Genre Cues: Mysteries

Alma T. C. Boykin. What hides in the twilight behind the wall . . .?

Well, you need a crime. Or something mysterious that’s not a legal crime but not right either. And you need someone to find out who did it, and to get justice. Right? Oh, and now you can have cats and dogs help solve the case, because pet mysteries are trendy.

If only. There are now so many sub-genres of mystery that some literary fiction flows into mystery and the reverse. I’m going to avoid that sub-sub-section, because most of those are closer to literature in terms of genre and style than they are to the standard mystery.

The basics are the same as for every genre: introduce the protagonist and the problem. It might be a break-in, a disappearance, a murder, a pet-napping, blackmail threat, or something else that needs to be solved. It could be opening a Michaelmas goose and discovering a large blue precious stone. Where did the stone come from? To whom should it belong? Was a crime committed? (Yes.) It’s also a good idea to hint at how your protagonist is going to solve the mystery – he’s a police detective, private investigator, or a baker, or she has unusually good powers of observation, or her dog is a psychic, or something. You also introduce other characters – police, community members, club members, the Baker Street Irregulars, and so on.

Then the character investigates. She asks around, carefully, to see who might want to off the town’s most skilled cake baker just before a huge wedding contract was due. The detective interviews witnesses, if there are any, and waits for the forensics people to get back to him (days, weeks, months . . .) The reporter digs in the newspaper morgue to see if the recent murder was anything like that one that the older editor mentioned in passing.

Stakes get higher. There’s evidence that the person blackmailing the victim is serious. Another painting is stolen. Another baker is found dead with strange symbols written on her back in frosting. The investigator is warned off the case, or reassigned, or told “leave this for the police – it’s our job” and so on. His girlfriend might threaten to leave him if he doesn’t quit obsessing over getting justice for someone long dead (or just obnoxious and possibly deserving of whatever happened). This is a low point. The leads end in brick walls. Something has to give. Perhaps. it depends on the sub-genre you are writing.

Then the solution appears. This could involve a Hercule Poirot style confrontation of the possible suspects and elimination of them one by one, or a police chase, or the accused fleeing into the moors to meet his just reward, or a shoot-out where the hero gets injured (or has her bacon saved by her assistant, or by the dog). The clues are laid out for the reader, and the bad guy gets his comeuppance.

Within this you have police procedurals, private investigators, cozy mysteries, hardboiled detective, noir detective, and probably more by now. Some private investigators are professionals (which to me includes crime reporters) and others are amateurs. The police procedural is often the most technical, because you are dealing with set procedures, rules of evidence, forensic investigations, and all the legal things. Courtroom mysteries . . . again, you need to know the laws, and what a lawyer investigating a case can and cannot do, and how to argue things in court. Cozy mysteries are set in a small setting, focus on a craft or skill (often) or animal (the early Cat Who . . . novels), and tend to be cleaner. There’s a murder or two, but no graphic sex or swearing. Usually. Oh, and historical mysteries can be in the past, about the past, or have parallel plots in both worlds. Within all those you have locked room, paranormal mystery, mystery romance, mystery thriller . . . Lots and lots of overlap.

I’d strongly suggest that you read widely. Read the classics – Allingham, Christie, Conan Doyle, Hammet, and more modern writers. Make notes of what works and what doesn’t, then go forth and write. If you are doing police procedurals, there are a lot of books out there to keep you from making basic mistakes. Some are written by police officers, some by detectives, some by forensics people.

Photo: Author photo, Czech Republic, 2019.

52 thoughts on “Genre Cues: Mysteries

  1. It’s odd, a bit, how the genre fixated on murder, with most exceptions being children’s or short stories, despite the inherent drama

    1. It’s a matter of stakes, I guess. Theft rarely seems quite as serious – the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, for instance, is something of a light-hearted “holiday special,” and I believe the tv adaptations lean into that. A physical assault not amounting to murder leaves behind a witness (although the Don Matteo tv series gets a lot of mileage out of the victim of attempted murder who’s initially in a coma, has temporary retrograde amnesia, or is shielding someone). Murder is a serious upheaval of the moral and social order, and leaves a victim who can’t speak for themselves.

    2. What about a case where it looks like a murder, but in reality it’s someone hiding out from other people or them ceasing to use a second identity for whatever reason, and an associate of the ‘second’ thinks they were killed? Or you know, insurance fraud or the like.

      Does that idea ever get used in mystery fiction?

      1. Pretty sure Chesterton did it, possibly some of Christie’s more complicated impersonation stories qualify. Like Barbara said below, pretty much every plot twist you can think has been tried (and usually successfully executed) by Agatha Christie.

  2. I also recommend John Dickson Carr’s essay, =The Grandest Game in the World, as well as reading mysteries by Carr, Sayers, Ed Hoch, Charlotte McLeod, S.S. van Dine, Erle Stanly Gardiner, van Gulik, Jane Haddam’s better stories (list on request), Rex Stout … everything you can get your hands on.

    1. Van Gulik? You do refer to the Judge Dee mysteries?

      I was beginning to think I was the only person who’d ever read any of them.

      1. I like them, but note that Western and Chinese tastes are different, so I prefer the ones he wrote on his own (but inspired or based on Chinese plots), not his first, which was much closer to the original Chinese.

        Chinese literary tastes are pretty different, e.g. stories with lots of characters, it’s fine for the detective to get the answer in a dream, etc. Van Gulik’s mysteries typically had about three different cases running simultaneously; they’re kind of police procedures in ancient China (Judge Dee is a magistrate).

        1. I love them as much for the worldbuilding as the plots. Van Gulik did an amazing job in those novels of getting the feel of a very different culture over to the reader while keeping the plot moving. I think he does a better job of it than many SF and fantasy authors.

  3. I liked The Mentalist, Lie to Me, The Listener, Bones, Criminal Minds, The Ghost Whisperer, Person of Interest, Psych (- I liked the premise, but not the characters), Numbers and Perception, my own stories having elements of those in the “feel”, I think. I did like the Jesse Stone movies based on Robert Parker’s books, and I liked Don Pendleton’s Detective. I loved Remington Steele and Leverage. I liked the original Charlie’s Angels and the A-Team. (Never watched much of Hart to Hart or the Rockford Files or Burn Notice, just a few episodes here and there. And there was that other one Mrs Something that was a bit like True Lies and Mr and Mrs Smith). I liked the new Magnum P.I. and the new Hawaii 5-0 and the Rookie and the new SWAT pretty well. And both the new Sherlock’s and Murdoc Mysteries. Though I haven’t read any of those books. I liked the Glen Cook Fantasy PI books. I think in Fantasy, the mystery often becomes subsumed in the “adventure” because the “laws” of the fantasy world often are being broken/torn down/etc, rather than being worked within/upheld (the MC tends to kill the bad guy to bring them to justice, Even places with restrictive classes/laws like the Heirs of Alexandria).

    So, most of my “mystery knowledge” comes from tv/movies, how close do you think the tropes align between books and tv/shows? Close enough that readers would still enjoy mysteries that were more based on the tv tropes? And how do “thrillers” fit in with the mysteries? Like Mission Impossible, Hunt for Red October, The Saint, etc.?

    1. Thrillers are more focused on ‘race against time’ than ‘whodunit’. With a thriller, often figuring out ‘whodunit’ is somewhere in the middle. And stopping them from doing it is the focus. At least from this reader’s perspective.

      1. That’s a pretty important distinction too. Thrillers can have fairly weak mystery components so long as the timer puts the characters under stress.

        I had a real problem with that in one of the shorts I did because I had mis-identified the story as mystery. It just was not working.

        It had an awesome cold open where a character who has been more of less a sane voice of reason sort has gone full on John Wick, and the other main characters are trying to talk this down before someone gets reduced to irregularly shaped cubes.

        The problem was, the cold open also showed who did it, which popped the mystery part, so I’d have to drop the cold open, and then it was just kind of bland.

        What finally broke the log jam was realizing the center of gravity was not who-dun-it; it was could the main characters prevent what had been done cascading into something even worse?

        So even though the characters were basically shaking trees, it was not about the elegance of the solution; it was whether they could solve it in time. As a thriller, it worked.

        1. At which point, we should mention the Columbo subgenre.
          We’re shown up front who did it, how, and generally why. The mystery is in how the investigator unravels the clues to catch the guilty. (This may have more latitude for sketchy clues, as the reader knows the red herrings are red herrings, and isn’t going to go “yes, but” about threads not fully resolved.)

          Or in the Pink Panther series, have the clues unravel around the bumbling investigator.

          1. The inverted mystery; quite a few Dr. Thorndyke stories are inverted. (Thorndyke is a Holmes competitor written by R. Austin Freeman).

            1. I’ve also heard of them as “closed” (unknown perpetrator) and “open” (known) mysteries

    2. I believe Bones, Remington Steele, Jesse Stone, and the new Sherlocks (assuming you mean Bandersnatch and Johnny Lee Miller) are traditional mysteries of varying subgenres, but usually a 60-90 minute film/tv thingie is going to be simpler than a novel-length mystery. Old Magnum PI was usually hard-boiled detective stories that might or might not qualify as puzzle mysteries, not familiar enough with Magnum Short Guy or most of your other examples to have an opinion. A-Team, Burn Notice, and the tv versions of Mission: Impossible, were mostly “good guys fix stuff in unexpected ways, bring down baddies in the process.” The Saint tv series kind of straddled the line between that and traditional mysteries, what little I saw of it. Thrillers (Mission Impossible movies, Die Hard, Red October, Val Kilmer version of the Saint), tend to be adjacent to mysteries in terms of subject matter and sometimes tone, but do not focus on giving the reader/audience a puzzle solvable with the clues on hand, the way most mysteries do.

      1. A lot of long running mystery series struggle with problems like that, but it’s a little surprising to see an author run into it after a mere 9 books.

    1. Btw, Christie at one time or another violates at least 3 of Carr’s personal rules, e.g.
      1) The narrator being the murderer
      2) The murderer is the first person suspected
      3) A murder committed by many people
      Overall, I prefer Christie over Carr, at least for novel length stories.

      1. And he acknowledges all of that in the essay, both that great writers can and have broken the maxims he lists, and that Christie has done so. I prefer Christie to Carr as well, and I’d be hard pressed to think of any enthusiast I’ve encountered, online or IRL, whose prejudices ran the other way, but let’s be fair to his essay here: he’s saying he feels that these are personal preferences on his part, and to some extent advice to the n00b to avoid overextending themselves.

        1. Carr’s best can stand beside Christie for ingenuity and fair play, and often beat her on atmosphere. But he’s not as consistent. I don’t think anyone is. Jane Haddam, one of my favorite moderns, has a few brilliant stories, and some that just don’t stand up well.

          And don’t forget Erle Stanley Gardiner. His characters are chipboard and their voices (oops) masonite, but his plot work is maraging steel.

          1. For me, the Perry Mason novels are “comfort food” – quick reads, not requiring a lot of thought. They’re way more formulistic than Christie, but do have their own charm.

            ESG also wrote two other series, Cool & Lam (under his A.A. Fair pen name; 27 books) and the D.A. series (6 books IIRC), so he wrote from the point of view of the prosecutor, the defense, and private detectives. My favorite is Cool & Lam; Lam is a fun character, they’re not as cardboard, and you learn fun things like how to salt a gold mine and how to cheat a mechanical slot machine.

  4. I bought the Nick and Nora mysteries for my wife. Nick is a cat who seems to be the reincarnation of a PI, and Nora is a retired crime reporter from Chicago who took over her late mother’s bakery. I’ll skip the author’s name to protect the guilty.

    $SPOUSE sort of liked the novels, but I found problems; the cozy/craft/supernatural mixture was confusing, and the first novel in the series accidentally changed the prime suspect’s surname in the middle of the book. No reason, it just changed. Shortly after that, I skipped to the end to see whodunit, and deleted the entire series from my Kindle.

    TL;DR It’s possible to intertwine subgenres, but the above example looks like a Horrible Example. It also shows that an editor can be useful…

    OTOH, the Kurak County mysteries (George Collord) are good procedurals, featuring a retired LA homicide detective who becomes a deputy in very northern California. (Fictional county name, but comprising much of Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Those who know the area will recognize much of it.) Both of us like his work. Hmm, a third book came out, but the ‘zon forgot to tell me. Just bought it.

  5. Was watching a retrospective on the game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and one of the things that struck the reviewer was, even though the main character is a Man at Arms, just how much of the story and side quests are the medieval version of a police procedural.

    Generally something has disturbed the expected order, the main character walks around and asks people questions, decides what to do about it and deals with it under his authority from the local ruler.

    It is not as rigid as the police procedural because there is no formal legal code or formal process to follow, yet it still follows the same sort of form because it’s still a very effective way to investigate things.

    1. When I was watching the French procedural series Murder In… with family members, we dubbed this “shaking the tree to see what falls out.”

    2. There are several series, besides Brother Cadfael and the early Lindsey Davis’ M. D. Falco books, where the story slides into police procedural. You do have to be aware of the laws of the time, and what limits were per social group, if that applies. Things like sanitation also change things – how do you determine if someone was poisoned in a world where food safety and cleanliness had different standards for most people?

      1. And there’s always the danger that the author slips up. . . the Brother Cadfael has two serious bloopers. One is that anyone can baptize a baby, and it was in fact a midwife’s job to do so if the baby is dying. So, she would not send for the priest, and the priest would not be blamed for not showing up in time. The other is the presence of a priest was not yet required for a valid marriage (presuming he can be obtained in time — it’s still not required if either person is in danger of death, or getting one would be unreasonably long).

        1. Okay, baptizing is from The Raven in the Foregate but I can’t remember where having a priest for a marriage matters … unless you are talking about a situation like Torold Blund and Godfrith (?) in One Corpse Too Many?

          1. The one where the boy was kidnapped and the kidnapper was trying to marry him off to a woman rather his elder, against her will, too.

  6. You could do a lot worse than simply re-reading all of Agatha Christie’s novels, including the standalones. I had to read or reread them for the Agatha Christie movie project (watching 200+ films) and her range is amazing.

    Romantic suspense? Check. Nihilism where the victims never learn whodunnit and neither do the police? Check. First person narrator who lies from the first sentence? Check. Spy thrillers? Check. They all did it? Check. They all covered it up? Check. Suicide, accidental death, and murder but which is which? Check. Garden-variety motive hidden behind a fake serial killer? Check. P.G. Wodehouse mashed up with John Buchan-style thrillers? Check. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Check.

    And people claim she wrote cozies. She didn’t!

    1. I can’t remember Christie writing a hard boiled Chandler/Hammet story.

      One of my favorite Christie books is Partners in Crime, where Tommy and Tuppence solve a variety of mysteries in the style of various fictional detectives of the time — some of still remembered, and some basically forgotten.

      1. No, she never wrote in that style. She didn’t do police procedurals either, although some of her novels have been turned into police procedurals on film. Some successful, some not.

    2. Cozies are rather a descendent of the most common and fondly remembered of the things she wrote, with a dose of anti-male-detective discrimination (j/k) to gatekeep the Poirots out.

      1. A very distant descendent! Cozies rarely feature child murders or having a child doing the murdering.

        1. “Rarely” would also be a good summary of how often Christie does either of those things. I can think of one of each off-hand, plus one with the child as the person who didn’t do it but someone else who thinks the child did is mistakenly trying to shield.

          1. When Agatha published “Crooked House” in 1949, her publisher was horrified and asked her to change the ending from the child murderer to anyone else.

            She refused.

            She rarely killed children (Hallowe’en Party got two) but she also killed teenage girls (Dead Man’s Folly). There’s also substantial, implied emotional child abuse in Appointment with Death. Ordeal by Innocence has another monster mother and emotionally battered children.

            The Duchess of Malfi shows up strongly in Sleeping Murder. The incest between Dr. Kennedy and his much younger half-sister is there if you want it. Helen had good reason to be afraid of him. Of the film versions (I’ve seen four to date) the French Little Murders (Season One) turned it into a police procedural and ramped up the incest angle.

            1. Wasn’t denying that she did any of that, just saying that it’s a minority of her work, and not the most widely imitated cross-section.

              If you’re looking for edgier craft/cozies, the early Goldie Bear novels deal with victims of abuse.

            2. The family members with the MHZ Choice account strongly dislike the OG Little Murders (the one actually set in 20s-30s) and prefer the midcentury-set spinoff with the cool car and the mostly second-tier mysteries (called Criminal Games in English), so I can’t speak to the Little Murders adaptation of Sleeping Murder.

              1. I don’t get out much so forgive me for sounding like an idiot.
                What is “MHZ Choice?” And OG Little Murders?

                If you mean Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie, I vastly prefer Season one, set in 1935/1936 to Season two (about 1959 – 1963) which paid virtually no attention to the plots past a one or two-sentence synopsis.
                I’ve not seen Season three (a seventies setting) as they don’t use Agatha’s stories at all and they’re not available with English subtitles anyway. Not yet.

                If you want a completely different police procedural, look for the contemporary Japanese versions. We’ve been able to get two (The Mirror Crack’d and And Then There Were None) with English subtitles.

                1. MHZ Choice is a streaming service in the US for predominantly mystery/tourism series from predominantly Europe. I am only familiar with it through group watching with members of extended family who have an account. It streams the first two versions/seasons/series of Les Petits Meurtres, among other things.

                  The second version/season/series seemed to be hit and miss in terms of fidelity to the source material. The Third Girl is unrecognizable (but was probably her worst book to start with), while Dumb Witness got a bad deal, and Halloween Party, Why Don’t They Ask Evans, Sparkling Cyanide, A Murder is Announced, struck me as um, “creative” in spots but retaining the underlying clues and twists fairly well. Cards on the Table was pretty loosey-goosey but annoyed me less than the Suchet version.

                  1. Thank you!
                    I’ll tell Bill about MHZ Choice for our upcoming project when we’re done with all the films of Agatha Christie. After a break, we’ll move onto mystery movies. But not just any mystery movies: The Godfather is NOT a mystery! Clue is a mystery.

                    I had the same impression of Les Petits Meurtres. Season One stayed recognizably close to Agatha’s plots, even with all the changes. Season Two largely tossed her plots overboard.

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