Detecting a Good Mystery

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary cozy mysteries* lately, because I’m thinking of trying my hand at writing one (or, hopefully, a series of them). Since I’m reading critically, with an eye to what makes such a novel work (or not), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the clues I look for in detecting a well-written, well-constructed mystery novel.

Here are some of the important elements I look for in a mystery, with side notes about what turns me off.

1) A sympathetic protagonist/detective. There’s a lot of emphasis these days on making characters sympathetic by making them flawed. Certainly it’s hard for us fallen human beings to identify with anyone who’s absolutely perfect, but it’s my opinion the flawed bit can be, and often is, overdone.

One reason I, and many people, love mysteries is that they provide a satisfying, clearcut victory of good over evil. The detective should be the primary representative of the forces of good in the story, and thus–while certainly human–also needs to be admirable. Many of the detectives I’ve read about in the last few weeks are selfish, abrasive, or snarky, smoke and/or drink to excess, sleep around, or all of the above. I don’t find such people admirable and am not tempted to spend multiple books in their company.

My favorite detectives–most, but not all, from the British Golden Age–are decidedly human, but admirable at the same time: Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Alan Grant, Roderick Alleyn, Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Precious Ramotswe, Brother Cadfael, Dame Frevisse, Father Brown. These people have principle, compassion, self-control, and, in most cases, humility along with their extraordinary powers of observation and deduction. They’re the kind of people I feel better for being around.

2) A well-constructed plot. The mystery itself needs to be clever, not obvious, but believable, logical, and internally consistent. The reader should know everything the detective knows, although we may not be clever enough to give each clue the notice it deserves. When the solution is revealed, the ideal reader reaction is, “I should have seen that coming!” as opposed to, “I saw that coming,” or, worse, “Where the heck did that come from?”

Too many contemporary cozies seem so anxious to avoid “I saw that coming” that they err in the other direction by settling for “Where the heck did that come from?” It’s cheating to pull your murderer out of a hat. Which leads me to . . .

3) A believable villain. By this I don’t mean only a villain who is a well-rounded character rather than a cardboard cutout–although that’s important too. But mainly, I mean that the person who turns out to be the villain should be someone the reader has had some reason all along to mistrust (not merely to dislike, which is different). He or she also needs to have a sufficient motive for committing murder–and it’s best if that motive is not full-blown insanity which the person has somehow been able to hide up until the climactic confrontation.

I’ve seen a lot of variations on murderer ex machina, and frankly, I’m tired of it. The older masters–the ones who created the detectives I listed above–knew how to create villains that were both plausible and less-than-obvious. It seems to me that a lot of contemporary cozy writers just aren’t working hard enough–or perhaps the majority of their readers don’t care.

4) Atmosphere. Now we’re getting to the elements at which the writers I’ve been reading tend to excel. Most cozy series seem to have engaging settings and large casts of interesting, quirky supporting characters for the protagonist to interact with. And the protagonist usually has some occupation or hobby that provides an interesting sideline to his or her detective work. These sidelines generally appear to be realistic and well-researched.

5) Romance. Yes, you can have a mystery without a romance, but it isn’t nearly as much fun. My objection in this department is not specific to the genre, but applies to most contemporary secular fiction: “romance” is all too often just a euphemism for sex. I’m happy to see characters fall in love based on genuine compatibility and shared experiences; I’m not so happy to see them fall in lust based on mutual foxiness. Call me old-fashioned–I plead guilty. But give me the wedding ceremony before the wedding night.

What about you? Do you enjoy mysteries? What do you look for in a mystery, and what turns you off?

*I’m defining a “cozy mystery” as one in which the violence is underplayed and the tone tends to be on the light side, sometimes overtly humorous. The detective is usually an amateur who has another job or avocation that comes into the story.

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3 comments on “Detecting a Good Mystery

  1. Adriane says:

    I absolutely agree with #2. I like a challenge. If the resolution is too predictable, it takes away from the enjoyment… and the mystery. That’s kind of the point of a mystery, isn’t it? To NOT be predictable? But then again, I want to be able to understand the missing pieces that made the mystery a mystery in the first place and how they worked together. Those missing pieces and how they relate are elements of the mystery too. Without that tangled web, the story wouldn’t be interesting at all. Imagine playing Clue without deductive reasoning.

    • Who are your favorite mystery writers, Adriane?

      • Adriane says:

        Honestly, I don’t really read enough mysteries to have a favorite, probably because a lot of them seem to be murder mysteries and that just doesn’t appeal to me much. I have read an Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or two though, and Trixie Beldon/Boxcar Children type books as a kid.

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