It’s that time folks. You knew it was coming. This week…is…mysterious…
Yes, it’s time to deduce what makes Mysteries so alluring. So, what is Mystery? I don’t have to be Hercules Poirot to answer that, I just have to be able to search Wikipedia: “Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. In a closed circle of suspects, each suspect must have a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character must be a detective who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts fairly presented to the reader.”
Lot of laws in the Mystery genre. Badum-clink!
(Please pardon any bad puns, I’m drinking scotch as I write this to get into the mystery mindset. I’m also eating Nutella, but that’s not particularly noir-ish. It’s just delicious.)
Anyway…the game is afoot!
First, let’s round up some suspects…
- Noir—a.k.a. the stuff dreams are made of. It’s a subgenre of tropes that are still so lovable—the hard-drinking detective, femme fatales, gangsters and their molls, girl fridays, corrupt cops, backstabbers. And, for some reason, everyone only speaks out of one side of their mouth. (Notable examples: The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice)
- Legal Thriller—a.k.a. there’s my Grisham! It’s the “law” part of Law & Order. Lawyers play detective and solve the crime in cross examination. (Notable examples: The Lincoln Lawyer, and about a BILLION John Grisham novels)
- Cozy Mystery—a.k.a. hand-knitted murder. Generally takes place in a small town, and the person who kinds the killer is usually a nice lady who isn’t a cop at all, but in reality runs a bookstore/antiques shop/catering business. Because you don’t have to wear a badge to decipher clues. (Notable examples: Murder is Binding, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Death by Darjeeling, Aunt Dimity’s Death)
- Procedural—a.k.a. Good Cop, Bad Cop. Possibly, the most realistic of the Mystery genre since the crime is actually being solved by a cop. Also, a type a TV show starring Nathan Fillion. (Notable examples: The Black Echo, Along Came a Spider, The Bone Collector, The Silence of the Lambs)
- Paranormal Mystery—a.k.a. SOOKIE! Yes, the vampires are solving crimes now. Because it gets boring being an eternally good looking immortal, and sometimes you want to solve murders for funsies. (Notable examples: True Blood, Secondhand Spirits, Storm Front, The Diviners)
- Historical Mystery—a.k.a. elementary, my dear Watson. It’s pretty self-explanatory—solving crimes in another era. So no cell phones, internet, DNA analysis tests, fingerprint databases. Honestly, I have no idea how they arrested anyone. (Notable examples: Death Comes to Pemberley, Burial Rites, The Name of the Rose, The Alienist)
…just to name a few.
Now, we’ve got the suspects, let’s check out the murder weapons!
- Red Herrings—they’re so obviously guilty that they’re…not guilty? Listen, it’s never the obvious suspect, with the most motive, and a questionable alibi. You know why it’s never them? Because that’s not clever. So you might as well just ignore those obvious characters to begin with.
- Buddy Cops—they’re wackily mismatched, yet compliment each other perfectly! How do they solve so many cases? How do they manage to fight about everything, yet still get along? That’s the real mystery.
- Locked Rooms—look, locked room mysteries can be kind of cool: murder in a secluded place, no way in or out. But they have to actually make sense. Looking at you, Murders in the Rue Morgue.
- Two Weeks From Retirement—you know that guy who’s really looking forward to retiring and spending more time with his family? Yeah, doesn’t usually end well.
- I’m Being Set Up—
But—to do the classic detective monologue and wrap up the case—what is it that makes Mystery so compelling, so universally beloved? Frankly, because when it’s well done, it makes your brain leak out of your ears. It’s the rare exception to the rule of having the reader get inside the main character’s brain—for once, you don’t want to see their thought process throughout the novel. You just want to know what they were thinking at the very end, for optimal shock and surprise. As a reader, you don’t actually want to solve the mystery easily (or at all). You want to be stumped. Surprised. Stunned. You want the protagonist to be the smartest character, not just in the book, but in the room where you’re reading it (the room where it happened…sorry, couldn’t help myself).
But Mystery novels should also be a puzzle—a 300-odd page puzzle. And, like Vegas, the house should always win. Hell, as a reader, you want the house to always win. Because the minute you solve the puzzle—or know who the killer is—is the minute you lose interest. There’s nothing left to hook you, you know how the book ends.
Good Mystery holds you captive, frustrates and tortures you. And it should drive you nuts but, oddly, you love it.
Want more Mystery? Check out these random faves:
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
- The Supernatural Enhancement by Edgar Cantero
- Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty
- The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
- Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas
- The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
- When Lightning Strikes by Meg Cabot
- Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig
- Dead to Me by Mary McCoy
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
- The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
- Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Hetzel
- Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
- City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
- The Diviners by Libba Bray