Season 1 – Episode 3 – Taking the Mystery out of Mysteries



This week, Clare and Hannah discuss the differences between hard-boiled, classical and cozy mysteries. Knowing the literary conventions and formulae of each type of mystery story enhances your enjoyment of the genre for a couple reasons:

First, after listening to our discussion, you’ll probably get an idea of the sub-genre you prefer, which will guide you as you select books to read. The sub-genre to which a detective story belongs is often made clear by the title, the cover, and the synopsis of the book. 

Secondly, even if you realize that you enjoy all the sub-types of detective mysteries, knowing which one you’re about to read will mentally prepare you, so that you can enjoy each book for what it is, rather than being unpleasantly surprised to learn that  Farewell, My Lovely is a violent, gritty noir tale about murder in the Big City and not lighthearted, whimsical fluff about, oh, I don’t know, a murder at the annual Christmas cookie baking contest.

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Timecode Guide:

3:56 Classical Mystery

  • Society: Detective is a loner and frequently quirky or awkward. 
  • The Law: Detective is an amateur detective. Not a law enforcement professional.
  • Romantic attachment: Detective is usually unattached, romantically and generally speaking. They don’t have time for all this romance or they’re just very broken people and they retreat into an intellectual world.
  • Brains instead of brawn.
  • Setting: Isolated and idyllic setting (ex. A charming English village), and then a murder happens and it throws that whole idyllic world on its head. Clare mentions a TV crime drama called Safe, which follows a man from a high-class gated community who investigates his daughter’s disappearance. A gated community is definitely an enclosed, isolated place where nothing exciting is ever supposed to happen, let alone kidnapping and murder. 
  • Conclusion: The story ends when the detective has outwitted the criminal.
  • Examples of Classical Mysteries: Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Safe, Monk.


9:30 Hard-Boiled Mystery

  • Society: Detective is a loner. A black sheep or some sort of ostracized party, alienated from the world in general.
  • The Law: Detective is a law enforcement or investigative professional, usually a private investigator, detective, or policeman.
  • Romantic attachment: Detective is unattached, usually because of some event in their past (death of a spouse, failed marriage, traumatic childhood).
  • Brawn over brains.
  • Setting: sprawling, urban metropolis with a lot of crime or a criminal underbelly. This is why Los Angeles, CA is an excellent setting for this type of detective story. 
  • Conclusion: The story ends with a confrontation between the detective and the suspect. A shootout or a fistfight.
  • Examples of Hard-Boiled Mysteries: Bosch, Marcella, Longmire, Happy Valley, Wallander

14:19 Examples of Classical and Hard-boiled mysteries:

  • Classical: Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Safe, Monk
  • Hard-boiled: Bosch, Marcella, Longmire, Happy Valley, Wallander

14:38 One of Hannah’s favorite hard-boiled detective mystery shows is Happy Valley, about Catherine Cawood, a police Sergeant in Northern England who struggles to balance her work with her dysfunctional family life and secretly abuses her power in order to track down the man who drove her daughter to suicide. 

15:22 Just to prove there are hard-boiled detective stories with female protagonists, we thought of another one: Marcella, about a London detective who tries to do her job and maintain her family life while suffering from intermittent blackouts. 

17:07 Broken individuals make very good main characters. 

18:45 Sherlock Holmes is a classical detective (of course). He’s not law enforcement, he’s unattached romantically, he solves crime with brains instead of brawn. He also displays another quality of a classical detective: he has a side-kick or assistant. Hannah makes it very clear that contrary to with people might say, Watson is not an idiot. He’s a doctor, for heaven’s sake!

20:46 Agatha Christie writes classical mysteries. Miss Marple, Poirot, Tommy & Tuppence.

21:16 Longmire is a hard-boiled detective series about the sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, who keeps on trying to do his job despite the fact that he’s still grieving the murder of his wife–and trying to solve her murder case. Unlike most hard-boiled detective stories, Longmire isn’t set in a sprawling city. It’s all rural, but still with a dark underbelly.

28:38 Edgar Allan Poe is credited with being the father of the classical detective mystery, in his short story, “The Murder at the Rue Morgue.”

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Clare: Hello, I’m Clare T. Walker. I’m an independent author and I am the oldest child in my family. This is Hannah Kubiak. She is a theater professional. The middle child. That has nothing to do with our topic for today, but what we’re going to be doing is taking the mystery… out of mysteries. So stay tuned. 

(Intro music)

Clare: Our topic for today is mysteries, detective novels in particular. But before we do that, Hannah, what have you been working on or reading?

Hannah: What have I been doing for my input/output? For my input, I read a play. I went to the used bookstore with a friend of mine and was just perusing the plays. And I found Fences by August Wilson. And I also found an anthology of plays by Athol Fugard, who is a South African playwright and one of my favorites. He wrote one of my favorite plays. So I have another bunch of plays by him that I’m reading.

Clare: Is that the play you were reading and then you went to the store or did you read it at the bookstore?

Hannah: I’m a narrative person who shares information narratively, so I have to make it into a story, which actually kind of annoys me. I could just say, “Well, I’m reading August Wilson’s Fences and an anthology of plays by Athol Fugard, but I didn’t say that.”

Clare: You had to turn it into this whole story.

Hannah: I turned it into a big story about going to the bookstore.

Clare: That’s fine. You’re a storyteller. So have you been working on anything else other than finishing up the play your theater company is putting on?

Hannah: We finished up Henry V and we had auditions for The Elephant Man, which is Voices Found’s next show. I’m assistant directing that, so I got to sit in on the auditions.

Clare: My input. I recently finished watching a series called Safe, a mystery series. And that’s what prompted me to want to do this topic and talk about detective novels, detective mysteries. It’s a really great topic and I love making the distinction between the two main types of detective mysteries: hard-boiled detective mysteries and classical detective mysteries. Knowing the differences between those two can really enhance your enjoyment of them because you know what you’re getting in one and not the other. Now the classical mystery. Typically the detective is an amateur detective. They are not a law enforcement professional. They are a knowledgeable person or busybody or somebody who knows everybody or has some ancillary connection to law enforcement. And they come in and solve the mystery because they’re much better at it than the than the professional law enforcement: detectives and police. Typically the classical mystery detective is on their own. In fact, the detectives in the hard-boiled are also lone heroes, black sheep, or some sort of ostracized party. 

Hannah: So that appeals to the sensibility of the reader. We love an underdog.

Clare: And we are always interested in the mind of a person who is an outsider or an unusual person. Certainly the readers of the classical detective fiction and maybe even hard-boiled detective fiction feel sort of alienated from the world in general. So, a lone detective, usually an amateur, a person who’s usually unattached, romantically and a generally speaking, remains unattached throughout the story or the series, especially in the classical.

Hannah: It’s not really a major thing that they’re interested in.

Clare: It’s because they’re interested in the intellectual pursuit. The solving of the mystery. They don’t have time for all this romance or they’re just very broken people and they retreat into an intellectual world.

Hannah: Using your intellect to mask your woundedness. 

Clare: The detective can be male or female. Sometimes the classical detective does have close friends. Sometimes they do have a spouse. The more lighthearted the mystery, the more likely they are to have a romantic attachment to their spouse. But it’s all brains. There’s no brawn in these things. Classical detectives are not going to be beating up the criminal or having a shootout with the criminal.

You can really tell a classical detective mystery by setting. The setting is very much a part of why the mystery works. The setting is very much a self-enclosed place, a sort of idyllic place. Your classic setting for this kind of detective story is a charming English village. You think about Miss Marple right away. That is very much her purview. An English village. She has excellent knowledge of human nature and people’s motivations, and she comes in and she’s a little bit of a busybody and she figures it all out. So the setting is very much enclosed. The village. The country Manor or estate. A luxury resort island would be a good place to have a classical mystery take place. A luxury liner, a yacht of some kind of cruise ship. The show that I just finished, that prompted me to want to talk about this topic, took place in contemporary England in a gated suburban community. The title is Safe. “We’re behind the gate. We’re safe in here.” And that was very much how the people in a classical detective story behave when this murder occurs. In the classical detective mystery, they’ve got this idyllic world, this lovely resort beach or this lovely English manor, the perfect household or the charming English village. Or the perfect, safe, gated suburban community. A murder happens and it throws that whole idyllic world on its head.

Now, the difference between that and the hard-boiled detective mystery. The detectives are very much the same. A loner. A wounded, broken person. In classical detective, there are frequently male and female detectives. It goes back and forth. In the hard-boiled, it’s more typically going to be male, although there are some exceptions.

Hannah: I saw something recently that I think fits this. I’ll tell you about it when you’ve said more. The character is a woman and it’s kind of cool.

Clare: There’s a lone hero. The detective is usually a law enforcement or investigative professional, usually a private investigator or detective, possibly a policeman. And this is their job. They are not necessarily the smartest, but it’s very much brawn, and the hard-boiled detective is going to solve this problem not necessarily by figuring out the intricacies of this mystery, but eventually–by good, solid gumshoe detective work–will narrow down to a suspect. Frequently there’s a confrontation between the suspect and the detective, and there will be a shootout or a big fight. These books are violent. There are fights, there are gunshots, there’s bloodshed, and there’s punching and there’s frequently, you know, lurid descriptions of violence. Some of the less savory types of hard-boiled detectives don’t have the most healthy view of women. This is kind of where the idea of the femme fatale came from. And a lot of the time the femme fatale is the bad guy, and she will be horribly shocked by the good guy, like in the Mike Hammer mysteries. Those I don’t care for as much. But one of my favorite hard-boiled detective mystery series writers is Michael Connelly, starting with The Black Echo.

Hannah: This is the one you keep on telling me I should read.

Clare: This one takes place in contemporary Los Angeles.

Hannah: Wait a minute. Is this Bosch?

Clare: Yes. What’s interesting about the setting of the hard-boiled detective novel is that it’s very different from the setting of the classical detective novel. In a classical detective novel, we’re living in this idyllic world where murder comes in and it definitely turns this ideal utopia on its head. And then, upon the solution of the mystery, the world just goes right back to the way it was. “Let’s have some tea now. The criminal’s gone and he’ll be hanging by the neck until dead, and now we can go to our tea.” In the hard-boiled detective novel, the setting is usually a sprawling, urban metropolis of some kind, like Los Angeles. Raymond Chandler’s books are also set in Los Angeles. Michael Connelly’s considered a modern day heir to Raymond Chandler’s books. It’s a sprawling metropolis. There is definitely a dark criminal underbelly, there is abject poverty, and yet there is also the height of society. That’s why Los Angeles is a great setting because there’s gang land, seedy parts of town, really bad parts of town. But then there’s also the ultra-rich in Hollywood, Beverly Hills. And the detective is a law enforcement professional. He can and does go into all of these worlds interchangeably because he’s got a badge and he can get into all these worlds. The classical detective has a little trouble doing that because they’re just a regular person. And the hard-boiled detective is equally at home, or you could say not at home, in any of these places. He solves the mystery by good solid detective work or confronting the criminal and usually killing criminals.

Now having heard that, do you want me to name some mysteries and see if you can guess which kind of mystery they are?

Hannah: I thought of something first. You said that hard-boiled detectives are usually men. I thought of two women. The first one is Happy Valley. With Sergeant Catherine Cawood.

Clare: Yeah, that’s an interesting one because she has a family.

Hannah: But it’s really messed up. It’s a great show. It’s probably one of my favorite crime dramas. The other one I thought of is called Marcella. It’s sort of similar. It’s about this detective in London, and she investigates all these mysteries while also dealing with her disjointed family. She and her husband are separated and her kids don’t like to come and visit her because she’s never there. She has to run off to do some police work or something. And there was a death in the family that was really traumatizing for everybody. And Marcella has fugue states where she forgets stuff. There’s this mystery that forms the through-line of one of the seasons. She goes to this woman’s house and then she falls into a fugue state and wakes up at home. And then when she gets to work, she discovers that that woman is dead. So she’s like, “Did I do that? I don’t know.” So it’s her investigating the crime and also trying to keep everyone else from maybe figuring out that she did it, even though she doesn’t know, and I’m not going to reveal whether she did or not.

Clare: A very broken individual, obviously.

Hannah: Broken individuals make very good main characters. They’re so interesting because if you have such a thing as a [perfect] person who doesn’t really have any flaws or any problems, that person’s not going to make the best main character in the story. Their life, their mind, their inner world just simply isn’t as interesting as a character who’s got a lot of problems or brokenness or wounds or regrets or bad memories or flaws and defects.

Clare: So you think that’s a hardboiled? That sounds like it. She’s a law enforcement professional. So the series I just got done watching, Safe, was definitely a classical mystery because the person who was doing the main investigating was not a professional detective.

Hannah: He’s the dad of the girl who disappeared?

Clare: Yes. And the law enforcement professionals in these stories are not nearly as effective as the amateur at finding the answers. A lot of times the classical detectives have access to people with certain expertise that normally might be reserved for someone in law enforcement. In the show Safe, he’s got a friend who can hack into phones and things and knows how to figure out how to track this stuff. Well, let me give you one and see if you can figure it out. Sherlock Holmes.

Hannah: That’s classical.

Clare: Correct. Why do you think he’s classical?

Hannah: He’s a consulting detective. He’s not a professional. He’s unattached. He’s intellectual.  It’s not a physical confrontation. It is a confrontation of the mind. He outwits or traps the criminal in some sort of meeting. A little sting operation.

Clare: Another hallmark of the classical detective is that the detective has a sidekick. And the sidekick’s job is to ask this question: “I don’t understand,” so that Sherlock Holmes can then explain it. The sidekick is a stand-in for the reader or the viewer. And that person will ask questions like, “Wait a minute, what are you thinking?” and then the classical detective will explain himself. Watson and Sherlock have exactly this dynamic.

Hannah: As you know, my friend Laura really enjoys the Sherlock Holmes stories, and one of her pet peeves about people who aren’t very familiar with Sherlock Holmes is that they think Watson is an idiot. He’s not. He’s a doctor. He’s just not smart in the way Sherlock Holmes is.

Clare: Typically the readers of classical detectives are more inquisitive, more intellectual people. They appreciate the puzzle of this genre and these stories. Let me think of some other ones. We talked about Agatha Christie. Poirot and Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence. They’re husband and wife amateur detective team. Those are classical.

Hannah: I’ve got one. I’ve been watching Longmire.

Clare: Let’s talk about that because that’s an interesting one.

Hannah: It’s like a Western. Set in Wyoming.

Clare: There are novels, also. Let me see what the books are called. I’m going to look that up. Longmire is a law enforcement professional. He is currently unattached. His wife died recently, tragically. He is a very broken person and he’s very gruff. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to anyone.

Hannah: There are some things you’re attracted to in him, though. He’s a gentle person at heart, but he also doesn’t take any crap. “To do my job, I’m going to piss some people off. Don’t bother me none.” He has this gruff cowboy persona.

Clare: He’s a very interesting hard-boiled hero because he’s the head of a law enforcement team in Absaroka County, Wyoming. There are some really interesting characters in there. It takes place near a Cheyenne reservation. I was telling you the setting is frequently a sprawling urban metropolis. This is not a sprawling urban metropolis. This is a sprawling wilderness with pockets of every kind of socioeconomic situation going on in it. When he goes to the Rez and out into the rural hinterlands of this area, frequently he encounters very poor people. There’s lots of conflict between him and other law enforcement professionals, in his office, in other surrounding counties, and the law enforcement of the reservation. There are extremely wealthy people there. One of the Native American characters is building a casino. He’s a big investor.

Hannah: Nighthorse. Jacob Nighthorse.

Clare: He’s building this huge casino. They butt heads all the time, him and Walt. Yup. And then there are very wealthy people who are either independently wealthy or they’ve gotten into an energy or ranching career that nets them a huge amount of money. And they’ve got these sprawling, beautiful, gorgeous ranches or log homes. There are very interesting people who insert themselves into these stories because it’s a wilderness area, and recreational people come in all the time and they’ll just find random dead bodies in the ravine.

Hannah: I think the very first episode was they found some guy up in the woods. He was frozen, but he’d also been shot.

Clare: Big mystery.

Hannah: Finding people out in the middle of nowhere.

Clare: One good thing about this, I really enjoyed the episode that had a veterinarian in it.

Hannah: I remember that. That’s the one with the broncos. The one that featured the rodeo people.

Clare: So I think Longmire is probably a hard-boiled detective. The books are written by Craig Johnson. Highly recommended, dear listeners and viewers. What else? I brought this book down P.D. James.

Hannah: I’ve never read it.

Clare: P.D. James is really good.

Hannah: Is she the one who was in juvie as a kid?

Clare: That was Anne Perry. P.D. James recently died at 80-something years of age. She started writing when she retired, I guess. These are really good mysteries. The main character is Inspector Dalgliesh.

Hannah: So I would say hard-boiled, but this looks more cozy to me. I mean, a dead hand by a cup of tea.

Clare: Cozy. Classical. Dead hand by a cup of tea. Classical British. Very British. I wonder, it’d be funny if you could tell based on the cover. This is definitely a hard-boiled because it’s a person running through an empty railway tunnel. A lot of times on the cover of a hard-boiled detective mystery, there’ll be a gun, a bullet, a splash of blood. Things like that.

Hannah: Caution tape.

Clare: But James is a little bit different because it’s about a law enforcement professional.

Hannah: Is it from the point of view of somebody else though? Cause I know the ones that I read by Anne Perry were from the perspective of the policeman’s wife.

Clare: Anne Perry’s books are very definitely classical detectives because even though the husband is an inspector… I was going to say his name was Inspector Pratt, and then I remembered that that’s from something else. It’s William Pitt. His wife, Charlotte is a sharp tack and she is very good at detecting things and so she helps out.

Hannah: It’s classical, but it’s got the detective in it from Scotland Yard.

Clare: I kind of wish I hadn’t brought this one down because I can’t remember how it ends. It’s been a while. Oh, well. Do you know who the father of the classical detective story is?

Hannah: I do. But wait, I think (Anne Perry) is classical because it says, “By common consent, they met in the business room.” That sounds like a parlor scene to me, where they have everybody sit down and they explain. “When I took on this case, I had 10 different conclusions that I could have come to.”

Clare: If that’s the way it ends, with a gathering in the drawing-room. “You are, in fact, the owner of that cat, but you did not take the cat to the vet because you… were busy.”

Hannah: “You were having an affair with the vicar!”

Clare: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. So, Edgar Allen Poe is credited with being the father of the classical detective mystery. His detective is named Auguste Dupin. One of the most famous stories that he wrote is called “The Purloined Letter.” If you want to read that, that is the thing that sort of kicked this whole genre into existence.

Hannah: I have something to say. Concluding thoughts about the classical, with Edgar Allan Poe. Dupin, in the story “The Purloined Letter,” does this thing where he seems to read his sidekick’s mind and guess what he’s thinking about and intrude upon his thoughts nonchalantly saying, “No, I don’t think we’ll go to dinner there today,” or something like that. And that is referred to in Sherlock Holmes. Because Holmes says the same thing to Watson, and then Watson says that “It’s all a bunch of hogwash, what Edgar Allan Poe wrote in that story.” And Sherlock says, “On the contrary, Watson, if you observe, you can guess what a man is thinking at any time.”

Clare: Excellent. So, we are definitely into the thick of winter here. Perfect time to sit down with a nice mug of tea and a good mystery. Oh, and I forgot to mention–let’s quickly touch on this before we ha we get outta here–there is a sub-genre of the classical detective called the cozy mystery. I have a stack of them here. The cozy mystery does indeed feature a murder, but it is very lighthearted, and sometimes you can tell a cozy mystery by the title. Because the title will typically be a terrible pun, such as, “End Me a Tenor,” or “Mission Impawsible.” That one’s got cats on the front. “Twice-Told Tail,” a black cat bookshop mystery. “Tagged for Death,” a Sarah Winston garage sale mystery. “Revenge of the Chili Queens,” a chili cook-off mystery. “Death of a Cupcake Queen.” “Death of a Lobster Lover.”

Hannah: (singing) “Death of a lobster! Oh-oh-oh!”

Clare: Wow. Where did that come from.

Hannah: You don’t know that song?

Clare: Death of a lobster?

Hannah: No, it’s a song by Panic! At the Disco, it called “Death of a Bachelor.” People play it at wedding receptions all the time as the bride and groom are leaving.

Clare: “Death of a Bachelor.” Anyway, if you want to be a nice, cozy mystery, that’s a lighthearted murder mystery. I mean, how could you make a murder mystery lighthearted? These authors do. I don’t care for this genre. I was at a California Writer’s Club meeting once, and the speaker was an author who wrote murder mysteries set in ancient Rome. And he was telling us a story about how he was giving a talk somewhere, and a man asked the question, “Why must there be a murder in your murder mystery?” And the author of these murder mysteries was taken aback. “I guess there must be a reason why these are always murder mysteries.”

Hannah: Because it’s called a murder mystery? Is that why?

Clare: No. Why must it always be a murder in these books? Why is that the most common crime? Sometimes it’s kidnapping. Sometimes it’s blackmail, but usually, it’s a murder or there will be a murder eventually, as someone tries to cover up the crime. But why? Why must it be a murder in these detective novels? And this is the answer that this author gave. “The reason is that murder is universally agreed upon as a heinous crime that cannot be tolerated. It must be prosecuted. The killer must be brought to justice. The heinousness of murder crosses all times, all cultures, all situations. So you could put a murder mystery into any setting, any situation with any hero, any kind of detective. And it’s going to resonate with your audience no matter what. Some audiences like hard-boiled versus classical, some prefer cozy mysteries. Some authors prefer historical detectives, like these ones that were set in the Roman empire. Some prefer a more hard-bitten approach like Bosh or Mike Hammer. Some people prefer a more intellectual approach to solving the mystery like Sherlock Holmes. But everyone agrees that murder is bad. That’s why there’s a murder. And with that, I think we’re done here.

Hannah: I think we’ve gotten the message across. Murder is bad.

Clare: So everybody, we hope you have a great afternoon, evening or morning, and we will see you in the next episode.

Hannah: Take care. Goodbye.