Maybe Not Dead: 6 Kinds of Non-Murder Focused Mystery Plots

I started the year by writing about 8 Kinds Of Murder Mystery Plots, which was fun but no where near complete for mystery plots, which is why I’d broken it down to focus on murder mysteries. Since the mystery genre is incredibly vast, there are still so many more plots to explore — and mystery fans can never have enough. That’s why I’m back with even more mystery plots!

This time though I’m taking a look at the plots that are not murder focused. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be murder or that there isn’t any murder in the book, but the plot isn’t centered around solving a person’s murder. Sometimes there is a puzzle to solve, or an item to find, or even a person selling state secrets to identify and catch. While this list is again not exhaustive, there are plenty of sub-genres here and interesting plots to take a look at that will keep you cozy in your sleuthing reading nook for a bit. It may not be a murder mystery but it’s still just as interesting a case to solve. Plus, some have side murder. And they all have sleuthing — why you’re here, certainly! — from the professional kind to the amateur type.

On A Missing Person Poster

cover of Bury Me When I’m Dead by Cheryl A. Head, featuring a Black person's hands tied behind a chair

In a missing person mystery there are different variations. Sometimes it is one person that is missing. Sometimes there has been more than one missing person (this is almost always women/girls) over a slew of years leaving the cases either active or cold. In both cases the focus of the book is the missing person(s). Sometimes the missing person has been dead all along, sometimes they’ll be found alive — needing rescue — or having disappeared intentionally, with the hopes of not being found. In the latter, how dare you find them! You can find missing person’s plots through various sub-genres, and sometimes the people searching are in law enforcement, they may be P.I.s, or can be just a private citizen sleuthing in their personal time. The latter is usually either not believed, the missing person isn’t a priority for law enforcement, or the searcher believes those in charge are incompetent. The key to the missing person book, aside from at least one missing person, is the book focuses on this so at least one person won’t be found for most of the book.

cover of When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris, featuring a collage of a young Black man with a baseball cap and a brick wall

If you like P.I. novels, you can follow a whole team of private investigators that are hired by a company to find an account executive that disappeared after stealing money in Bury Me When I’m Dead by Cheryl A. Head. If you’re in the mood for some noir vibes, and enjoy historical fiction, you can help Maite look for her missing neighbor in Velvet Was The Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. For a twisty mystery, with a thriller opening, that has multiple missing people over years pick up Mary Kubica’s Local Woman Missing. And for family member missing: When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris finds Jay looking for his missing sister Nicole, and Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty has a missing mother and eyes looking at the husband.

Uncovering a Mole/Traitor

cover image of Red Widow by Alma Katsu

The realization that there may be a mole or traitor may be spurred by suspicious deaths, but the focus of the book remains on needing to find who the mole or traitor in an organization is. I mean, it’s especially a bad look, say, for like the CIA to have a mole. Hence why in Red Widow by Alma Katsu CIA agent Lyndsey Duncan is called off from suspension (fraternizing sans pants with an agent in MI5 is frowned upon in this establishment!) to figure out who the mole in the CIA is. Surely, it’s not a coincidence that informants keep dying? There is murder in this one — the other CIA agent we follow is Theresa Warner, whose CIA husband was murdered — but the book’s focus is on who in the CIA is leaking information and why.

It Was Stolen!

cover image for the violin conspiracy

There are crime books about heists that don’t have a mystery component because we actually follow the thieves in their thievery — always fun! But then there are the theft books that focus on finding who the thief is and why — we are not cheering on these thieves. This plot gives readers the whodunnit/whydunnit they crave in mysteries while possibly (not always) eliminating the violent, murdery aspect lots of crime books contain. A great recent release is The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. As you’ve probably guessed, the stolen item is a violin, and the book takes a dive into the world of classical music along with history. But the real kicker of the book is that the musician whose violin was stolen, Ray McMillian, not only really needs it back for the international Tchaikovsky Competition — a massive deal! — but he has two suspects in mind: one of them being his own family!

Who Is The Anonymous Harasser/Blackmailer?

cover image of Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

These usually fall under YA and middle grade, and many people probably think of some version of Gossip Girl. Basically someone(s) is posting secrets publicly to embarrass, harass, or blackmail someone(s), and as you can imagine, the victims want to figure out who is responsible and stop them. A great YA example is Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé (which for some odd reason got mislabeled as fantasy even though it is absolutely not). Aces is an anonymous texter who has set their sites on Chiamaka and Devon, two Niveus Private Academy students who have little in common other than being targets at the moment, but why them and who is Aces…

For middle grade fans, Drew Leclair Gets a Clue by Katryn Bury follows a 7th grader who researches true crime in their spare time, so naturally she believes herself the perfect person to investigate who is posting embarrassing secrets about other students at school.

There’s a Puzzle To Be Solved!

cover image for The Parker Inheritance

Anyone who grew up with The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin probably automatically thought of that book upon seeing “puzzle,” and has since been trying to find that magic again. Puzzle books let the reader play along. Character(s) are given clues they need to decipher and figure out in order to continue through a series of events (a journey or adventure, sometimes) to get to the ending “prize.” Or solve. It’s like a fun game — at least for the reader. Kate Racculia used the dead billionaire trope in Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts to send her main character Tuesday Mooney on a scavenger hunt in Boston inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and filled with clues to solve.

For middle grade fans, Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance not only provides readers with a puzzle mystery, but also a contemporary storyline and a historical storyline. Set in South Carolina, we follow Candice Miller and her new friend Brandon as they attempt to solve the puzzle that her grandmother failed to figure out and which promises a treasure at the end.

They’ve Been Kidnapped!

cover image for As You Look

While sometimes similar in feeling to the missing person plot, books with kidnapped plots usually have a ransom note left letting either loved ones or the police to know that a person has been taken. In this case, the ransom note will usually ask for something or will be taunting. There is then a race against time to find the missing person. Sometimes the person searching is related to the victim: in As You Look by Veronica Gutierrez a former police officer turned P.I., Yolanda Avila, learns that her godson has been kidnapped, leading her to not only search for him but down the path of a larger case.

Another type of kidnapped plot is told from the kidnapper, or kidnapped, person’s point of view. In Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, translated by Alison Entrekin, a young man decides to convince the woman that is the object of his affection that she would really like to be with him if she just gave it a chance — so he kidnaps her, with no one being the wiser…

Don’t forget to also check out 8 Kinds Of Murder Mystery Plots. If you can’t get enough of crime books, enjoy our mystery section, where you can learn about even more plots and sub-genres, like Sunshine Noir.