How to read a mystery novel

By Maureen Milliken

One of the surprising things I’ve found since my first mystery novel was published last year is that there are people who don’t read mysteries.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. There are genres I don’t read. But I was surprised anyway.

I remember exactly what I was reading here, Kate Atkinson's "Emotionally Weird." When you can't put a book down, you can't put it down.

I remember exactly what I was reading here, Kate Atkinson’s “Emotionally Weird.” When you can’t put a book down, you can’t put it down.

I’ve been reading mystery novels as long as I’ve been reading books, so it never occurred to me that some of the things about mysteries that those of us who read and write them take for granted come as surprises to those who don’t.

As I finish up the second book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, No News is Bad News, some of the comments from non-mystery readers who have read the first, Cold Hard News,  remind me of the elements that we take for granted in mysteries. I’d like to add, that all of these non-mystery readers were gracious. They all said they enjoyed the book, so I’m hoping they are converts.

For those yet to see the light, though, I’ve put together this tip sheet.

CHARACTERS

I know. Every book has them. But their special role in a mystery novel is all-important. There will be at least one character, maybe more, who you care about enough that when they face danger (yes, they will, it’s a given), you get nervous and shaky. I love characters and they’re the most important thing to me in any book I read or write. Characters are plot. Why people do what they do is behind every good mystery.

INFERENCE GAPS

Ugh. I know! Back to college English class. I wish the term was catchier, but what this means is that there’s information that won’t be given to you right away. Things will be hinted at or referred to and you’ll wonder what it means. Don’t get frustrated and think the writer is leaving things out. Later, things may happen, both little and big, that will help fill in the gap. Oh! That’s why he said he’d never go to Rumford again! If the writer lays every detail out for you from the beginning, there’s really no reason to keep reading. You want to be curious enough about things that you’ll turn that page. The only exception to this is in a series, when things that happened in previous books are referred to. That may throw you off if you’re not starting with the first book, but hopefully it will intrigue you, too. No News is Bad News starts a few months after Cold Hard News ended. It’d be nuts for some of the people in the book not to be affected by what happened. They keep saying they’ve moved on, but they haven’t and it shows. Readers of mystery series are used to this, but you may not be. Solution? Go back and read the previous books!

RED HERRINGSfiveredherrings

I’ve always loved this term. At least three people who read Cold Hard News remarked that they liked the fact there were clues that made them think someone else was the bad guy, or they were led for a while to believe a different motive. Red herrings! False clues. People who you think are the murderer, but turn out not to be. If you really want a full plate of red herring, I recommend Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings. It’s got a train schedule time-table plot that I never could untangle, but the red herrings are delicious.

QUESTIONS THAT NEED ANSWERING

Why is he acting like that? What did she take from the cupboard when Rupert left the room? Who killed that guy, anyway? Why? Things will happen and they won’t immediately be explained. This is different from the inference gap. These are BIG questions. I’m not a plot person. When I read a mystery, I let the plot wash over me. If I figure it out before the end of the book, the writer didn’t work hard enough. I’ve probably read Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise seven or eight times, and I’m still not exactly sure how the plot does what it does. It’s not her, it’s me. I love it anyway. There’s one part involving an advertisement in a newspaper that could be interpreted as a double entendre, so someone at the advertising agency changes it, unwittingly throwing off the bad guys’ whole scheme. Like the red herrings, it’s delicious.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED

There’s something most writers — the good ones anyway — do that’s called playing fair with the reader. That’s you! This means that there must be enough clues salted through the book that the average reader has a shot at figuring things out. The murderer, in other words, can’t be the uncle from Pittsburgh who’s been living at a downtown hotel killing off his family and the reader never sees or hears about him until the last page.

COINCIDENCEWWTBGN

Yeah, there’ll be some coincidences. Some crazy ones. It’s how mysteries roll. Unlike real life, the mystery has to get solved, and sometimes you need one or two good coincidences to tie things together. The best writers keep them to a minimum and there’s an unwritten rule that big ones that solve the crime are a no-no. The better the writer, the more the rule can be broken. For instance, Kate Atkinson’s books are loaded with coincidences and they are wonderful and fantastic. I recommend any of the Jackson Brodie series. My favorite is. When Will There be Good News? A title I’d steal if she didn’t already have it. I also love Stared Early, Took My Dog. Not just for the great titles, but for the books themselves. I would marry those books if that were a thing. They’re not really plot-heavy, they’re character heavy. Good characters and what they do are what make the best plots.

‘THREE TIMES WE’VE CROSSED PATHS, MR. BOND’

While characters are important, there shouldn’t be any who don’t play a role in the book whether it’s plot, character development, tone. Extraneous characters are a distraction. They’re not red herrings (otherwise they’d have a plot role), they’re not inference gap tools (otherwise they’d turn out not to be extraneous). A friend of mine calls it the Goldfinger rule (I don’t know if he coined it or someone else did, but it’s genius.) From the James Bond movie Goldfinger: “Three times we’ve crossed paths, Mr. Bond. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action.” In mystery writing, it establishes the person. I like my friend’s rule so much I’m going to write a whole separate blog post about it soon. But for now, I’ll say that every character in the book should mean something. In No News is Bad News I didn’t bring back some favorites from Cold Hard News because they didn’t have a role to play and there was no point in trotting them across the stage just so the audience could applaud with recognition. “Oh look! There’s Bev Dulac!” Then, 200 pages later, “Hey, what happened to Bev? She was there on page 27 and we haven’t seen her since.”

DANGER! DANGER!

You will like a character. That character will be put in jeopardy. If it’s a series and he or she is the protagonist, it’ll all end up okay (most of the time). You’ll be worried anyway, because that’s the fun of the mystery novel. This will happen, in a series, more to this beloved protagonist than will happen to the entire population of an average American city in a lifetime. A normal person would be dead or in a rubber room. But the plucky protagonist will keep bouncing along and you will accept it  because you are reading a mystery series.

YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION

This is important with any book, but this blog post is about mysteries. I’ve had people email me or accost me in parking lots (it’s true!) wanting to argue plot points. I know I’ve ready my book a gazillion times and most others have already read them once. But most of their questions are answered in the book, they just missed it. Don’t speed read it, dear reader. Don’t surf your phone with one hand and read with the other. If the writer is going to make sure she adheres to the Goldfinger rule, the least you can do is pay attention. I don’t mean to sound snarky, I’m just asking you to hold up your end of the deal.

LACK OF SLEEP

You will vow before you go to bed to just read one chapter. Then you’ll look at the clock and it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve read 15 chapters because you just had to find out what was going to happen next.

And that, dear reader, is all you really need to know.

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. No News is Bad News is due out this summer. Follow Maureen on Twitter at @mmilliken47. Like her Facebook page Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at her website maureenmilliken.com.

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6 Responses to How to read a mystery novel

  1. Edith says:

    I love this post, Maureen! What a great primer. Will share.

    Like

  2. Skye says:

    Wonderful~ In fact, reading this made me recall past days when mystery novels contained all the splendid literary devices and techniques you discuss! I adore characterization, as well as inferences and twists and turns. Now, I find myself easily falling asleep whenever I read and many suspense/mystery novels are excessively graphic as if the gore can fill in the gaps. Thank you!

    Like

  3. Ah, the tricks of the trade. Good stuff, Maureen!

    Like

  4. Karen says:

    As I prepare to write my first cozy, your post reaffirms that I have so much to learn to pull it off. Thanks so much for the info and recommended books. Guess I need to get reading before I write!!

    Like

  5. L.C. Rooney says:

    Well done, Maureen! Great post!

    Like

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