Category Archives: mystery genre

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.

Types of writing: Mystery genre

A mystery (sometimes called a detective or crime novel) focuses on an individual, usually a detective, who solves a crime, often a murder.  Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first to write such stories, and from his first name comes the Edgar Awards, given annually to the best examples of this genre.  This genre has several common elements.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Often the crime happens before the novel opens.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (using the pen name of Robert Galbraith), the murder (or is it a suicide?) happens minutes before the opening scene in which the police and medical examiner investigate the corpse.  In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the murders happen as the book progresses, after characters and setting are established in the readers’ minds.  Either way, we readers do not usually develop an emotional connection to the victim.

If the crime begins the story, the next chapter introduces the detective, interrupted while living his usual life.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple might be knitting with a friend, or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow might be drinking in a favorite bar.  Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley might be heading to his estate for a family gathering.

The detective-protagonist is proactive:  looking for clues, meeting with suspects, talking to the police, and facing danger.  He often reaches a low point well into the story from which he emerges a better person.  Sherlock Holmes is a damaged protagonist—a drug addict.  Philip Marlow is an undiagnosed alcoholic and chain smoker.  Such character flaws make the detective more realistic.

Sometimes the detective has a side kick.  Dr. Watson is Holmes’.  Sergeant Barbara Havers is Lynley’s.  But many detectives, like Hercule Poirot, work alone.

The antagonist is the killer, but since we don’t know who he/she is, almost all the characters are antagonists whose alibis, means and motives need to be studied.  Sometimes a character whom we assume to be innocent turns out to be the killer, making for a clever twist at the end.  The antagonist must be cunning, resourceful, and indefatigable—the same characteristics as the detective, so their battle of wits, like Holmes’ and Moriarty’s, seems matched.

Suspense is important to sustain reader interest.  So is foreshadowing and surprise.  Many times the detective finds himself or herself in danger.  Evidence is revealed little by little, asking the reader to infer what each clue might mean.  Some true clues are brushed over while red herrings are traced to their dead ends.

Many mysteries put a cast of characters in a closed off situation—on a train or on an island—so we know one of them has to be the murderer.  P.D. James used this strategy as did Agatha Christie.  Other writers, like Raymond Chandler, don’t close off characters physically, but motive or opportunity limits the likely suspects.  Picturing the setting is important, and writers describe in great detail where rooms or items within rooms are located.

The fun of this genre is trying to solve the murder before the detective identifies the murderer.  Satisfaction also comes from appreciating the fine mind of the detective as he explains how he (or she) solved the crime.