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.

Call Me Inaccessible

Cell phones are so convenient in real life life and so inconvenient in fiction when you want to strand a city girl on an unlit road in the desert on a cold winter night. So inconvenient when you want characters to be inaccessible to each other. Unless you set your stories far enough in the past, people can be reached and can call for help. Normally, I work the hyper-connected nature of life into my plots, but once in a while I need to cut off my characters’ communication. How can I do it without over-using the obvious and without too much of a deus ex machina effect?

Battery running out? I’ve used it a total of twice, in different books and with different characters, and I think that’s about as many times as I should use it.

Phone lost or stolen? In Snake Face, I have a stalker take her victim’s phone. In Death Omen, I have two children hide an adult’s phone so he won’t receive a call that would get them in trouble.  I think I’ve hit my lost-or-stolen maximum.

Phone turned off while driving?  One of my ongoing characters does this. He doesn’t trust himself to handle any distractions. I leave mine on and ignore it until I can pull over, but I see plenty of people talking on phones or even texting while they drive. They don’t make any effort to be safe. The National Safety Council and the Scientific American both say that hands-free devices are no safer than hand-held phones, but it’s not uncommon to believe that hands-free systems must be safe since they’re often built into new cars. If we’re writing realistically, not idealistically, that means driving isn’t an obstacle for a lot of folks. They can be reached by phone, even with a short delay for the safety nuts like me.

Phone off for sleeping? Maybe. But some people take their phones to bed with them.

No signal? I’m about to use that for the first time. In traveling all over the country, I’ve seldom been in a place with no signal, but when I was doing research for my work in progress set partially in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, one of the many unexpected facts I learned was that there’s no cell phone reception in town or within a ten-mile radius. It makes sense. The town is in a canyon. But it hadn’t occurred to me to use my phone any of the times I’d been there. The museum owner told me about the cell signal problem when I asked about internet service. I’d expected there might not be any, but Chloride stays in touch with the world through DSL internet—and landline-only phone access. (In case you’re wondering: ghost towns aren’t always uninhabited. They are ghosts of their former selves. Fourteen people live in this one.) I’d wanted to have a character get stuck on a country road outside Chloride at night, unable to make a call, and I’m so glad it’s realistic. I’ll be able to set it up as an established fact of life there well in advance.

Have you used up your quota of no-signal events? How about something strange?

Recently, I tried to make a cell phone call to a local business and got the message: “This call cannot be completed as dialed.” I checked the number in the phone book, called again, and got the same message. I looked up the business online. It was still open, with the same number listed. Weird. My bill was paid and my phone was working. I didn’t get bad reception or no reception, and when I tried calling friends, I got the same message. Naturally, I researched this phenomenon. For most people who experience it, it’s an ongoing (though unexplained) problem in a specific place. I was calling from my apartment, where the phone has worked well for a year. Could there have been too much cell phone traffic? In Truth or Consequences? June is the off-season, when it’s too hot for tourists to come to the hot springs. Some locals who can manage it leave town, too. Who could be making all those calls? If I want this mysterious problem to occur in a book, it had better be a frequent one and not pop up out of the blue when I need it. It hasn’t happened to me again, and that’s just too random for fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than the chance events of real life.

Another option for making people hard to reach is to cast low-tech characters. For my other work in progress (yes, I have two in progress in the same series), this works well for my protagonist’s former in-laws. I know people who don’t have cell phones, and some who don’t even use e-mail. One of my yoga students accidentally left her phone turned off for three weeks and didn’t notice. Not everyone who has the technology is particularly attached to it.

Any other ideas? Have you needed to cut off your characters’ phone access and found a creative way to do it?