Dark Mystery

What is the Dark Mystery Subgenre?

Similar to dark suspense, dark comedy, and dark fiction in general, dark mystery, or noir as it is also known, is a mystery with themes and elements that are darker than your standard whodunit or police procedural. Noir came from the hard-boiled detective novels of the 1940's where cynical, world-weary detectives or private investigators were called upon to solve a mystery in an already seedy and corrupt world. Little has changed in this subgenre since then.

The setting of a dark mystery will still be generally urban, dark, and corrupt, or at the very least, the setting will harbor some sort of dark secret. The protagonist is generally an outsider in this setting, though they may be corrupt or have dark secrets themselves. The protagonist will also have a bleak world-view, and plots will be complex with many twist and turns and red herrings. Unlike dark suspense, the focus of dark mystery is less on action and more on the unfolding of the mystery in the plot.

Recently, domestic noir, a new classification within the dark mystery subgenre, has been gaining ground. In domestic noir, protagonists are often female and dealing with issues from a feminist slant. This subgenre tends to focus on home and relationships and plays with the idea that home and family are places of safety.


Dark Mystery Characteristics

Level of Characterization: The level of characterization varies in noir, but generally, it will be moderate to high as characters may wear many masks throughout the story.

Level of Plot: As with most mysteries, the level of plot in dark mystery is high with many twists and turns to be expected before solving the puzzle.

Level of Supernatural: The level of supernatural in noir is very low. This is a genre that is more associated with the dark and seedy side of human nature than monsters or ghouls of the supernatural variety.

Level of Violence: The level of violence in noir varies, but expect moderate levels of violence. Violence will be lower than that of dark suspense and extreme horror, but higher than that of say, gothic horror.

Typical Setting: Typically, noir settings will be seedy and urban. However, in the subgenre domestic noir, small towns and homes will also feature heavily. In domestic noir, isolation is valued in a setting, whereas in other, more traditional, noir, the anonymity of the big city is what causes the isolation.

Related Horror Subgenres

Dark suspense is dark mystery's action-packed cousin, and dark mystery is technically part of the larger dark fiction family. Also related are the subgenres of horror that deal with mystery elements: crime horror, psychological horror, and serial killer horror. Another related subgenre is noir horror. Noir horror is a horror subgenre that takes the elements of dark mystery and combines them with the more supernatural aspects of the horror genre.

Don't Read Dark Mystery If You Dislike…

If you want actual scares, or if you don't like deeply complex mysteries and cynical worldviews, the dark mystery subgenre is most likely not for you. Also, if you like more supernatural elements of horror, or if you want more action in your plots, steer clear of noir.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett- In one of the probably most recognized pieces of noir, private investigator, Sam Spade gets pulled into a web surrounding a coveted figuring when his beautiful but deadly client hires him to follow a man that she claims ran away with her sister.


The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy- The first in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet was inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia by press. Told from the point of view of former boxer turned police officer, Bucky Bleichert, the murder quickly becomes the source of his dark obsession.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn- An example of domestic noir, this mystery unfolds the dysfunctional marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing and all signs point to Nick, could he have murdered his wife to end their rocky relationship?


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson- Loud Ford may seem like a regular, small town police officer, but this is the perfect facade for his dark secrets and desires. Once the cracks start showing, he will do everything in his power to keep up the mask.


The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler- When private investigator, Phillip Marlowe, is called in to investigate the blackmail of General Sternwood's daughter, the plot thickens and the rabbit hole goes deeper with each new lead he uncovers.


Cuckoo by Julia Crouch- When Rose's best friend, Polly, is widowed, Rose invites her to stay, a decision that Rose may grow to regret as Polly's arrival seems to prompt the swift unraveling of Rose's world.


The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain- Frank Chambers's life is changed forever when he meets the beautiful but unhappy, Cora. The two have an affair and plot to murder Cora's husband, but they find he may be harder to kill than they'd realized.


The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith- Tom Ripley, an engaging young man who is struggling to get by in New York, becomes obsessed with the life of a wealthy acquaintance, Dickie, when he is sent to retrieve Dickie from Italy.


Swag by Elmore Leonard- When small-time criminal, Ernest Stickley, Jr. is caught trying to steal a car, he teams up with the used car salesman to earn big money, but when Stickley's new "partner" has a lot of rules that need to be followed, things get troublesome.


Dare Me by Megan Abbott- The world of cheerleading turns dark and deadly when a new coach arrives, splitting up the age old friendship of two senior girls who were at the top of the team.

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