What Makes A Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

We talk a lot about writing mysteries, reading mysteries, enjoying mysteries, but it’s seldom discussed what a mystery is. Leaving out the religious definitions, Dictionary.com says

  1. any affair, thing or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation
  2. a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end
  3. obscure, puzzling, or mysterious quality or character

So at heart a mystery seems to be an obfuscation, either deliberate or accidental. I can deal with that. It isn’t easy, but I can deal with it. It comes down to making the unknown known, and the writer has the unenviable task of revealing it piece (clue) by piece. That is after he created the story and then covered it up! It is a delicate balance.

Taking a ‘mystery’ and making it into an enjoyable and reasonably coherent novel is a daunting process, whether it’s the question of who took Aunt Ida’s coconut cake to finding a vicious and seemingly omnipotent serial killer. The process is – or should be – the same. Even if it isn’t the first scene in the book, when you’re plotting you need to start with an action by an unknown – i.e., the crime, be it coconut cake or murder. Then you must follow the carefully laid clues but seemingly random clues found by the sleuth, be he amateur or professional detective, and by examining these clues eventually uncover the truth. Don’t forget to complicate the process with a fair amount of believable red herrings and some conflicts/problems caused by the people involved.

The trick to doing this is not to be too obscure or too obvious. And I’m a firm believer that your sleuth has to work at finding these clues and therefore find the solution to the mystery in a logical and sort of organized form. You should also put in enough clues that the reader, if so inclined, has a decent chance of solving the mystery. Now I’m perfectly aware there are mysteries which are widely read and even some celebrated writers who break these rules. The most famous example is Raymond Chandler, who admitted that sometimes even he didn’t know how his sleuth solved the mystery – it just happened. Raymond Chandlers are few and far in between, though; the quality of his writing was so good that neither readers nor critics seem to care. Don’t try to duplicate this. Odds are you can’t.

Another rule-breaker is often the currently popular ‘fluffy’ cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually a woman and she usually has a ‘cute’ job – owning a bakery or specialty coffee cafe or floral shop or something similar. She has or wants a boyfriend, who often turns out to be a policeman of some sort, and a bunch of ‘zany’ or ‘quirky’ friends. All too often in this kind of story the mystery is of secondary importance to personal relationships and the personal life of the sleuth. It’s an overdone trope, but some sleuths still express a passion for shoes which takes up a lot of the story space. Which is fine, as long as that is the sort of story is what the reader wants.

What is not acceptable, however, is when in whatever kind of mystery the sleuth does little to no sleuthing. Clues seem to appear with no effort on the sleuth’s part. The solution is highly reminiscent of the deus ex machina so beloved of Greek and Roman playwrights. I call that a cheat. A mystery shouldn’t need a god to step down from Olympus to unravel a story so complex it is beyond the ken of mere humans.

It is good that there are so many variations of mysteries – puzzles, non-lethal crimes, capers, murders, serial killers, fluffy cozies, traditional cozies, hard-boileds… there is a style of mystery for every reader. I only hope they follow the rules that make a mystery a good story.

7 thoughts on “What Makes A Mystery?

  1. It isn’t easy to correctly write a mystery. You need to offer a clue or two, but not make them too obvious. As Jacqueline mentioned, I’m also drawn to the characters in the mysteries, often more than the mystery itself.

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  2. Several people have called my Shandra Higheagle mysteries cozies, but I think of them as a general mystery. I write a bit darker and real than a cozy. I agree with your take on a mystery. That is why I also write the Gabriel Hawke mysteries which are a police procedural kind of. 😉 I have never been able to bit my books in a one fits all genre. Good post!

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  3. Please don’t hate me, but I am getting tired of those “cozy” mysteries that you have just described. They seem SO formulaic that I could almost have written one, changing the names, occupations, and places and marketed it as new. (Don’t worry, I haven’t and won’t.) Some called cozies are more “traditional” and more to my liking. I really enjoy Patty Jager’s new Hawke mystery. Perhaps I’m getting old? I don’t like hard core/boiled mysteries with frightful descriptions either. I guess….. just give me an Agatha Christie type mystery and I’ll be in happy.

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  4. Janice, think I accidentally trumped your grat post with a badly timed one of my own. Moved mine to the trash and apologize to one and all for the mishap. BTW, great post!

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    1. Thanks for the compliment, Heather – and no problems on the mis-timed post. I’ve done it and I think everyone has sometime. Life happens!

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  5. I do like mysteries that have unique well-developed characters. If we don’t care about the characters then we won’t invest in the mystery connected with them. Clever plots are expected in mystery fiction but some provide only cardboard cut-outs as characters. There’s a need for balance.

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