The "Mystery" genre - definition?

As games on IFDB can have more than one genre, I considered adding the genre “Mystery” to some games but stopped because I am not sure about the definition.

Does it necessarily have to be a murder case or could it e.g. be something like The Sphere (book by Michael Crichton: Here) where they find a spaceship of unknown origin at the bottom of the sea?


My intuition says that Sphere (which I enjoyed!) isn’t a mystery even though it’s mysterious. Interrogating said intuition, I think that the main reason is that to my mind a mystery has to have some human element to be worthy of the name - typically because some specific person has committed a crime and you need to talk to witnesses and suspects to figure out who, though I think you can change any (and even several) of those elements and still have a mystery.

But unless some person, living or dead, knows the answer to the mystery, and investigating it involves talking to and understanding the motivations of one or more people, it seems to me like you’re in the territory of some other genre.

Curious what others think though, this isn’t a question I’ve pondered deeply at all!


Genres are somewhat defined by what came before the work that’s being classified, or what’s around the work that’s being classified.

Mystery isn’t a well-established subgenre of sci-fi, so it doesn’t really make sense to classify Sphere in that way. You could find other examples of sci fi mysteries (like this one) but they probably wouldn’t have much in common, because they’re pretty rare.

On the other hand, sci-fi westerns are a little more common and something like Firefly (if it were a book) could be forced into the western section as its primary genre, if you really wanted to.

Also, think about what you’d do if you had a library full of mystery books. You’d probably make separate sections for noir mysteries and country cottage mysteries rather than shelving them together.

Or, if you had a library full of sci-fi books, you might be able to get away with creating a mystery section after all (even if it ended up being small).


I do, and I could. It’s not all that rare.

The point is that the mystery genre demands a crime. Fantasy and science fiction have plenty of mysterious goings-on – you almost have to have at least a little – but it’s not a mystery until someone is investigating crimes.


The point is that the mystery genre demands a crime.

Maybe, but I think you can stretch that pretty far. I think you can also have other pretenses. There’s also conspiracy or historical conspiracy (eg. The Da Vinci Code), non-criminal family secrets, missing persons (eg. YA novel The Body of Christopher Creed), and presumed crimes (eg. Murder in the Rue Morgue).

Some of those might involve crime in practice but could be done without it. I think they are squarely in the mystery genre…but I guess that is up for debate.

Really, all that you need is for something to be secret.


Yeah, I was going to post something similar – civil violations definitely get you there (“find the anonymous tortfeasor who’s slandering my name, Holmes!”; “who’s leaking corporate secrets to our archrival?”) And things that are illicit but not necessarily illegal works too – “is my spouse having an affair?” is a mystery, though typically one that sees its stakes raise as the story goes on. Heck, “which of the candidates is this woman’s father?” could be a mystery (it could also be Mamma Mia).

I think there might need to be someone actively working or hoping to conceal the secret, though – otherwise you might have an investigation, like Possession, or an adventure, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but probably not a full-on mystery.

(The secret could also be incidental to what the “case” is initially about – you have any number of mysteries where the inciting incident looks suspicious but turns out to be innocent or a coincidence, but what makes it a mystery is the protagonist stumbles across further shenanigans with an antagonist of some kind).


This seems like a reasonable enough definition, but does that make Dan Brown novels mysteries, since the protagonist is trying to figure out something that the antagonist (the Illuminati, the NSA assassins, the Pope, etc) is trying to cover up? I think the approach taken also matters, because Robert Langdon and Hercule Poirot handle mysterious cover-ups in very different ways.


Mystery is totally a sci-fi subgenre (or genre hybrid). For example, many of Asimov’s 1950s novels were sci-fi mysteries. Arguably even sci-fi noir mysteries! (And ones written as contemporary noirs, rather than as throw-backs.)

I don’t know much sci-fi from the 70s-90s, but more recently a lot of William Gibson’s works, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, and even the first book of The Expanse are all sci-fi mysteries. I’m sure it’s been a significant part of sci-fi the whole time.


I think this, and related classification questions, is why the suspense/thriller category was created.


Oh, I’d agree – I was mentally incorporating the criterion I proposed earlier:


It’s an especially complicated issue for interactive fiction, which has its own long and storied tradition of asking the player to solve elaborate puzzles. Your average sci-fi novel generally isn’t structured as a whodunit that the reader can figure out on their own, but Planetfall certainly is.


Two big words: Mystery / Suspense
Two bigger words: Alfred Hitchcock

“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense’ — and the two things are actually miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunnit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.”

All that you can read about this topic from Mr H will be well spent time ^.^

I like Mystery. I love Suspense.


If one is to follow the definition of the venerable Encyclopaedia Brittanica:

“By and large, mystery stories may be divided into two sorts: tales of the supernatural and riddle stories.”

And looking about that genre definitions from the perspective of reader expectations, that seems valid for me.

For the “riddle stories” I guess a preceding crime is not necessary to fit the “mystery” tag (think:“Goonies”) but rather crimes are part of what often happens during the riddle solving.

This is of course done mostly to set the stage for a climax between the protagonist and possible antagonists, that often define the framework for the outer conflict in those stories.

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Wikipedia calls The Da Vinci Code book and movie “mystery thrillers”, so I guess it’s at least somewhat commonly accepted


Mystery is totally a sci-fi subgenre (or genre hybrid). For example, many of Asimov’s 1950s novels were sci-fi mysteries. Arguably even sci-fi noir mysteries

My point isn’t that you can’t have sci-fi mysteries, but that sci-fi mysteries don’t have a lot in common and therefore the genre is not well-established. I guess there’s room for disagreement though.

Sci-fi noir is more well-established, I think. Wikipedia even has an article for tech noir starting with Blade Runner and The Terminator as the first examples, and I think pretty much everyone would classify many of the movies on that list in the same way, without looking.


You mention a crime to be investigated. Pretty much in line with some responses below. It may be “crime investigation” that draws the line.

I wanted to take advantage of the fact that you can have more than one genre on IFDB. I wouldn’t change the primary genre.

Knowing this certainly makes it easier.

Makes sense but doesn’t make it easier :grin: hmm…

But solving a crime is still required in those I guess(?)

In other words, we also need a “Suspense” genre :smile:

This is very interesting. If I understand correctly, a supernatural story doesn’t need a crime element to be a mystery then.


This is a very fascinating thread, thank you @Denk for that!

I would absolutely say so. When wo go to the word origins, the Wikipedia article on “Mysterium” (no English version available, to my surprise. Does this word not exist in English?) explains the supernatural part and the etymology behind it a bit :

The word Mysterium (from ancient Greek μυστήριον mystérion, originally for cultic celebrations with a secret core, popularly also derived from myo, ‘to close the mouth’[1]) is usually translated as ‘secret’. What is meant is a fact which in principle eludes unambiguous expressibility and explicability - not simply a piece of information which is only difficult to convey indirectly or which is concealed by chance.
(Mysterium – Wikipedia)


Never rely on word origins when you’re trying to understand a genre. Quickest way to go completely off the rails.

The word “fantasy” means “made-up story” and “romance” originally meant “not in Latin”. Does that help you define the fantasy or romance genres? Not in the slightest.


I think a mystery demands an investigation, but not necessarily a crime. For instance, one of the all-time great mystery stories – From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler– does not include a crime. But it IS a mystery, because it revolves around sleuthing.

So I’d say if you’ve got a sleuth trying to solve something, whether that’s a crime or not, it’s a mystery.

** If you never read From the Mixed-up Files… as a kid, read it now! It’s a kids’ chapter book, but it’s one of my favorite books of all time.


All classification is arbitrary to a degree, but I’d suggest the stipulations some are attaching to Mystery are better mapped to “whodunnits.”

I supect this is a Venn Diagram situation.

All “whodunnits” are mysteries, but all mysteries are not necessarily “whodunnits.”