Mystery mystery

In my first post I mentioned that I’m working on a book. I’m maybe halfway through, pagewise. It’s a mystery. I’ve never written a mystery before, and I’m confused about everything (often my state in the middle of a book). Although I’m almost certain what the crime is, I’m not sure who committed it, and I have no idea how my main character is going to solve it. When I’ve introduced new characters, I’ve been misleading about who is good and who is evil, and I’ve misled myself as well!

My only certainty is that writing is magical and if I muddle along, tossing in this and that, the pieces will settle into place, little by little. I imagine myself in the ocean, bobbing along in a bathtub-style boat. I have no engine, no sail, just pitifully small oars. There will be storms and close calls, but eventually rowing and the current will lap me to the shore of the island called The End.

So my confusion isn’t the subject of this blog. The subject is how to keep the reader reading when the main character, the sleuth, isn’t at the heart of the action.

I asked my friend, young-adult author Suzanne Fisher Staples how she did it in her mystery Dangerous Skies. The narrator, Buck, is the best friend of the accused, Tunes. Suzanne says she opened with an idyllic scene, Buck and Tunes fishing together on what “felt like the first day of the first spring ever.” Buck is so happy at the beginning that, when trouble starts, we know exactly how much he has to lose. His precious, precarious friendship is enough to carry the reader through the book.

Alas I can’t ask the authors of the other mysteries I’ve loved, so I’ve been speculating. Some people enjoy mysteries for the puzzles. These devotees track clues and try to solve the crime before all is revealed. Not me. Amateur sleuthing isn’t why I read whodunits. So I can’t write that kind of mystery. Luckily, the genre is broad.

Lately I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. My favorites are the ones that feature the City Watch, which are mysteries. (Note to kids: check with your librarian. The series seems fine to me for kids ten and up, up, up.)

Discworld plotting is complicated. Scenes switch frequently. We’re with one character for a few pages, then with another. I can never figure anything out, so I’m along for the ride, which bumps along. Terry Pratchett stops for asides. And footnotes. Ordinarily this would annoy me, but he’s so funny I don’t mind. The laughs and Pratchett’s wild imagination keep me reading. In every book I go green with envy, wishing I had thought of this idea or that one. I don’t much care what happens, as long as no beloved characters die.

Dr. Watson, the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, is rarely in danger, and yet the books are page-turners. Watson represents the reader. We trust his emotions, and we like being in his company. What he feels, we feel. Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is spellbinding, a magician, the best kind: drama mixed with misdirection, and who can look away from that?

Sometimes I stick with a mystery because I’m getting an education. The Tony Hillerman series is about Navajo culture. Jonathan Gash (definitely adult) writes about antiques. Dick Francis writes about horseracing. The plots may be slow, the characters not so lovable, but I’m in and I stay in because what I’m learning is so interesting.

I’ve read every one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series. In these books, the charm and the beautiful prose win me over. The detective, Nero Wolfe, is almost never in danger, because he almost never leaves his apartment. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, who narrates, is hardly ever endangered either. I don’t mind. I adore the way Archie teases Wolfe and how Wolfe needles back. The details of their life tickle me: the orchids, the meals, the cases that Wolfe has to be bullied into taking. Delicious.

So there are many possibilities: Suspense – we can make the reader worry about the sleuth, even if her danger is different from the victim’s. A puzzle – for writers who aren’t me. Humor – nobody stops reading if he’s laughing his head off. Drama and sleight of hand. Fascinating facts. Fine writing.

I don’t know how much of this I’ll get in my first or second draft. I already plan to step up the humor on that happy day when I finish and start over. However it goes, though, I’m having fun (sometimes), and I’m saving what I write.

  1. I'm in the muddling stage now, too. Exciting and scary. I read mysteries, I think, for the character play and inter-dynamics that can come to the fore, when they're wrapped around a solid, familiar plot framework. People accuse Christie of writing types, but her types are always true and I love to watch the what and why of their behavior. In more modern series, where there's a bit more emotional depth to the detective (or the detective's friend), I like to watch how they grow & change within AND across the books.

    My son is also immersed in Discworld right now, and he, too, loves the guard books. The only down side is that he'll have gone through them all soon, and I have no idea what to "feed" him for the rest of the summer! 🙂

  2. I am with Becky. I read mysteries for the community within the book, the familiarity with the characters, the bonds that both tie and that which pulls them apart. If perhaps the underlying heart of the characters is engaged (and at danger), then the readers will continue to read.

  3. Hi! Agreed, I too just found your blog today and I love it! I can’t wait to see what you write next.
    But, I do have one unrelated question. Do you have an address, street or email, to send fanmail or any mail to? You see I’m doing an author study project in school on you and my teacher said we would get extra points if we wrote to you. I am not doing this only for points though I really would like to write to you, I think you are an amazing author and I can’t wait for your next book!

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