Sorry I’m so late, I was on a baen podcast early morning, and couldn’t sit down and write before it was done, and I’m still pushing coffee.
So, it’s time to talk of sealing wax and ships and… nah. I fooled you. It’s time to talk about the mystery structure for novels. (It’s completely different for a short story, and we’ll touch on that.)
First of all, let us understand there are many types of mysteries: there are cozies (best understood as Agatha Christie like; the hard boiled more like Mickey Spillane; the private detective like, say Rex Stout (though the ur-model is Sherlock Holmes) which can be either cozy or hardboiled and the police procedurals, for whom I used to have a couple of favorite writers but it’s been so long since I read them I can’t remember. They’re not my favorite type.
All mysteries are puzzles. The puzzle might be “whodunn it?” which is normal for cozies and most police procedurals, or “how do we catch the sob?” which is normal for hardboiled and some procedurals. (Though some hardboiled are also whodunn it, usually with a thriller element of “they’re after me.”)
In general cozy are “genteel murders” which means you know the fact of the death, but most of the devastation you deal with is psychological, not where the blood went or exactly how the victim’s head was broken, or what body part was found in the toilet and what insects were living on it by the time it was found.
Hardboiled are like the heavy metal of mysteries. They offend your ears/eyes with gruesome descriptions, etc. They’re supposed to be more realistic, though after their own type they’re as much fantasy as the cozy, just a more bloody fantasy.
The police procedurals also are a fantasy. Though they usually involve police officers solving the murder, which is, in our society, more realistic, the means they use are often sheer fantasy as is the “feel” of the lone honorable man against the world. Think CSI and realize that no, it’s not an accurate depiction of reality.
Oh, craft mysteries are a subset of cozies, and the “detective” solves the murder using some special craft-related knowledge. I will say most of the ones I’ve sampled I’ve found insufficient in the PUZZLE department, but they’re extremely popular, and if you have a craft expertise you might want to consider writing one and seeing how it does.
1- Your murder should happen as close to the beginning as possible. I’ve been reading a lot of these indie, and I’ve found that I lose interest around the third chapter if no one has died. So if you can’t kill your victim right up front, at least have a reference to it early on. “On the day that would forever become embossed in her mind as “the murder day” Miss Beatrice was spring cleaning.” That sort of thing.
2- But Sarah, can’t it be a theft? Well, not to me, though this might be personal. I can’t take seriously a mystery that doesn’t have a murder in it, or at least the appearance of a murder. Just be aware you can’t pull the “it wasn’t a murder, after all” more than once or more than twice in a row without some people — me — giving up on you.
3- There should be a reason for your character to get involved. Either the victim was her crochet buddy, or he discovered the body, or the victim’s last action was writing a letter to them. There is something that draws them in (unless it’s a procedural, where it’s their job, but even then something about the murder should make it special to the detective.)
4- The murderer should make an appearance early on in the book. If this isn’t possible, beware some readers will get the wrong idea (It wasn’t possible in Death of A Musketeer and a lot of idiots got the impression it was the Cardinal, flipped to the end where they dispose of something else with the Cardinal and went ahah and reviewed based on that.) The murderer should of course not be known unless it’s a “how do I get the bastage?”
5- There should be a timer. This can be anything. An innocent man is about to be hanged. Or the character’s marriage will be postponed/called off if this isn’t solved in two weeks. Or the funding for your quilting group is about to be decided and with this it means they will pull it. Or– The timer mechanism, that metaphorical clock counting down to 0 when something horrible will happen if you haven’t found the murderer, lends urgency to the situation and makes it imperative to solve the murder now. This is important because:
6- a lot of looking for the murderer involves meeting with interviewing people. This can get tedious unless a) there’s a timing device b) some of the encounters are dangerous c) someone is trying to kill your character at the same time. d) all of the above.
As a way to make this more fun by injecting cavalcades and swords, I recommend studying P. F. Chisholm’s Elizabethan mysteries. I tried to do the same in the Musketeers, and it does help, but in the end those four “tricks” above work better.
7- give the detective a private life, then give him/her/it problems there. This will help keep the action going through the interviewing. Particularly good if the private life can be confused with the murder. A note asking you to get the milk could be read as “or else” from the murderer (okay, it’s a stretch, but you can manage it.)
As a note in police procedurals the detective usually has an unhappy love life/bad marriage/ affair. I don’t know why. It just seems to be part of the genre.
8 – Make sure you give the reader all the clues in that round of interviews, etc. Just make sure you give them in such a way they never remember them. Stuff like the detective just noticed something, when suddenly a corpse falls through the ceiling. The reader is going to forget what the detective noticed.
9- Tie all the fricking ends. No, seriously, in mysteries this is needed. One way or another, make sure that in the end you dotted all is and crossed all ts and if you’re leaving something to haunt the guy next book, hang a sock on it: “He still didn’t know why there had been a dead fish on his pillow on Monday, but…”
10- Allow them a cigarette moment. A lot of the how to write mysteries books say solve it and done, but I like to see the “order restored” end of the book. Marry off the couple, finish the spring cleaning. Whatever.
11 – It’s neither unusual nor a bad idea to use a mystery structure in other genres. Say, a first contact story.
12- Mystery short stories, by decision of the mags, are stories in which a crime happened. Me I prefer in which a crime happened/was attempted and there is a solution. These are best done as “someone tells a story” or the denoument portion of the novel with the rest heinleined in as you go. For example see Agatha Christie’s Harley Quinn stories.
13- All are punished. In cozies this often takes the form of the villain committing suicide, but it is still important.
14- For the love of heaven eschew the “just because” motive. In hard boiled mob involvement often explains (almost) everything, but it gets old after a while. In cozies, the motive should be personal and well beyond “And then he went mad.” Mad is not interesting or fun.