This week: The Mystery of MysteriesEdited by: Jayngle Bells
More Newsletters By This Editor
1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions
Today's Mystery Crumb: Despite never winning an Oscar for Best Director, Alfred Hitchcock is “the master of suspense”. When asked about the mystery elements of his movies, he replied,
“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense’ — and the two things are actually miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunnit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.”
As Hitchcock pointed out in the above quote, mystery withholds information from the reader, forcing them to ask questions and piece together plot lines through clues and crumbs the author leaves behind. In order to get the audience to invest in solving the puzzle, they must have an affinity to something or someone in the story. To provoke that attachment, a writer creates suspense by sharing information, piquing the reader’s curiosity, confounding their prior understanding of the whodunnit question, and driving them to search for more clues. How much suspense, and how the author shares information, helps set different genres apart. For a quick overview of the mystery, crime, and thriller genres, check out my previous newsletter "Mystery Newsletter (March 3, 2021)" .
Having established that all mysteries contain suspense elements, how do you know what the audience's expectations are for each mystery subgenre? Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are more subgenres than I mention here. It’s a rule of modern life we can’t escape—if you can dream it up, there’s an audience for it. We’re sticking with the major subgenres of true mystery.
Common Mystery Elements
Mysteries have general traits weaving the stories together, regardless of the subgenre. Once those basic criteria are met, an author has plenty of freedom to throw in elements from across the spectrum. The addition of romances, fantasy elements, changes in location or time, you name it, are fair game. Why can’t a pack of werewolves try to solve a whodunnit?
The overlapping pieces of a mystery are:
A crime (usually murder) and an unknown killer.
A protagonist sleuth, with an acceptable moral compass, belief in justice, empathy, smarts, and who values the psychology over the actual crime.
A villain who may or may not deliberately be on the wrong side of the law. They may have accidently committed the crime, but will go to the same lengths to cover it up as a villain who intended to do it.
A puzzle in the plot, challenging the reader to search for clues and connect the dots. Some clues are obvious, others are not.
A cover-up, as the killer tries to implicate others or exonerate themselves.
A cover-up creates red herrings, false leads, gaps in reader knowledge, and leads to...
A variety of suspects, exonerated along the way as the sleuth uncovers evidence.
A just resolution, and the apprehension of the suspect.
Once these major points are in place, it’s up to you to decide which direction to take your story.
The Cozy Mystery
These are the tamest of the mysteries, and except for a murder taking place, are nearly family-friendly material. Graphic details are non-existent, the setting is usually somewhere quaint and ‘homey’, and because of this, such crimes are shocking to the sleepy communities they involve. Despite this, the reader never feels uneasy with the content.
The sleuth is almost always an amateur, highly likeable, smart, and idyllic in their behaviours, language and interactions. Villains can be bristling, but never crass. The crime is intriguing, and the motives unique or unexpected. Authors must also take great care to keep their own language and style endearing, though it can vary from crisp and clean to downright sweet.
Titles range in style from books like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to M.C. Beaton’s The Quiche of Death. Also falling within this category are cozy paranormal mysteries, whether proven fake (think Scooby-Doo) or real, like Baily Cate’s Brownies and Broomsticks. Even within a soft, friendly subgenre, there’s plenty of room for your own spin!
The Hard-Boiled Mystery
The true origins of the term “hard-boiled” are disputed due to a winding history of the phrase, but for our purposes it originated with Dashiell Hammett (of Sam Spade fame) and the notion that a hard-boiled egg is hard to break. The character is a tough cop or private investigator, hardened by experience, and is emotionally distant, fed up with the world, or even bitter. They tend to be more ‘street-smart’ than ‘book-smart’. So, yes, to answer your burning question, hard-boiled mysteries share some similar characteristics with crime fiction.
This style requires the protagonist to hold on to his humanity—to see the terrible side of human nature, but are not themselves terrible. The hero still believes in and seeks justice, and the endings, while tidy in execution, usually harken back to the hero’s view of a damaged society.
The writing should be crisp and sharp, with realistic crimes and accurate representations of criminal investigations. In addition to Hammett's Sam Spade, Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins fits here, as does Dennis Lehane's Kenzie & Gennaro series.
Hard-boiled does have a softer sibling, appropriately named 'Soft-Boiled'. It catches the detective series which don't rely on explicit violence or sex, but are too graphic (or wrong in tone) to fit into the cozy genre. Sue Grafton's work falls into this category.
The Police Procedural
Sharing most of the traits of the hard-boiled, the protagonist is a police officer or an entire unit of police officers. This style depicts the real-life world of cops, from the details of paperwork, to politics, to procedures, and even media relations.
Stuart MacBride's Close to the Bone fits here, as does J.D. Robb's In Death work.
Medical, Scientific, or Forensic Mystery
Similar to the police procedural, with protagonists specializing in one of the mentioned fields replacing the cops. It requires and uses extensive knowledge about medical terms and practices, and focuses on analyzing data and using that data to find anomalies, which generate additional clues and eliminates/implicates suspects. It doesn’t mean all the action takes place in the lab—but the scientific component is the major concept of the story.
Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan is a forensic example, and Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta also relies on scientific analysis.
This one can easily go either way and be a crime story or a mystery, depending on whether the reader knows if the person on trial is guilty or innocent. Provided they don’t know, and they’re following a whodunnit formula, the mystery is like other procedurals, but focuses on the intricate details of courtroom occurrences and legal case-building.
If the reader does know the killer is guilty, there isn’t a “whodunnit”. There may be legal wrangling to get the criminal the elusive ‘not-guilty’ verdict, but it’s not the same.
If the reader knows, or believes, the accused is innocent, you may well have a whodunnit on your hands - and your legal eagle may do a whole lot of work outside the courtroom.
John Grisham has a lock on the legal procedural, but there's plenty of other examples.
Remember: knowing how the subgenres work can help you tailor your writing to your audience’s expectations while remaining true to the story you want to write. Can your lawyer appear in a cozy mystery? They might, if they behave like a character who’s expected to be in a cozy mystery.
What about a hard-boiled cop in a cozy? Probably not as a principal character in his/her current state. He/she’d be out of place and your reader would know it. Now, if he/she was retired, softened a bit, and trying to live out a quaint life in a sleepy town, you might have a cozy character on your hands. They may not be protagonist material - but they’d at least fit in to the narrative.
The reverse is also true. If you try to fit a cozy character into a hard-boiled mystery, they’re likely to come across as weak, flat, and out of their element to the point of being unbelievable. It will most likely irritate your readers. Of course, if you want a softer tone, that's where the notion of 'soft-boiled' comes in, in case things weren't complicated enough.
It’s okay - great, even - to surprise your readers with new concepts in steady-handed genres. Just make sure you keep the audience’s base expectations in the forefront. They are, after all, the ones who keep you in business.
Looking for a somewhere to practice your mystery skills?
Don't forget to nominate great work!
Submit an item for consideration in this newsletter!
Have an opinion on what you've read here today? Then send the Editor feedback! Find an item that you think would be perfect for showcasing here? Submit it for consideration in the newsletter!
Don't forget to support our sponsor!
Do you enjoy any of the mystery subgenres? Who's your favourite mystery author?
To stop receiving this newsletter, click here for your newsletter subscription list. Simply uncheck the box next to any newsletter(s) you wish to cancel and then click to "Submit Changes". You can edit your subscriptions at any time.