Divas on Genre: Mystery Fiction
Contemporary mystery fiction is also known as crime fiction or detective fiction and has earned the moniker of “the whodunit.” It’s a relatively new genre, having developed over the last two hundred years in direct correlation with increased levels of organized police forces.
Early mysteries, such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841) and The Woman in White (1860) and Moonstone (1868) both by Wilkie Collins, paved the way for Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which began in 1887 with A Study in Scarlet. This series drew popular attention to the genre.
In the 1920s, Edward Stratemeyer introduced Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, using a female and male pseudonym, respectively, to create a new subgenre: juvenile mystery. Even after his death, his daughter Harriet Adams carried on the tradition, continuing the series in pseudonym. Also in the 1920s, Agatha Christie published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, starring detective Hercule Poirot, who went on to star in thirty-three of her novels.
Contemporary mystery authors have found success with series, as well. James Patterson’s detective Alex Cross has been the focus of twenty-one novels with several made into popular films. Sue Grafton’s popular ‘alphabet series’ began with “A” is for Alibi, and she has recently published the twenty-third book in the series, “W” is for Wasted.
So, what’s special about a mystery novel?
Plot, plot, plot. A mystery or crime novel isn’t filled with backstory or slowed down with unnecessary mundane details. The story is constantly moving with important scenes that matter, details that are imperative to the plot, dialogue that’s interesting and memorable, and a detective who is fun, witty, and just plain smart.
TIP: The villain should not be a character the reader hasn’t gotten to know in the story.
In a good whodunit, the antagonist is introduced early and referred to occasionally, if not often. One important tip for authors is not to build up an unknown villain and then have the bad guy be someone the readers haven’t had a chance to get to know. I recently read a romantic mystery/suspense novel where the villain wound up being someone who’d never even been introduced… and yeah, I felt cheated. While it’s true those titles that cross genres have more leeway, keeping true to the basic concepts of the main genre is vital.
TIP: Introduce your crime early and make it worth reading about.
Readers won’t spend their time reading about an unknown antagonist who steals a neighbor’s mail from his mailbox. Murder, kidnapping, and violent crimes along that vein are interesting enough to draw the reader in and make him want to figure it out. Keep in mind social taboos with regard to your crime but make it believable, so the readers can imagine the nightmare you’re crafting could happen to them or someone they know. Supernatural happenings, unless you’re writing a paranormal or fantasy novel, don’t belong in a mystery.
TIP: Give clues along the way, but don’t make it too easy.
Any good mystery novel gives clues along the way as the detective solves the crime using his skills and wits. And yes, that detective must actually use his skills and wits. Clues can’t accidentally fall in his lap or anonymously arrive in his voice mail, and they have to be realistic. The reader will enjoy trying to figure it out along the way; but if it’s too easy, you could lose the reader’s interest. Nothing ruins a mystery more than figuring out who the villain is before the protagonist does. The clues should be apparent enough that if the reader chose to reread, he would quickly see the ones he’d missed the first time.
TIP: Avoid clichés
Crime novels shouldn’t rely on clichés to add a twist or flair—no twins separated at birth or ex-husbands coming back from the dead. And the clues should always lead to the villain. A simple trick authors use is bait and switch (also known as the red herring), which is where two or more options for the antagonist are introduced and the reader is overtly lead toward one while the clues covertly hint at the true villain.
The reveal is the climax of the story, so it should be put off as long as possible. Once the antagonist has been revealed, the story should wrap up and end, so you can see the problem with this happening halfway through your story. Draw it out until the clues are all solved. And then…