I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.
By Emily Martin
Mystery and suspense novels are some of the best-selling fiction genres, and have been for quite some time. But what kind of mystery and suspense novels are the most popular? Here is a list of mystery and suspense genres, ranked from most popular to least popular. This list was compiled by examining the amount of new works that were published in each genre in 2020 and how well these book sold. This is how “popular” was defined for this particular list.
It should also be noted that many books can be categorized into more than one mystery and/or suspense subgenre. Also, while some of these genres might not have been popular in the last year, these things are constantly changing. Like anything else, genres go through trends, and a lot of the subgenres within the mystery and suspense genres that were once very popular have fallen out of favor in recent years. Likewise, some old genres are regaining popularity, and new favorites have popped up as well. Enjoy this list for what it is: a snapshot of the mystery, suspense, crime fiction, and detective genres as they are at this point in time.
While psychological thrillers have always been a popular subgenre, we can trace the recent boom of psychological thriller novels to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 super hit novel Gone Girl. Psychological thrillers typically deal with characters who are dealing with psychological distress, usually because of some harrowing mystery or other suspenseful situation. A more recent example of a psychological thriller would be In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare.
A cozy mystery has all of the thrills of a good mystery novel without all the blood and gore and gritty details. So it makes sense that this genre is so popular and has remained popular for decades. These novels often feature amateur detectives whom the reader can follow and root for. Many cozy mysteries are also serialized, which means when you get into a particular character or story, you can invest in those people and that story for many, many books. One example of a series with many books you can sink into: M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series. The most recent one, Hot to Trot came out in 2020.
Mystery genres quite frequently end up being crossed over with other genres, and one of the most popular of these crossovers is the historical mystery. This genre places detectives investigating crimes into different times in history. For instance, the novel Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand is set in 1915 with the backdrop of a carnival.
There is no denying the popularity of the romantic suspense genre. Though some titles lean more toward romance than suspense, we don’t imagine the popularity of romantic suspense books diminishing any time soon. If you like a little swoon with your action, we recommend this genre with titles like A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem by Manda Collins.
Who doesn’t love crime fiction and thrillers that feature spies? Charming spy characters like James Bond have long been a favorite in both novels and films. And while many of your older spy thrillers and espionage novels center around men as the protagonists, contemporary entries into the genre are becoming more diverse. Just look at American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which follows the story of an African American woman spy named Marie Mitchell.
Sure, it’s fun to see amateur detectives put clues together to solve a crime, but sometimes you just want to read a crime novel about a professional at work. Which is why police procedurals remain a pretty popular subgenre of mystery/thriller novels. As the name suggests, police procedural novels follow a police detective or a team of detectives hunting down a killer. Sometimes these novels switch back and forth between the detective’s perspective and the criminal’s perspective. One recent must-read example of police procedural fiction? If you’re a fan of the genre, you won’t want to miss James Patterson and J.D. Barker’s The Coast-to-Coast Murders.
On the flip side of the coin of police procedurals are private detective novels, coming in right after police procedurals in terms of popularity in recent years. Private detective novels focus on a private detective (obviously) and his or her journey to gather clues and ultimately solve a crime. There have been many famous private detective characters over the years, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. A recent one you’ll love is Sherry Thomas’s Charlotte Holmes. The most recent book in her Lady Sherlock series is Murder on Cold Street.
For readers who are more interested in the justice side of crime fiction rather than the police or detectives, legal thrillers are the answer. Legal thrillers usually star a lawyer or some other court official who is working hard to get to the truth behind the crime when law officials seem to be on the wrong track. The Last Trial by Scott Turlow is an excellent new legal thriller you’ll want to read if you’re a fan of this subgenre.
More interested in the criminals and the thrilling act of the crime? Heist fiction takes you there. These stories focus on criminals as our antiheroes as we watch them perform nearly impossible thefts, usually of heavily guarded and highly prized items. While heist fiction is not as popular as other thriller subgenres, this genre still contains some popular favorites. Looking for a new, exciting heist story? Try Sandra Brown’s Thick as Thieves.
Locked room mysteries are fun because it adds a sense of urgency to solving the crime. Why? Locked room mysteries revolve around a seemingly unsolvable crime. How did the perpetrator get in? Get out? Because this is such a specific subgenre, not as many books are published that fit within this genre. But when locked room mysteries come out, they’re usually very much enjoyed by mystery fans. One recent locked-room mystery that was loved by many: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.
Noir or hardboiled detective fiction is a genre that reached its height of popularity in the early-to-mid-20th century. These crime novels feature weathered and cynical private detectives who see the dark, edgy side of the city in which they live. As you can imagine, these stories are dark and often violent. While there have been more recent entries to the genre, this is one that has fallen out of favor in contemporary mystery fiction. Perhaps it’s because when a genre is so oversaturated, the tropes of the genre begin to feel cliché. Of course, mystery and thriller novels across genres still borrow conventions and are inspired by noir fiction. And as with any trend, we’ll likely see a resurgence at some point.
Why do supernatural thrillers have such a niche readership? Is it because people prefer concrete answers to their mystery stories? Is it easier to swallow a mystery if we know, at the end of the day, a butler did it and not some ghost that can’t be thrown in jail? Whatever the case may be, while supernatural thrillers continued to be published and read, the subgenre is not nearly as popular as others; however, there are gems like Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky thats popularity reinvigorates this sub-genre.