reservoir Dogs. Breaking Bad sits within this genre.

Police-procedural crime fiction

The police procedural follows the police processes of evidence gathering (forensics, autopsies, fingerprinting, DNA etc); interviews and interrogations; and dealing with lawyers and courts. They can be howcatchems or whodunnits (although they may depict investigations into several crimes in the same story). A large sub-genre of police procedurals are the forensic series, for instance, CSI, NCIS and Bones in the US and Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in the UK. Which use very fanciful science to solve cases.

Hard-boiled and film noir

At the other end of the spectrum from cosies are hard-boiled crime stories: they are graphic, explicitly violent or sexual in nature. They commonly feature psychopaths or serial killers. The detective is usually deeply flawed (i.e. the defective detective). They began with the private eye genre (private investigator, PI) of pre-war America typified by Sam Spade created by American writer Dashielle Hammett and Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler. Hard-boiled refers to the detectives hardened attitude towards emotions associated with violence.

The private investigator of 1930s American crime novelists was made solid in mainstream films by Humphrey Bogart’s San Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. These films were typical of Hollywood’s film noir genre (French for black film or more accurately dark film) so named because of the hardboiled subject matter and because they were deliberately filmed in black and white (despite colour being available).

Tartan noir

Tartan noir (the noir is a reference and nod to film noir) is a relatively new crime fiction genre referring to Scottish writers and their stories set in tough, grimy Scottish cities or towns. Stories are gritty and unpredictable and combine hard-boiled and police procedural elements. The lead characters are not very likeable, are often deeply flawed (ie defective detectives) and are always trying to balance their work with unresolved personal crises (ie dysfunction junction). Writers include William McIlvanney, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina. Television series include Taggart and Rebus. Wire in the Blood, written by McDermid, is set in Yorkshire, northern England (but still qualifies).

Nordic noir

Nordic noir, or Scandinavian noir (Scandi noir), in common with its cousin, tartan noir, are hard-boiled police procedurals which invoke an atmosphere of dark, morally complex mood, filmed in stark, beautifully presented locations. One writer suggests the darkness in Danish noir derives from the incongruity stemming from Denmark’s status both as one of the world’s highest consumers of anti-depressants and their claim to be the Happiest Country on Earth. Key examples of Nordic noir are Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and  its sequels; Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander detective series; as well as the TV productions: The Killing, The Bridge and Trapped.

Kanga noir

There is even kanga noir if you accept Peter Temple’s categorisation of his highly successful 2005 Australian novel Broken Shore, which I am now determined to read.

The riddle solved

So whatever your taste in crime stories, whether it is reading Agatha Christie with a cup of tea or watching northern noir on TV with forensic pathologists solemnly teasing out the internal organs of the latest serial killer victim, it appears that we just can’t get enough of them. One author complained:

It is impossible to keep track of all the detective-stories produced today. Book upon book, magazine upon magazine pour out from the Press, crammed with murders, thefts, arsons, frauds, conspiracies, problems, puzzles, mysteries, thrills, maniacs, crooks, poisoners, forgers, garrotters, police, spies, secret-service men, detectives, until it seems that half the world must be engaged in setting riddles for the other half to solve.

The author was, in fact, Dorothy L. Sayers writing in almost a hundred years ago, in the 1920s. The popularity of crime fiction in the 21st century continues to grow as we continually reinvent the genre—with one in three published books being crime fiction.  So enjoy your murder however you choose to take it.