Sounds like a straightforward question: What makes for a good mystery? A reader expects a crime to be solved. An author, however, knows that there is so much more than finding a body and slapping cuffs on the criminal.
Unlike other genres, and by their very definition, mysteries open with a puzzle. Readers open a cover and gobble the first paragraph, dissecting even those opening words for where the ride begins. Where the clues are planted. Which character is THE one amongst the sea of pedestrians walking across the page who might be the WHODUNIT guy.
But a mystery isn’t just about the crime. Sure, it’s what we think of first . . . the episode to solve . . . but it’s as much about character, setting, and the arcs the characters travel along the way. A mystery opens with a puzzle, but that puzzle falls flat if the rest of the items aren’t carved out deep enough to carry that crime-solving process through to the end.
The main character bears the burden of making us read sequels. It’s the suave charisma, dry humor, or the peculiar questioning mentality of that person that makes us buy books two through twenty-six, not the crime in each story. Jack Reacher, Kinsey Milhone, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple are what readers return for, not the crime. The crime can be anything as long as the sleuth is good at figuring it out.
That means the character must appear human. Does the character have a personal issue that confounds the crime solving? Do we want to see a crack in the armor of our detecting hero? Protagonists are people, too, and they don’t just solve crime. They have love lives, health issues, and self-doubt. Human foibles must get in the way somehow to make the story three-dimensional. Readers want to be the sleuth, and they know how wrought their lives are with difficulties. Frankly, mystery readers often care more about how the personal of a character interferes with the professional. THEN they care about the crime.
NCIS New Orleans must weave the personality of The Big Easy into the characters (dialect, history) and the crime. The title alone tells you that this series is different because New Orleans plays a huge role in the distinctiveness of the mystery, the method of solving it, and the characters that make it pop off the page.
My Edisto Island Mysteries take place on Edisto Island, using the juxtaposition of a calm, naïve tourist setting against a newly relocated Boston detective who has vowed off law enforcement, but finds it everywhere she goes. . . including a beach where crime isn’t supposed to happen. Without that setting, Callie Morgan wouldn’t be as awkward, her big-city experience transplanted to a place it doesn’t work right. And without the lull of the surf and gulls, the murders would not be as stunning.
In my most recent release, Echoes of Edisto, a car swerves off the main entrance onto the beach, diving into the marsh at high tide. Someone innocently dies. Callie’s instincts, however, tell her it was not an accident while everyone else writes it off as an unfortunate accident due to an errant deer in the road. Highs and lows take us into desolate jungle forests, the humidity oppressive, the spring rains making pursuit difficult along unpaved, silt roads. A great setting plays with a clash of unknown fears against the desire to be there. The reader may not know it, but when a story can be picked up and placed just about anywhere, it loses a lot of depth. Setting matters.
Then there IS the crime. Readers are savvy these days. They want the author to fight to stump them, because the bigger the challenge, the better the accomplishment when the reader guesses the culprit before the end. So while the murder might appear simple, the investigation must take the reader into unexpected side journeys. Two and three or more climactic scenes. The sleuthing must test not only the reader, but also the skills of the protagonist and all her sidekicks, using the setting they operate within.
When my publisher asked me to diversify my writing and put the Carolina Slade Mysteries on hiatus to create a new series, I spent four months spinning my wheels. My first series was grounded in characters and an environment (rural South Carolina) that I knew intimately. To start a new series greatly tested me.
My published asked me to create a series that:
- Had a protagonist who was in law enforcement (no amateur sleuth);
- Exploited Southern family drama (her family had to be a mess); and
- Was set in one place that would be exciting and welcoming to readers, drawing them back for the subsequent books.
Note nothing was said about the crimes or the mysteries. That’s because when an author nails the character and the setting, the mystery can be whatever they like after fleshing out the bones of the sleuth and place. After the character and setting, it’s all about the storytelling.
I planted my flag on Edisto Beach for the new series. Everyone loves a beach. Then, I chose a detective trained in an urban environment, relocated not only to a sleepy beach, but also a beach where she spent childhood vacations with her parents. In making the setting a character, I could continually irritate my protagonist with it.
Suddenly the story, and the series, began to take form. Whatever mystery happened would pit place and character against each other in some fashion. The reader would love being there, but would fear the concept that crime could happen in such a tranquil setting.
So . . . mysteries are about crime, but they are much more than about crime. However, what makes a mystery exceptional is when the reader doesn’t see how the author messes with them via characters, settings, and anything else other than the crime. The more three-dimensional the non-crime aspects, the more enticing the read.
It isn’t just about solving who did it.
Hope Clark has written six novels in two series, with her latest being Echoes of Edisto, the third in the Edisto Island Mysteries. Mystery continues to excite her as both reader and writer, and she hopes to continue as both until she takes her last breath. Hope is also a writing advocate, founder of FundsforWriters, chosen by Writer’s Digest Magazine for its 101 Best Websites for Writers.