What Makes a Good Mystery?

As with any kind of writing, in order to be a decent mystery writer you have to also read mysteries. My nose is often buried in a book during my off hours. Right now I’m working through Victoria Laurie’s Ghost Hunter Mysteries and I’ll soon pick up the second Bubbles Yablonsky book from Sarah Strohmeyer (so far two very well-paced series). I recently finished all books available, other than the one just released, in both mystery series from Elaine Viets.

You can probably see a trend here. When it comes to most mysteries I tend to enjoy quick reads I can devour after a long day. I gravitate toward female protagonists. And I like my murder with a dash of laughs. That is the kind of mystery I hope to write. As I work through that process I find myself often thinking about the work from these three authors — what I loved about the books, what made me cringe a bit, and what I might want to do differently. I hope you’ll humor me as I share a few of those thoughts.

Things That Make a Good Mystery

  • I think pacing is probably the most important difference between mystery novels I love and ones I can’t even bring myself to finish (had one of those recently, but I’ll spare the author). This is where Sarah Strohmeyer really shines with her first Bubbles Yablonsky book, and I hope for more of the same in the rest of them waiting for me on my bookshelf. It’s that “can’t put it down” factor when the protagonist is constantly thrown into another situation that, as a reader, I just have to see through to the end.
  • While I know this is a very personal preference, I find that as a reader shorter chapters work very well in mysteries. I mentioned this to a colleague recently and she had a different perspective. Wouldn’t longer chapters make you get through the novel faster, she wanted to know? For some people, perhaps. But not for me. I do most of my reading before bed. And faced with 25-30 page chapters, when I finish one I’m likely to put the book down for fear that I’ll doze off in the middle of the next. With shorter chapters I tend to keep on saying “just one more.” I can get through several times the amount of reading that way. I’m one of those readers who likes to stop at chapter points — not in between. So longer chapters make me feel like I’m being held hostage once I start them. And the breaks while I check how the long the next chapter is each time take me out of the story. So short chapters are a must for me as a writer because they’re desirable to me as a reader.
  • If there’s one thing that drives me crazy when I’m reading a mystery, it’s figuring out who the culprit is early in the book. It infuriates me. An ideal mystery in my opinion is one that gives you enough information to guess correctly by the end, but also one that can surprise you. I want to feel like I know who it is with absolute certainty. Then I want to learn something new that makes me point the finger at someone else instead, with that same certainty. If a book doesn’t leave me with at least two plausible suspects in those last few chapters, the ending is often unsatisfying. That’s not to say it should be impossible. Readers should know what the sleuth knows without having last minute monkey wrenches thrown into their theories. But I want that little bit of doubt in my mind, even when I think I know whodunit. That’s something I’ll work hard to achieve in the new books.

Whether you’re a mystery writer or simply a fan of mystery novels, what makes you love or hate a book? Do you want to be able to solve the mystery? Do you want to be taken by surprise? Can you suffer through a snoozefest? Do you want your mysteries action-packed? Or do you prefer them to fall somewhere in between? Leave a comment and tell me what you think makes a good mystery.

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