While readers vicariously follow the journeys of characters in most fictional genre pieces, they often play an additional part in the murder mystery one-namely, they seek to determine the murderer and his motivations, along with, if not before, the detective does in good-versus-evil plots.
“… A mystery is an elaborate puzzle carefully constructed to baffle the readers, and… the writers of mysteries are playing a sort of game with their readers, hiding clues in plain sight, presenting suspects who couldn’t have done the murder, but act as if they did… so the reader will go down what very likely will be the wrong path,” according to James N. Frey in his book, “How to Write a Damn Good Mystery” (St. Martin’s Press, 2004, p. 2). “The detective in a mystery almost always beats the reader at the game of who-dun-it.”
TYPES OF MYSTERIES:
There are several types of mysteries.
1). Cozy: The cozy mystery, typified by Agatha Christie, eliminates all gory details and focuses instead on determining who was behind the murder. Her two sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively use logical and emotional reasoning.
2). Professional sleuth: The professional sleuth type involves, as its designation implies, a detective trained to undertake such investigative work.
3). Amateur sleuth: Particularly when police have failed to solve the crime or misinterpret the evidence, amateur sleuths, because they have close connections to the victim, rise to the occasion and take on the investigation themselves.
4). Police procedural: Police procedural mysteries employ factual police department structures, methods, and protocols, requiring experience or significant knowledge for the author to undertake. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels describe the workings of a big city, fictionalized police department.
5). Legal/medical: “Lawyers and doctors make effective protagonists, since they seem to exist on a plane far above the rest of us,” wrote author Stephen D. Rogers. “Although popular, these tales are usually penned by actual lawyers and doctors due to the demands of the information presented.”
6). Suspense: While all murder mysteries are characterized by this very aspect, the specifically-designated suspense version offers a twist. Instead of the detective pursuing the villain, who is already revealed in this type, the villain pursues him, leaving the reader to follow the story to see what traps he will fall into and whether he will emerge alive from them.
7). Romantic suspense: “Add a hefty dose of romance to suspense and produce a romantic suspense,” advises Rogers. “Not only does justice prevail, but love conquers all.”
READERS OF MYSTERIES:
Those who read mysteries often do so with far more mental and emotional investment than those of other types of fiction. In fact, they may do so for numerous reasons.
1). They vicariously engage in the thrill of the hunt for the murderer.
2). They achieve the satisfaction of justice when he is finally caught and punished.
3). They identify and therefore put a face on evil.
4). They consider the outsmarting and capture of the murderer the ultimate triumph of right versus might and good versus evil.
5). They root for the detective, whom they consider the hero.
6). They gain a sense of conviction about the story’s “reality,” as if it really occurred.
“When you write a mystery story, you and your reader make a bargain,” according to William G. Tapply in his book, “The Elements of Mystery Fiction” (Poisoned Pen Press, 1995, p. 25). “Your reader agrees to pretend that your story actually happened, provided you agree to make your story resemble reality.”
HISTORY OF MYSTERIES:
The fictional murder mystery genre traces its roots to 1841 when “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” written by Edgar Allen Poe, was published in Graham’s Magazine.
“No one before Poe, as far as we know, ever wrote a story in which the central plot’s question was ‘Who did it’ and the hero was a detective who correctly deduced the answer to that question,” pointed out Tapply (ibid, p.1).
It may have been a beginning, but it was hardly an end. Famous authors, whose books grace the “Mystery” sections of bookstores, include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his famous Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson sidekick; Agatha Christie with her noted Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple investigators; and John D. MacDonald with his Travis McGee version. Indeed, the 1920’s and 1930’s were considered the classic age of mystery fiction.
Perhaps unique to this genre is the co-journey of the reader, who attempts to piece together the myriad of clues and dead ends and determine the culprit as the plot’s conflict entails the opposing forces of hunter, the detective, and hunted, the unrevealed murderer until the very end.
The idea for any type of writing, whether it entails fiction or fact, may not be definitively determinable, but can be considered a seed whether planted internally, through inspiration, or externally, by something observed, heard, contemplated, or compared-that is, a spark that ignites a person’s creative imagination. Like any seed, it needs time to germinate, grow, and sprout branches by means of associations. The author adds and sometimes deletes other ideas, characters, circumstances, and settings, very much like a rolling snowball, which gathers momentum and increases in size. Partly a subconscious process, it entails the mind’s ability to incorporate and assemble elements until the writer believes that he has the basic framework for a story. Sketching it in outline form is his prerogative, but can certainly be beneficial.
Enthusiasm and excitement, perhaps emotional measurements of the creativity that give birth to the plot, usually signal its ripeness to take literary form.
“An idea sets off a complicated chain reaction, a sequence of imagined events, which the writer converts into scenes populated by imaginary people,” wrote Tapply (ibid, p. 11). “That is a plot. When the writer puts in all onto paper, it becomes a story.”
Consider the idea that can arise from a news story, which reports that the last coal mine in Aurora, West Virginia, is slated to close on March 31, increasing the town’s already high employment rate to 40 percent.
A murder mystery writer may pause and contemplate the possibilities for a plot the news item can spark.
An abandoned mine in a similar town somewhere in West Virginia or Pennsylvania! What a place to hide a body. Who would look there if it’s been vacated, especially for years? Suppose the murderer is given the identity of one of its prior workers, who himself is no longer alive because of an on-the-job accident? How can they pin the murder on someone who himself is already dead? What could be the motive? Let me think about this…
The mine may be one of the future story’s settings, but the process entails much greater complexity, including the character development of the detective, the murderer himself, the victim’s enemies, the witnesses, and those offering leads and both factual and false clues.
FOUR PILLARS OF MYSTERY WRITING:
Mysteries can be considered to stand on four tenets.
Mystery, not surprisingly the first of them, implies that something mysterious occurs. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the plot or the genre. If, for example, a person is shot in front of a crowd and the perpetrator is arrested on the spot, there are no unanswered questions, except, perhaps, for his motivation if it were deliberately done. If, on the other hand, a body is found in the woods and there are no tracks to or from it, then the mystery entails why, how, when, and who, all of which the detective attempts to answer.
“A mystery is an unexplained event or circumstance; something strange has happened that baffles the reader,” points out Frey (op. cit., p. 108).
Heightened suspense elements, such as danger, threat, and the inability to distinguish the suspects from the true murderer, ensure that the reader keeps turning pages to find out what will happen next.
As in real life, there is no struggle without adversity and the forces that oppose a person’s quest for a specific goal. In a murder mystery, these conflicts take many forms: lying and uncooperative suspects, undiscovered and covered-up evidence, human and circumstantial antagonists, rules, laws, personal weaknesses, and internal conflicts. Without them there would be no story.
Surprises entail leading the reader to the opposite of the truth in terms of the actual murderer and his methods and motivations.
A murder mystery can entail two plots.
The first of them, which is revealed to the reader, includes the realization that a murder has been committed, often by indication of the discovered body and desperate calls to the police; the detective’s agreement to take on the case; his journey of following both real and false leads, of gathering evidence, and of speaking to key people of interest; and the ultimate revelation of the murderer, his capture, his motive, his method, and the achievement of justice.
The second of these, which is hidden throughout the book and usually not revealed until its very end, is who the murderer is; how he committed it, what his motivations, such as greed, hate, jealousy, revenge, and insanity, are; and his strategy for covering his tracks.
Noted mystery writer Sue Grafton, in her preface to Writing Magazine, wrote that a mystery “is a way of examining the dark side of human nature, a means by which we can explore, vicariously, the perplexing questions of crime, guilt and innocence, violence and justice.”
While the number and types of characters can vary widely in fictional works, there are very specific ones integral to murder mysteries and they play a vital part in the plot.
“Every action,” according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “has an equal and opposite reaction.” If the murderer is the story’s “action,” then the detective can be considered its “reaction.”
“The hero/detective… is, of course, the most important character in your book, because it is the character your readers will identify with,” according to Frey (ibid, p. 51). “This is the character your reader will have the most intimacy with.”
Because they invest more emotion in characters than plots, an interesting, compelling, and unique detective can sometimes energize the story more than the sheer events can. This can be facilitated by endowing him with several traits.
First and foremost, he must possess the necessary courage to undertake such an investigation, during which he must discover and uncover clues and leads in his quest to determine and capture a murderer, all the while in the face of possible danger from an as-yet-unidentified person who will probably not hesitate to do the same to him.
He must, secondly, be good at what he does in a way few others are, almost as if he has a sixth sense about the investigative process.
An extension of this ability should be some type of special talent. Fostering reader attraction to him, it renders him both interesting and respected.
Tantamount to his ability to solve crimes is, needless to say, a high degree of cleverness and resourcefulness, another of his characteristics.
“… The chief reason people read genre mysteries is to be dazzled by just how clever the heroes are at digging up the clues and interpreting them, so the murderer can be discovered,” wrote Frey (ibid, p. 60). “There is almost always in the genre mystery the ‘ah-ha’ moment, when the detective finally figures it out.”
Despite the paradox, another characteristic is a degree of woundedness. More than a functioning robot, he should have a human side, with some type of physical, emotional, or psychological wound. That aspect can be emphasized, creating a kindred-sprit connection between the reader and him. As he pursues his journey toward justice, the reader usually empathizes with him.
“One interesting thing in mythic-based stories is that a hero’s wound is often fully or partially healed because of his or her self-sacrificing actions, while the evil one’s wound that often is his or her rationale for being selfish and doing evil is never healed,” according to Frey (ibid, p. 56).
That self-sacrificing characteristic is another important one to give to the detective. Unlike the selfishly-motivated criminal, he selflessly undertakes a case and tracks down and catches the infractor in the name of justice so that the danger he poses can be removed from society, often with very little monetary reward.
Despite these qualities, he may possess some downside characteristics that ironically provision him for such a role, since it is not typical of the person who works nine-to-five, returns home to his kids, and mows his lawn on weekends. He may, for example, be a bit of a loner or an outcast, giving him the time, passion, and unencumbered dedication to embark on such criminal-pursuing chases.
Since the chase is not, by any measure, a routine act for the faint of heart, he must have a considerable degree of self-contained resources, enabling him to play by his own rules. Dedicated to justice and the greater good, he should have little desire for sheer financial compensation.
Because his quest requires that unique combination of esteemed-good and fueling-quirk, he should, above all, be unforgettable. Take, for instance, Lieutenant Columbo. Crumpled-coated, cigar-chewing, and condemned-car driving, he could not appear more incompetent, yet he has a sixth sense for assembling criminal puzzles into solutions.
Although by no means mandatory, the sidekick character can aid the investigative process. As a completing, complementary, kindred-spirit companion to the detective, he can follow leads of his own, take part in the leg work, and serve as a person with whom to share ideas and theories until the case has been solved. Famous sidekicks in literature include Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes and Meyer to Travis McGee.
While no murder mystery’s plot would be possible without the murderer himself and logic would lead to the conclusion that he should take center stage, he actually assumes a backstage location for most of the book, as the detective tries to piece together what he has already done and who the culprit is.
“The murderer is the pivotal character in a… good story,” advises Frey (ibid, p. 30). “A pivotal character is one who pushes the action, one who makes things happen that other characters, including the hero/detective, must react to.”
Motivated by reasons that are only “rational” to him, he is fueled by them, is justified by them, and hence has no reason for remorse, regret, sorrow, empathy, or conscience. He is unquestioningly evil, beyond the understanding or conceptualization of sane, social, and rational people, and acts solely out of his self-interests. He may actually be intelligent, but instead of using that capacity for controlling his impulses and correcting his behavior, he uses it to plot his deeds and then cover up the evidence that would otherwise implicate him.
Part of this strategy-and one that gives readers the thrill of trying to figure out the culprit-is his invisibility. Hiding in plain sight with few, if any, red flags that would alert others to the contrary, he could hold a regular job, have a family, worship at his house of choice, and exhibit no outward physical signs or features that would differentiate him from others.
“For the mystery writer,” according to William G. Tapply in his book, The Elements of Mystery Fiction (Poisoned Pen Press, 1995, p. 33), “the rule is this: Make the villain one of the crowd, neither more nor less than any of the story’s other characters.”
What may make a murder mystery a masterpiece is the almost-even match between the intelligence and resourcefulness of the murderer and the detective, who both use these qualities for different purposes. It is these capabilities that the author must endow in both of them.
For the murderer, first and foremost, he must be a cunning strategist, enabling him to cover the tracks that would otherwise lead to his self-justified deeds.
Clear and resourceful, he is aware of his actions, but remains hidden behind an external façade that may portray the image of an outstanding citizen.
Mentally, emotionally, and/or psychologically wounded by some early-life circumstance, which may or may not be revealed in the book, he possesses the power to engage in revengeful acts against those in present-time who most likely have nothing to do with his damage in past time. This “motivation” may be deeply seeded and not within his consciousness. Fueled by fear, he will do anything to ensure that it remains buried.
The epitome of dual-personality evil, he has no conscience and therefore no means with which to restrain his impulses.
Not always portrayed as a pre-murdered person, the victim is the common link between the detective and the villain. He or she can be represented by the discovered body or merely discussed, as in “The dental assistance was found slumped over the chair in the second examining room at 9:06 a.m.”
How it occurred, who was behind it, and what connection the person had to the murderer now all become integral to the detective’s investigation.
“An important part of the sleuth’s investigation becomes the painstaking piecing together of the victim’s backstory, which comes in bits and pieces of information, often seemingly contradictory, filtered through the memories and motivations and lies of other characters,” according to Tapply (ibid, p. 35).
Like turns in the road, suspects ensure that the detective’s journey to the actual murderer is not a straight one and allow the reader to take part in the investigative process, as he continually asks himself, “Could he have done it?” Nevertheless, they all need to have one or more of the following characteristics.
They should all have some type and degree of link to the victim, unless the author wishes to attribute the tragedy to a random act.
They should have a motive or bonafide reason, such as monetary gain, cover-up, or elimination of one lover for another, to have committed the crime.
They should have the means to do so, which entails tools, such as weapons, chemicals, and access to companies and locations.
They should have the opportunity-the timely, physical proximity to the would-be victim.
Finally, they should have an alibi as to why they could not have engaged in the act, such as physical separation, time inconsistency, and proof from records and corroborating others. They can all later either be proven or disproved, since falsified records, lies, and impersonations are part of the unraveling mystery, but aid in the creation of suspicion.
“In a way, your suspects are like your murderer,” Frey points out (op. cit., p. 85). “The only difference between them is that the suspects didn’t do it. But, alas, they could have done it.”
They are instrumental in leading the reader toward early, but false conclusions, enhancing his detective trail ride and read.
As in real life, all stories have minor characters who support the daily activities of the major ones, and include bank tellers, hair dressers, and taxi drivers. If they are not painted as suspects, then the author should devote little more than a mention of them.
A plot is a sequence of events created by the author, subdivided into chapters and scenes, and acted out by the story’s characters. Integral to their actions are four fundamental questions.
1). What are they doing?
2). What do they want or desire?
3). How do they go about achieving it?
4). What, if anything, happens to them after they have?
“The mystery is a quest story,” according to Tapply (op. cit., p.22). “The sleuth strives to uncover a villain who doesn’t want to be uncovered and will do anything-even murder the sleuth-to prevent it. The mystery builds tension and suspense as the sleuth confronts danger in pursuit of the quest.”
Within the plot are the revealed scenes, which include the discovery of the body, the detective’s decision to accept the case, the trail of suspects and clues he follows, and the unrevealed scenes, which entail how and why the crime was committed and who the actual murderer was. The latter are made known during the climax, at which time he is apprehended.
Mysterious deflection, consisting of the suspect lies told to the detective that mislead the readers, is an important factor in the mystery writing genre.
“The reader’s attention is being deflected by the characters’ lying, in keeping with his or her secret agenda,” according to Frey (op. cit., p. 105). “When you know what’s going on behind the scenes, behind the lies, behind the deception, the mysterious deflection is happening without any need on your part to think up any red herrings… “
Outlines and plotting sheets can facilitate the process for writers, but they may elect to create two of them-that is, one illustrating what occurs “on stage” and one illustrating what occurs “off stage,” until the latter is revealed at the book’s end.
CLASSIC FIVE-ACT PLOT:
While there are numerous variations to a murder mystery and the author’s unique structure of it can be one of the ways he breathes new life into it, it can consist of what can be considered a classic five-act plot. These generic acts do not necessarily correlate to the number of chapters, which are writer-determined.
In the first act, the story’s intended detective, agreeing to accept the investigation into the murder, begins the “separation” from his mundane, everyday routine and embarks on the search.
“The purpose of Act I, as in the opening of any dramatic story, is to get the reader involved in the story world and to get the chain reaction of events of the plot rolling,” suggests Frey (op. cit., p. 112).
It is vital for the writer to create an exciting experience the reader will embrace and immerse himself in so that he can temporarily “disconnect” from his own mundane world for the duration of the book. This can be achieved by several methods.
1). Create powerful story questions.
2). Place the characters at odds with one another. This is called “dramatic conflict.”
3). Generate reader emotion, particularly sympathy.
There are an equal number of ways to structure the act.
1). Illustrate the murder, but do not reveal the murderer.
2). Illustrate the murder and reveal the murderer. Although this would eliminate the genre’s mystery purpose, this method still allows the author to explore the other aspects associated with the perpetrator, such as will he actually get away with it; will he commit additional murders; if he does, is there any connection between his victims or are they randomly chosen; and, of course, will he finally be apprehended, along with how, why, and when.
3). Only show the body, leaving the rest of the book to answer the all-important when, where, how, who, and why questions.
4). Begin the book with the victim still alive. Since the reader will make associations with a “real person” and not just a lifeless body, he will more than likely invest increased emotion and become all the more determined to see justice served after he has been murdered. Part of the effectiveness of this method is the ability to illustrate the circumstances, such as spousal abuse, volatile arguments, revenge, jealousy, and insurance collections, which may foreshadow the murder. Because they may or may not be reasons behind the heinous act, they can serve as false clues that throw the reader off the track.
5). Place the reader in the detective’s shoes by immediately showing his acceptance of the murder investigation so that he will follow his journey from the very beginning of the book.
In Act II, the detective initiates his quest, determined to follow leads and clues, interview persons of interest and suspects, piece tougher the evidence, and catch the murderer.
“The hero leaves the world of the everyday, crosses a threshold, and enters a mysterious ‘mythological woods’ that is different from the hero’s everyday world. Here (he) must be initiated-in other words, ‘learn the new rules’ and be ‘tested’ by the trials presented by the evil one… ” according to Frey (ibid, p. 120).
As occurs in real life, and often in fictional pieces, the detective’s journey is not necessarily a straight one, devoid of obstacles, but instead can be circuitous, derailed by lies and false leads, and require new skills and strategies. Like the grind of a rock into a polished diamond, he may undergo his own growth as a person and a professional.
Based upon the proverbial part of him dying so that it can give birth to a new part, he may be transformed somehow or muster strength or resources he never knew that he had had.
“The hero/detective after Act II is a very different character than the one we first met in the beginning of Act I, both because of what he or she has learned incidentally through being tested and challenged, and from the impact of that intensely dramatic pivotal scene.” (Frey, ibid, p. 122).
Newly motivated by the previous pivotal scene, the detective pursues the murderer with increased fervor and attitude. Act III itself ends with the discovery of who the murderer is-that is, the story’s most central and powerful question, or “Who did it?” is answered here. However, it may not always have been determined by clear, obstacle-free means. Instead, it may be preceded by dead ends, despair, and the inability to piece together any more evidence, followed by a flash of inspiration, which, like the needle of a compass, suddenly points to the perpetrator. Armed with this information, the detective is poised to cross the threshold that leads to the confrontation of him.
Consider the following Lieutenant Columbo inspired scene.
“I have every reason to believe that you, Mr. Conklin, are the murderer of Roscoe Reese, who was shot in the back of the head with a silenced revolver at 7:52 on the morning of March 5,” said Lieutenant Columbo in the man’s office.
“I’ve already told you, lieutenant, that I’m innocent,” said Mr. Conklin. “I didn’t shoot the man. I didn’t even know him. And I wasn’t present on the platform at that time.”
“Oh, Mr. Conklin, I think you were. The only way you couldn’t have been present that day is if you had taken the 7:38-in which case you would have already left the station.”
“And I’ve explained to you many times, lieutenant, that that’s exactly what I did.”
Bowing his head in silence for a minute, Lieutenant Columbo considered the man’s alibi.
“Well, then, Mr. Conklin,” he said at length, “perhaps I was wrong. Maybe you do have a good alibi. After all, if you took the 7:38, there was no way you could’ve been on that platform.”
“Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you,” he replied.
Biting on his cigar, Lieutenant Columbo said, “Then I owe you an apology, sir.”
The man nodded.
Stepping to the door and slowly opening it, he turned back to the suspect.
“Ah, I just have one question, Mr. Conklin,” he said.
“What is it?” he said, releasing a stream of impatient air.
“Funny thing about the 7:38 that morning. My records indicate that it was cancelled and that the next train to enter the station was the 7:55, three minutes after the murder.”
The man stared at him as if he were a deer caught in a car’s headlights.
Act IV, which can be considered the story’s climax, illustrates how the detective confronts and captures the murderer, his and the story’s raison d’etre, by removing him from society, attaining the bounty of the hunt, and ensuring that justice is served. In western genres, it is the equivalent of the showdown at the corral. It may not be an easy task, however.
Instead, the murderer, desperate and dangerous, may revert to any means to escape his ultimate fate-that of capture and facing that part of him he always denied-including kill the detective himself, providing the author with the makings for an explosive climax. But when right conquers might, the scene gives the reader his most sought-after satisfaction after following the detective’s long journey—that is, of capture, justice, and punishment.
Act V, which is necessarily short, illustrates the detective’s return to his everyday world, the journey now behind him, and describes how the major characters were impacted by the life-changing events. Consider the following.
Three years after Martha was forced to bury her husband after his senseless murder on that bitter January morning in 2015, she met a gentle, supportive man and remarried. They now live five states away from where the event took place.
Frey, James N. “How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Tapply, William G. “The Elements of Mystery Fiction.” Scottsdale, Arizona: Poisoned Pen Press, 1995.