A mystery is about getting to the truth of something, or a version of the truth that we can stomach. It’s what has held us captivated for years – this idea of truth. It’s why we’re drawn to Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer or Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
We want to know why someone will commit a crime or murder someone in cold blood. And writers like Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe took that need for the truth and turned them into these wonderfully complex tales that we call mysteries.
Not all mysteries are the same, and many subgenres cover the different kinds of truths out there. And that’s what we’re going to look at today – mysteries. Let’s look into what a mystery is, it’s history, and how to write one.
What is Mystery
Before we go any deeper, let’s look into our definition of a mystery.
Mystery: a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.
In a standard mystery, the solution is gradually revealed by the protagonist’s investigative process. This is accomplished through a mixture of intelligence, ingenuity, the logical interpretation of evidence, and sometimes sheer luck.
And no two mysteries are alike. The genre has fractured into various genres and subgenres.
According to TV Tropes, there are seven types of mystery subgenres. Each category has its own tropes, character types, and ways of solving the crime. Here are those seven subgenres:
Please note that I did not include thrillers and their respective subcategories in this list.
The amateur sleuth is a character with no formal law enforcement training or associations. However, they like to regularly stumble into situations where a murder or crime needs to be solved. They aren’t paid for their crime-solving habit.
Examples include Portrait of a Dead Guy by Larissa Reinhart and The Midwife Murders by James Patterson.
A cozy mystery usually features amateur female detectives that live in a small, socially intimate community. The female detective can also be an older lady.
These women are typically well-educated, intuitive, and often hold jobs that bring them into constant contact with other residents of their town and the surrounding region. Sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and these tales may contain paranormal elements.
Examples include The Murder at the Vicarage and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.
The Great Detective is what comes to mind when we think of a mystery novel. This classic hero relies on their powers of deduction, education, and insight to solve crimes.
Examples include Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
The hard-boiled detective is a tough, cynical guy with a gun and a significant helping of street smarts. He likes to solve his crimes with dogged persistence rather than astounding insight.
He’s America’s version of the great detective. He’s dark, edgy, and doesn’t always play by the rules. The hard-boiled detective often lurks in the black and white medium associated with film noir.
Examples include The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and Drive by James Sallis.
Historical Detective Fiction
The subgenre is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a mystery novel that takes place in the past.
Examples include A Deadly Brew by Susanna Gregory and Two for the Lions by Lindsey Davis.
This subgenre likes to put the fiction into mystery fiction and tends to be less realistic than the others. These stories are based on the investigation of actual or alleged paranormal activity.
Examples include Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire and Storm Front by Jim Butcher.
The police procedural is a cousin to the hard-boiled detective, with the unit or precinct taking over for the lone cop. The emphasis is on realistic or at least semi-realistic depictions of modern police investigative techniques.
Examples include Shadows in Death by J. D. Robb and My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni.
There are many tropes associated with the mystery genre. Thankfully, Fandom Wiki has collected all of them for us. I won’t go into all of them but I did come up with this infographic that outline the six most popular tropes:
A Brief History of Mystery
Mysteries are not an alien concept to most human civilizations throughout history. However, they mostly dealt with the supernatural and folklore tales of old and true crime accounts. And it isn’t until the rise of the Gothic novel that we start to see the origins of this genre.
According to Britannica, Harry Walpole’s story Castle of Otranto (1765), is credited with founding the mystery and horror genres. However, it isn’t until William Godwin publishes The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) that we start to the precursor to the classic crime novels we all love and know.
True Crime Roots
As mentioned above, mysteries got their roots in the true crime genre before any other influences emerged. And here’s why:
By the sixteenth century, British readers already had a taste for true crime, which was satiated with broadsides, chapbooks, and pamphlets. It was common for printers to publish brief (often highly sensationalized) accounts of criminals’ transgressions and confessions. These were frequently distributed to spectators at the criminals’ executions.
Meanwhile, the City of London and the County of Middlesex Sessions Papers were published eight times per year. These papers detailed all the latest trials. The Ordinary (or chaplain) of Newgate would also publish his own accounts of criminals’ last hours, usually focusing on the state of their souls. In the popular press, The Mirror for Magistrates, which recounts the downfall of famous people in a series of poems, remained a bestseller throughout Queen Elizabeth’s reign.Books Tell You Why
In the following century, interest in true crime accounts fell because the upper class thought it was unsuitable for genteel readers.
The 18th Century & Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe brought new life to the genre in the eighteenth century by redefining what the truth meant. He did this by penning fictional letters from criminals and included them in their lives’ biographical accounts. It gave him an edge over other biographers of his time.
Defoe initially did this for the real pirate Captain Avery in his book King of Pirates (1719). A few years later, he wrote A General History of Pirates (1724 and 1728), which contains about 30 biographies of real-life pirates, alongside at least one wholly fabricated character. He doesn’t distinguish between the real and the invented.
He used a similar technique with his biography of Jack Sheppard, the criminal who escaped the death-cells at both New Prison and Newgate. Defoe’s first biography was the standard short pamphlet. But after Sheppard’s final capture, a sensational account appeared, allegedly written by the criminal. However, the second account wasn’t based in reality.
Defoe’s willingness to play with the boundaries of truth have heavily influenced the genre.
The Literary Detective Walks In
Before the end of the eighteenth century, most writers focused on the criminal and treated him as an anti-hero. At the turn of the century, though, people started to turn their attention to the detectives.
The last criminal-focused book was the reason for this shift. Between 1828 and 1829, French criminal Francois Eugene Vidocq published Memories, a memoir about his exploits. In the book, Vidocq tells the story about how he repented and became a police informant, eventually coming to hold the post of Chef de la Surete.
The book influenced authors like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac and marked a new era for the crime novel. One where the protagonist is not a criminal, but a detective or other agent of the law.
However, Europe didn’t officially invent the detective novel – it was the US. Edgar Allan Poe created Auguste C. Dupin in “The Murders on the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and introduced the “locked room” trope. Due to its success, Poe continued Dupin’s exploits in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). With these tales, Poe was the first author to focus on the workings of the criminal mind.
Poe owes much of his success to Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Dickens wove mystery and suspense into novels like Bleak House (1853), and Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Collins wrote The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which many consider the first true English detective novel.
In 1878, Anna Katherine Green became the first woman to write a detective novel with The Leavenworth Case. Green introduced the elements of detection, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Doyle was the first to turn solving crimes into a science.
The Golden Age
By the 1920s, the British mystery novel had attained unprecedented popularity. They were set in small villages, with heroes who hailed from faintly aristocratic families. Exotic poisons or expensive letter openers were the weapons of choice, and there were plenty of red herrings to throw off the investigator. Despite their rather formulaic nature, readers loved them.
The Golden Age refers not only to a period but also to a specific mystery story style, which was wielded majestically by Agatha Christie. She brought legendary detective Hercule Poirot to life in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920).
The Hard-Boiled Detective
Britain wasn’t the only one experiencing a mystery boom.
In 1920, author H. L. Mencken and critic George Jean Nathan launched Black Mask magazine. Initially dedicated to all kinds of adventure stories, the magazine eventually published only detective stories. It was on these pages that the hard-boiled detective story emerged.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were frequent magazine contributors, and Eric Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, got his start in Black Mask. Perry Mason appeared in numerous novels, films, and a television series that ran for ten seasons.
The 1940s to Present
In the 1940s, mysteries took a new turn, first with the police procedural, a subgenre that focuses on the police’s perspective. In 1947, Mickey Spillane published I the Jury, featuring the notorious detective Mike Hammer. Though Spillane’s gritty, violent stories got unenthusiastic reviews from critics, the public loved them.
Mystery novels also began to make their way into children’s literature. Many series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys followed variations on the English country house murder school formula.
Today, the mystery genre is still thriving. Authors like Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, P. D. James, Stieg Larsson, and Dick Francis have added to the genre and continue to make us question what is real and what isn’t.
How to Write a Mystery
Writing a good mystery is similar to creating a good puzzle. You’ll need careful planning and presentation to develop a gripping page-turner that keeps your audience guessing all the way through.
And to do that, I have some basic ground rules that you’ll want to follow:
Read Other Mysteries
This rule applies to any book you’re writing, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. You will only find out what readers like by reading other published novels. The same logic applies to tropes, pacing, characterization, etc.
And you need to pay attention to subgenres as well. A cozy mystery is entirely different than a hard-boiled detective novel.
So when you’re reading other novels, keep a note-taking device on hand. Jot down notes on everything craft-related. It’ll help you write your own story when you get to that point.
Do you need a few recommendations? The NY Book Editors have you covered with a few must-reads that include authors such as Agatha Christie, Wilkie Collins, and Dashiell Hammett.
Do Your Research
This tip goes hand-in-hand with killing your characters; you’ll have to do some research.
What’s entailed in this research? Well, it involves looking into all the different ways you can kill someone, how long it takes, and what weapons are at your disposal. The same thing goes for courtroom and police procedurals.
So make friends with your local police department, and put in the hours at the library. If you get any of the technical details wrong, readers will notice and lose confidence in your writing.
The 5 W’s are a Mystery Must-Have
Not all mysteries have a crime, but about 99 percent of them do. From caper to noir to amateur sleuth, most mysteries begin with a crime (which could be bloodless) and ends with the answers to who, what, why, where, when, and how.
And this all has to do with understanding your crime. You need to know who the criminal is, what crime they committed, why they’ve done it, where and when it occurred, and how it was executed.
This is the basis for your story. You need to know the basics of this before you can start developing your tale.
Make a List of Clues, Evidence, and Red Herrings
You’ve got your five W’s down, and now you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to unravel the mystery for your readers. You can’t be too blunt with your clues because it’ll give your ending away, and we don’t want that.
It is why red herrings were invented. Red herrings allow us to misdirect our reader’s attention from the real clues we’re giving them. When done effectively, we get an “I should’ve known that!” type of response. If done poorly, we end up with a pile of annoyed reader goo.
How do you keep all of this straight? I would make a list of the real clues and the red herrings to help you keep things straight and plug them into the appropriate spots in your manuscript.
Ideas to Try
Here are some clue ideas:
- Physical items the victim left behind – letters, notes, notebooks, emails, text messages, etc.
- Dialogue with suspects – voicemail recordings, conversations with the detective, or overheard conversations. Even hearsay and gossip can be clues.
- Background – cultural paradigms in the victim’s world. It could be anything from the gambling underworld to flower shows, dog breeding, sculling, deep water diving, spiritual cults, etc.
Here are some examples of red herrings:
- An innocent character has a strong motive to kill the victim, such as jealousy, envy, a debt unpaid, or a stolen wife or girlfriend.
- A character appears to have committed the murder. For example, the suspect was nearby, has no alibi, was scheduled to meet the victim, or saw them leave the crime scene.
- An object appears to incriminate a suspect. For example, an earring on the floor matches a suspect’s earrings.
- A clue that presents conflicting evidence. As your sleuth follows a conflicting red herring, he discovers the first clue is valid.
Create Interesting Characters for Your Mystery
And our characters shouldn’t be forgotten, so please carve out some time for character development. Characters are everything to any novel because they give our readers someone to go on a journey with, which means you typically want a likable companion.
Oh, and you need to create a bunch of characters. Why? Because you need a list of suspects. You’re not creating a cat-and-mouse game here (leave that to the thrillers), so make sure you introduce a few characters that all have great motives for committing the crime.
Settings Aren’t Just Places in a Mystery
No matter where you set your story, use the natural atmosphere and attributes to enhance action and intrigue. The contrast of dastardly deeds happening in unlikely spaces can improve the sense of danger. Moving between interesting locations where vital plot points take place can make a mystery novel all the more gripping.
The mystery genre is so multifaceted that it can be hard to figure out where to begin, but as long as you know you’re ending, you should be fine. The rest can be planned out in advance or made up as you write.
Just remember to create round, dynamic characters and a vibrant setting for them to navigate as your characters search for the truth. But don’t make it too easy for them, and throw some red herrings across their path.
If you can do all this and wrap it up neatly at the end, you’ll have a story readers will love. All that’s left is to take an infamous parting line and re-frame it as my own, so in the words of Sherlock Holmes:
“And that, my dear Watson, is how you write a mystery.”
What is your favorite mystery novel? Who do you think is the best mystery writer? Are there any subgenres you’d like me to cover in a future post? Please let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.