4 Different Styles of Mystery Novels from Around the World
It’s a good time for mystery lovers. There are so many different genres and sub-genres of mysteries on the market right now from thrillers to cozies and everything in between. And even better, we’re fortunate to be getting a taste of international mystery styles from all over the world from Japan to Australia and beyond. Interestingly, many styles seem centered around noir.
Before we explore some international mystery styles, we’ve got two definitions to go over. The first is the locked room mysteries, which is where a seemingly impossible murder has taken place, like a body found in a room with all the doors and windows locked. The clever detective then must deduce what happened and make the impossible seem possible. John Dickson Carr is a classic master of it, but now we’ve got the wonderful Gigi Pandian and her Secret Staircase Mystery series.
The second is noir, which is a style — often in film but also in books — of crime fiction where the world is a hard and dismal place. The protagonist of the story is often morally compromised. Interestingly, noir and hard boiled detective novels are often seen as interchangeable, but some might argue that there are differences. But that’s for another article!
According to The Guardian, honkaku means “orthodox.” “Writer Haruta Yoshitame, who is credited with defining honkaku, meaning orthodox in English, described it as ‘a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning.’“ Many take the form of a locked room mystery. While the sub-genre fell out of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, shin honkaku, which means “new orthodox” in English, emerged, as a revival of honkaku. The newer iteration has a less strict approach to the genre, with more paranormal and comedic elements incorporated into its stories.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong, and introduced by Sōji Shimada
First published in 1987, and translated into English in 2005, the story centers around a horrible crime on an island. A group of university students in a mystery club, each taking on a different classic Western mystery writer’s name, decide to camp on the island in a strange 10-sided house to investigate. But someone has more than grisly tourism on their mind; one by one students are murdered. Why are they being murdered? And how? It’s credited for popularizing the shin honkaku genre.
The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, Translated by Ho-Ling Wong, Introduced by Sōji Shimada
It’s another island mystery centered around university students and well worth the read! First published in 1989, and republished in English in 2016, students decide to travel to look for a treasure but murder intervenes…
The New York Times defines Nordic noir or Scandinavian noir as “thrillers with a few things in common — an almost dour sensibility, a belief that political issues are the bedrock of modern crime fiction. They often feature bleak, snowy settings and what seem to be rather morose police detectives.”
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
Considered one of the classics of Nordic Noir, Smilla Jaspersen is the quintessential Nordic Noir of an unlikeable woman before I even knew it was a thing. She’s a Greenlander who lives in Copenhagen. She has difficulty relating to other people, preferring to spend her time alone with ice and snow. But when her neighbor’s 6-year-old son jumps from the roof of their building, Smilla is convinced that it was no accident and investigates. It’s a beautiful, sorrowful story that was made into a movie.
Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated Lois Roth
The first of the 10 book Martin Beck series, Roseanna centers around a mysterious woman found drowned in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. No one knows anything about the woman. When Swedish police detective Beck investigates, she proves elusive. He thinks she may have been tied to a cruise ship and her name may be Roseanna, but that’s it. Can he figure out who this woman is and who might have killed her?
Then there is the quintessential American style of the hardboiled detective novel. In a recent class on Hard and Soft-Boiled Detective fiction taught by Elżbieta Foeller-Pituch, University of Northwestern, this style was described as “a uniquely American phenomenon” that features an individual’s adventure. It’s been likened to an urban Western. Hardboiled detective fiction tends to feature organized crime with a detective or private eye — sometimes a former police officer — who solves the crime. It tends to be grittier and darker than its counterpoint of soft-boiled detective novels.
A Rage in Harlem by Chester B. Himes
It’s the first of nine books to feature detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones in 1950s Harlem. Jackson loves his girlfriend Imabelle so much that she can do no wrong. So when she tells him about a get rich scheme that’s too good to be true, he takes the bait. And of course, everything goes wrong. Jackson ends up getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble. Jackson asks for help from his conman brother Goldy, who is also an informant for the detectives who are on the trail of the conmen who got Jackson into the mess. Can Jackson get out of trouble or will Imabelle be the ruin of him?
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
This might one of the more recent books on the list. Texas Ranger Darren Mathews’ life is on the rocks. His marriage is failing; and he might have been implicated in something. But when two people, a Black man and a white woman, turn up dead in Lark, Texas, he goes to investigate, finding a hotbed of white supremacy. Can he figure out what happened and why without compromising himself too much? There’s a sequel named Heaven, My Home.
This sub-genre is also known as sunburnt noir, outback noir, bush noir and others. Penguin Australia defines Aussie noir as a “sub-genre that perfectly melds landscape and plot to create a feeling of remoteness. The outback provides the perfect atmosphere for mystery and suspense with its vast expanses, extreme climate, and relatively small population.” The books tend to focus on rural Australia.
The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Murder is unnerving but it’s doubly so when it’s someone you went to school with. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock’s classmate Rosalind is found floating in a lake. In addition to finding her killer, Woodstock wants to understand why Rosalind came back to their small town after moving to the city. Can she find Rosalind’s demons while escaping her own? It’s the first of three in the Sergeant Gemma Woodstock series.
Cutters End by Margaret Hickey
Set in an outback town of Cutters End, a burned body is found by the side of the road in 1989. The case remains unsolved but not forgotten. In 2021, Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is brought back to reopen the case, interviewing people in the town around the events leading to the body. But soon it’s clear that there may be more bodies hidden than anyone had expected.
That’s just a taste of the international styles out there. If you want more sub-genres, check out this writer’s post on mystery sub-genres. Or this post on 100 mysteries from around the world.