Are you writing a mystery novel? Or thinking about it? If so, my checklist below might help you.
I’m at work on a mystery myself. My previous books have been historical novels and thrillers, including my latest release, The Man From Spirit Creek, but this is my first mystery.
What’s the difference between a thriller and a mystery?
Well, there’s a lot of overlap. Both center on a crime. Thematically, the essence of both is that a terrible wrong has been committed in the world of the main character and it must be righted to restore balance and harmony.
A mystery almost always starts with a dead body, and always leads to an investigation by the main character, the “sleuth,” whether that’s a cop or a kindergarten teacher. And it climaxes in the eventual revelation of the murderer. These conventions apply whether the story is a psychological mystery, a police procedural, or a “cozy.”
In a thriller, the stakes are usually higher — a whole community might be at risk; sometimes a whole planet — and so is the suspense and the danger. There is often a looming fatal deadline. And, at a thriller’s climax, the hero must take a big personal risk that finally defeats the antagonist.
Readers know these conventions and expect to see them fulfilled. Don’t misunderstand: conventions are not clichés. A cliché is the same old situation used to fulfill the convention, but there can be breathtakingly fresh ways to fulfill the convention.
That’s why I’ve been reading widely in the mystery genre to study trends and breakthroughs, and avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Here are five mysteries that have stood out as real page-turners.
THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL by Sujata Massey. Set in 1920s India, this story’s tremendous fascination springs from its depiction of the exotic world of three Muslim women, all widows living in full purdah, and the appeal of its main character, Bombay’s first female lawyer, whose dedication was forged by her own traumatic marriage.
FIELD OF BLOOD by Denise Mina. I’m a big admirer of Scottish writer Mina and her gritty “Tartan Noir” fiction, whose Glasgow setting Booklist calls “spiky, gray, and grim.” Although those are apt descriptors, they don’t do justice to the majesty of Mina’s writing. The Publishers Weekly review says it best: “The brilliant Mina may have invented a subgenre: moral suspense…She spins the complexities in the rough music of her working-class Scots, unsparing of brutal details, but unfailingly elegant in her humanity.”
DREADFULWATER by Thomas King. Thumps DreadfulWater is a Cherokee ex-cop trying to make a living as a photographer in the small town of Chinook in the northwestern United States. King (who lives about a mile from my house) writes about the mild-mannered Thumps with such wit and charm, I was captivated.
A DANGEROUS FICTION by Barbara Rogan. I couldn’t resist this story because of its setting: the New York publishing world in all its glamour, gossip, gall, and glory. The characters are richly complex; their dialogue sophisticated and tart. All this in a tightly written, suspenseful mystery that kept me turning pages to the last paragraph.
AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD by John le Carré. The latest novel by this bestselling master of spy lore is technically not a mystery but a thriller, but I include it here because I cherish le Carré for his unflinching focus on the corrosive corporate and political powers who leash our lives, the heartbreaking authenticity of his characters, and the grace and wisdom of his prose. And, at its center, there is a mystery.
INGREDIENTS OF A MYSTERY
Here’s my 5-point checklist of the major elements of a page-turner mystery.
1. Multiple Suspects. The more characters who fall under suspicion, the better. Not only does this keep the reader guessing “who done it?” it also gives the author opportunities to create original, arresting characters, from the eccentric to the malevolent.
2. Escalation of the Danger. A dead body is the inciting incident in any mystery novel. Then, as the main character investigates leads in this crime, the jeopardy escalates. Perhaps there is a second murder victim. Or perhaps the main character is personally threatened. Or perhaps someone they love becomes endangered.
3. Active Reader Involvement. Successful mystery authors let the reader piece together information. Mystery readers want to follow subtle clues dropped throughout the book. They relish deciding whether a character is telling the truth or lying. They are eager to sift multiple possible explanations.
4. Red Herrings. Hunting dogs used to be trained by placing a dried herring, which turns red after being smoked, on the trail of the prey so the fishy scent confuses the dog. Thus, in fiction, a “red herring” means a clue or piece of information intended to be misleading or distracting. A compelling mystery story scatters red herrings throughout to keep the reader from correctly guessing the culprit of the central crime. This escalates the tension and suspense.
5. Satisfying Climax and Resolution. A satisfying mystery climax may leave the reader feeling “I saw that coming!” or “I didn’t see that coming!” and either way it makes perfect sense given X, Y, and Z. The book’s ending answers questions the story has spun, or reveals truths about characters who were falsely suspected. The revelation of the killer’s identity never feels like a trick. And, ideally, the climax relates clearly to the book’s beginning, its inciting incident.
I hope this sparks exciting ideas for your mystery novel. Write on!
All my best,