What makes a mystery great? I grew up reading mysteries by Agatha Christie; I own each one she wrote. What about them appealed to me and millions of other readers? How does one write a great mystery?
I don’t write mysteries, but I know what I like to read. Below I have listed things that, in my opinion, would make one a master at writing mysteries.
Note: I consistently use the pronoun “him.” This doesn’t mean your murderer or suspect has to be a male. It could just as easily be a female.
1) First of all, you need a crime, preferably a murder. Assume that murder is like eating Lay’s potato chips, and your killer won’t be able to stop after just one. Maybe someone suspects what he has done. Maybe someone really does know what he has done and is attempting to blackmail him.
2) The first murder needs to happen at least by page 50, preferably before. One thing that gets me hooked on a book is when the crime takes place in the very first part of the book. I am an avid reader, and if the murder doesn’t take place until the last half of the book, I won’t be reading anything else by that author.
3) Make your characters interesting. Most, if not all of them, will be suspects. Each one of them should have something they don’t want to come out in the open. They have something to hide. Does it always have to do with the crime? No, it doesn’t, but the reader doesn’t have to know that right away. The reader needs to believe, if only for a moment, that each character could have committed the crime.
4) No mystery would be complete without plenty of red herrings, or false clues, planted along the way. Maybe the murderer has planted these clues on purpose to divert attention away from him as the killer. Maybe they come from the things that other characters don’t want to be known. No matter where they come from, make sure there are plenty of them. These should sidetrack the detective for just a while.
5) Speaking of detectives, you need to create one that is intriguing. This is very important: he cannot be perfect. He could have a physical impairment of some sort that seemingly puts him at a disadvantage. He could have emotional damage from the blows life has dealt him or from the impact of a previous case. Like Monk, he could have many phobias that make him humorous yet hard to be around. He could even hate what he does, but crime seems to follow him wherever he goes and he just happens to be good at uncovering the truth.
6) I know it is tempting to divulge all of the backstory to your readers, but you don’t need to do that. Too much backstory is boring. You need to know all of it, but your readers don’t. Only put what they need to know in the story. Plant bits of your backstory throughout your novel. Use dreams, flashbacks, conversation, and any other technique you can think of to get out what needs to be known. This will keep your reader interested in the present story as well as the backstory.
7) One of my favorite parts of a good mystery is when the criminal is caught. In many of Agatha Christie’s books, all the suspects are gathered in one room as the detective runs through the case from beginning to end. At this time, the red herrings are pointed out, and sometimes, the wrong person is stated to be the guilty one. This could be for this person’s protection or it could be to get the guilty party to react in a certain way. When the story comes to an end now, all loose ends are tied up and everything has been explained.
Have I ever found mysteries written by any other author that give me the same satisfaction that reading an Agatha Christie novel did? Yes. Over this past year, I have finally found one: Brian O’Hare.
Everything I’ve read by Brian O’Hare has been great, but his Inspector Sheehan Mysteries satisfied my longing for a modern-day Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. There are only two of these books out so far: The Doom Murders and The 11:05 Murders.
Who is your favorite mystery writer?