Definitions Regarding the Structure of the Story

Mystery Novel. A work of fiction which should meet all the requirements of any novel, and is additionally expected to include four essential elements:

  • Crime (usually, but not necessarily, murder)
  • Detective(s), whether professional (police or private) or amateur
  • An investigative process and
  • The identification of the culprit(s)

Some students of the genre have shortened this definition by saying simply that a mystery is "a novel that is about something," or "a novel in which something happens." (These are at least a good description of what many "literary" novels are not.)

Whodunit. Although basically a synonym for mystery, the term whodunit is generally used to describe works such as many of the "traditional" or "classic" mysteries of the 1920's and 30's, which contain significant elements of a puzzle.

Crime Novel. "Mysteries" and more. Perhaps a better term than "mystery novel" to describe the category today, with its implication of a broad variety of approaches to the issue of crime and its implications, less dependence on the four essential elements. A notable example of the newer type of construction is the story told from the standpoint of the criminal hit man (or woman), con artist, or whatever. Often in a crime novel, the "good guys" and the "bad guys" share equal time you know whodunit but you don't know how the story will be resolved.

Cozy. Think Agatha Christie. Think cats. Think culinary. The cozy is a mystery in which a murder, perhaps violent, is committed without bringing significant unpleasantness to the reader, or to the other characters in the story. In her entertaining 1977 book, Murder Ink, Dilys Winn described the cozy as "a small village setting, a hero[ine] with faintly aristocratic family connections, a plethora of red herrings, and a tendency to commit homicide with sterling silver letter openers and poisons imported from Paraguay."

Hard-boiled. Murder taken out of the drawing room and into the streets. Realism. Chandler wrote about authors who "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reason, not just to provide a corpse."  Generally, but not always, featuring a private detective; usually, but not always, pervaded by pessimism. The humor, if any, will be dark. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels are excellent examples. This style has been made into movies for decades (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past) and can also be characterized by the same term, noir. Like crime novels, hardboiled stories tend to be urban.

Soft-boiled. The realism of the hard-boiled but tempered with optimism, and humor that is light. Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr ("Burglar") novels exemplify this type, and provide a clear contrast to the hard-boiled Scudder.

Thrillers. Plenty of action, accent on plot. Tension. Emphasis on placing the protagonist in dangerous circumstances usually physically dangerous. James Bond. Lawyers/defendants in the courtroom. Spies everywhere. Derring-do anywhere. Rather than solving a crime, the object may be to prevent one from happening to our hero or heroine. In this type of book, the main character is active, a professional.

Suspense. Tension again. Similar to thrillers, but the danger is more likely to be psychological than physical, based more on expectation or fear of harm than on frankly hazardous situations. In this type of story, the main character is normally an innocent caught up in danger think of North by Northwest. This is an area that may get blended with a touch or horror, which comes under the term "Gothic".

Caper Novel. One of the newer forms, centered on the commission of some type of crime or scam, usually outrageous and frequently humorous. Will it succeed, and will the scoundrels get away with it? Gives us an opportunity to root for characters we might not root for in real life.

Keep in mind that these definitions are shorthand labels that can be used as references for discussion. If you ask what a book is like and someone says "cozy", it gives you an idea of what to expect. Also, these styles can be mingled, so a suspense story might be cozy or a whodunnit could be hardboiled.

Note: although we've talked of novels here, the definitions apply to the short story as well.

Definitions Regarding the Physical Makeup of the Book

First Edition / First Printing*. A frequently-confused distinction. Strictly speaking, all copies of a book are First Editions until the text is somehow altered from that of the first copies printed for sale. The alteration of text, resulting in second, or revised, editions occurs mostly in non-fiction. In works of fiction, the first edition is often the only one which ever exists; later copies will be printed without altering the text, and these will still technically be First Editions, though not First Printings. Only the original copies are First Printings, and these, of course, are what collectors want. Most dealers and collectors understand this distinction, but many glibly say "First Edition" when they mean "First Printing," often adding to the confusion by referring simply to "Firsts." Visually identifying a First Printing, or even a First Edition, is often difficult, as publishers use a variety of means to clarify or obfuscate the situation. [A handy reference book is A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions, compiled by Bill McBride, 6th Ed., $13.95]

*Usually refers to a hardcover, but can apply to a paperback original see below.

Paperback Original. A book initially published as a paperback, without prior or simultaneous appearance in hardcover. First printings of these can also be collectable. In some places, such as our Newsletter, they may be identified as a tpo (trade paperback original) or pbo (paperback original, usually meaning mass-market paperback). Trade paperbacks are usually, but not necessarily, of a larger format than rack-size, whereas mass-market paperbacks are almost always rack size. But technically the distinction is that trade paperbacks are intended to be sold only through bookstores, whereas mass-markets are distributed also through non-book outlets.

Advance Reading Copy (ARC). The text of a forthcoming book, issued by the publisher in a form resembling a trade paperback, for booksellers and reviewers so they will be familiar with the story when it is published. Usually subject to final editing. Also referred to as proof copy, uncorrected proof, galley, or galley proof.

Crime Fiction Awards

Edgar Allan Poe Award. The "Oscars" of crime fiction. Selected by a committee of published mystery writers appointed by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Nominees announced in February, winners announced in late April, for works published the prior calendar year. Categories include Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, and many more.

Others. There are many other crime fiction awards in the U.S. and other countries. For an exhaustive list, including who gives them, when, and what for, and winners from inception through 2001, see The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002, Carroll & Graf tpo, 12.95). To order a copy of this useful and fascinating book, e-mail us.

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