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Dec 21, 2010

The Three Biggest Mistakes to Avoid in the Mystery Genre

In a dream, I received the answer to the problem with my Nano novel (Xenophile): make it a mystery. It's hard sf, and a lot of the issues I want to explore in this series are pretty esoteric, and I was looking for a way for readers to connect with the characters on some familiar ground to make the harder sf elements easier to swallow. I decided that making them a detective/law enforcement team for hire out on the frontier of human settlements could be a good way to go.

I've been reading and watching more Mystery lately. All the subgenres. Police procedural, cozy, thriller, science fiction, history. Gee, this is great stuff, I thought. Why don't I enjoy mystery stories more often?

Then I tripped over a story that made me want to throw things, and I remembered. Oh, yeah. That's why.

The number one problem with the mystery genre? The entire genre. Yes, I'm going there!

The number one problem with the mystery genre is caused by trying to avoid the number two problem. The number two problem is caused by the number three problem. So let's go over them in reverse order:

3. The murderer comes out of nowhere.
This is a noob mistake, right? You can't have four suspects through-out the story and then suddenly pull a fifth suspect, a character the reader has never even heard about, out of the hat in the final scene. The problem is that if you bring all the suspects on stage, you run into the Problem#2.

2. It's really obvious who the murderer is.
When I lived in Africa, there was only one channel on TV, and even that channel only aired shows a few hours a day, mostly old re-runs of oddly chosen foreign series. One of the shows was a West German detective show. It was great to watch, because, unlike with American shows, I could never predict who the murderer would be. After a number of episodes, though, that changed. Pretty soon, I could predict which suspect would be guilty with fair regularity. (The murderer was usually a jobless young man, whose motive was always greed.)

With American mysteries, especially on TV, a lot of candidates can be eliminated based on politically correct stereotypes. If a poor, black man is accused of committing the murder to get drugs and an old, white Senator with a Southern accent is accused of doing it to cover up an arms deal, you can bet it's going to be the Senator.

Most people would say that writing an obvious murderer is the biggest mistake a mystery writer can make. But I think there is something worse.

1. The murderer is absurd.
To me, the biggest mistake a writer can make is to distort the characters for the sake of being unexpected. Credibility is sacrificed to surprise.

Myster writers have pulled off genre-changing surprises. All sorts of creative ideas have been tried. "The butler did it!" was at some point, new. Everyone did it; no one did it (the death was faked); the detective himself was the murderer! And so on.

That's fine, as long as the writer has paid their dues and planted their clues throughout the story. But you can't just explain a motive into existence. Sure, if you have two suspects, and one is an angry young man and the other is a sweet old grandma, you can write your story giving the young man an alibi and the grandma an extreme jealousy of her knitting partner's Christmas cookie recipe. But that is not going to convince me grandma would poke her partner through the eye with a knitting needle. Because, in real life, angry young men commit the majority of violent crimes, whereas jealous grandmas just bitch on the phone to their granddaughters (oh, do they), and I need more than a writer's need for a surprise ending to convince me otherwise.

Oh, but it gets worse. Mysteries are usually written in series. I'm willing to suspend disbelief about the number of times a sleuth can encounter murderers, even serial killers (though they aren't actually that common), the number of times a sleuth can be shot and survive with no discernible long-term health issues, the number of times the sleuth can innocently date the murderer before she realizes his true nature while thinking deeply on the matter tied up in the trunk of his car.

But what I cannot forgive is when the writer takes a major supporting character, who, up until now has shown every sign of being endearingly quirky but in no way murderous, and suddenly makes that person the murderer in the latest case. For the sake of surprise. The old "Watson is really Moriarty!" trick. Right. That is surprising. But it's also stupid. Because crap like that happens only in mysteries.

That's not say that major characters can't be suspects or murderers. But don't confuse motive with character. Someone can have amble motive to murder, yet to murder would be a violation of their character. I would rather guess the murderer in a mystery before then end, but be kept guessing about how the characters will deal with it than sacrifice characters for a cheap twist.


C. N. Nevets said...

I could quibble in the details of some of that, and with the suggestion that it's only the mystery genre that writes stupid stuff just for the sake of it being unexpected, but given the preponderance of bad mysteries out there, I won't bother.

What I will say is that the your last paragraph gets to the thing that I struggle with in mysteries, especially in cozies.

Killing someone is a big deal.

Most people don't kill someone because they were stung in a business deal, or their feelings were hurt, or they were afraid of being exposed as an adulterer.

Those things to happen, yes.

But they account for such a small percentage of actual murders that it's crazy.

Also, murders without any witnesses or pretty obvious leads are surprisingly rare.

I get that in fiction you stretch the truth to make a good story, so I don't begrudge the genre these things, but it does make it harder for me to click with after having working the lab.

Unknown said...

Writing a near-novel-length murder mystery was the most educational writing exercise I've ever done. Mystery seems to just make general writing techniques more obvious -- in any story, the plot twists need to be set up, and the characters need to be believable even if their scenario isn't quite realistic. Bad story mechanics are bad story mechanics, but a bad mystery tends to be really obvious about which cogs aren't working.

Tara Maya said...

@ Nevets. I made some rather sweeping remarks, so I understand there's a lot that is quibble-worthy.

In the majority of murders, the most obvious suspect *is* the guilty party, so obviously mysteries aren't going to deal with average murders. I get that.

Research on homicide shows that the majority of people have *fantasized* about murdering someone. Even then, primal passions are more likely to lead to murder fantasies than ordinary daily frustrations.

@Heidi. I agree. It's a great genre for stretching your skills at characterization and plotting.

My rant was not meant to condemn the entire genre. Ironically, my frustration came because I've been enjoying the genre a lot lately.

Unknown said...

It's okay, I get what you mean. Liking a genre only makes it more frustrating to see stories executed poorly.