Where Crime Fiction Sub-Genres Overlap: Traditional, Historical and PI

by Kassandra Lamb (with some editorial assistance from Kathy Owen) ~ This is installment #2 in our series on sub-genres, specifically addressing where some crime fiction sub-genres overlap.

In last week’s post, I differentiated between traditional and cozy mysteries, but today I’d like to delve further into what constitutes a “traditional mystery.”

crime fiction sub-genres overlap

This is a tough sub-genre to pin down

Probably the best way to describe traditional mysteries is that they are classic whodunnits inspired by the style of the Golden Age masters of the genre…folks like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

I was under the impression that traditional meant amateur sleuth, but after talking to several other traditional mystery writers (we actually have a Facebook group), I stand corrected. Traditional whodunnits may have a private detective or police protagonist.

Perhaps it would be better to think of the distinction as one of style and structure more than who the protagonist is. Traditional mysteries move in a fairly linear way, from a crime to the protagonist committing to the discovery of the culprit, then pursuing clues and eventually succeeding. The emphasis is on puzzle-solving rather than character development.

crime fiction sub-genres overlap

Again, to differentiate from cozies…

Cozies always have amateur sleuths, are usually set in small communities, and are lighter reads. Using Agatha Christie’s most famous sleuths as examples, for cozies, think Miss Marple, and for traditional mysteries, think Hercule Poirot. (Although modern-day cozies have added some other elements—more humor, for example, plus the addition of pets, crafts and/or recipes.)

In traditional mysteries, excessive gore, swearing and on-screen sex are normally avoided, although that rule is not as strict as it is for cozies.

Perhaps this “tradition” comes from these stories reflecting a style similar to those Golden Age writers. In their era, no one swore in polite company, nor would excessive gore or, heaven forbid, sex be acceptable in literature. But I’m just speculating here…

(For more on the Golden Age mystery authors, see this excellent post: Golden Age of Detective Fiction)

Now, a closer look at where other crime fiction sub-genres overlap with traditional

As mentioned, they can have a private detective protagonist, but he or she is more likely to be a gentleman, or gentlewoman. Not a hard-boiled PI drinking whisky in his messy office while waiting for his next client to show up. (More on hard-boiled PIs in another post coming up soon.)

crime fiction sub-genres overlap

And they might have a police protagonist, such as PD James’s Adam Dalgliesh. But how does one differentiate this from the modern police procedural? Good question. The line is blurry.

Again, it’s probably a matter of style. PD James writes more in the style of the Golden Age mystery authors, without a tremendous amount of minutia about police procedures. The focus is more on the solving of the crime and the interaction of the characters, in that order. (More on police procedurals in a future post.)

Last but not least, the overlap with historical

Historical mysteries are often also traditional (or cozies). These are usually written in a style that is in sync with the era when the story is set. So, if we’re talking about a setting prior to, say, 1950…again, minimal cussing (if any), no excessive gore, and no on-screen sex. And the style of writing itself will likely be a bit more formal.

KB Owen’s latest release

My favorite example of this is misterio’s own KB (Kathy) Owen’s series about a lady Pinkerton agent, The Chronicles of a Lady Detective. Set in the late 1800s, the protagonist, Penelope Hamilton is a gentlewoman and one of the few females hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

So these books are traditional, historical, private detective stories. How’s that for overlap!

Stay tuned for next week’s encore presentation of Kathy Owen’s fabulous post on the history of private detective mysteries, in which she distinguishes between a regular PI story, a hard-boiled one, and noir.

In the meantime, talk to us in the comments. What are your thoughts about traditional mysteries and crime fiction sub-genres overlap? Do you even care what the sub-genre is?

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Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. Plus she has started a new police procedural series, also set in Florida—The C.o.P. on the Scene mysteries. And she writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    November 15, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Fab post, Kass! There are so many lines of overlap…like a crazy Venn diagram. But I love geeking out about this kind of thing. Doyle was, technically speaking, a predecessor to Christie, Sayers, et al, but they were certainly inspired by him. Hercule Poirot, in particular, makes specific mention in scoffing about Holmes’s methods, preferring “little gray cells” to footprints and bloodstains.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 16, 2022 at 10:14 am

      Ack, I wouldn’t even try to do a Venn diagram of the intersections! But it is fun to look at the history of our genre and dissect it a a bit.

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