What Do I Look For In A Mystery?

Kate Flora: I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately and all that reading has made me reflect on what it is that makes me love a mystery. What makes me keep turning the pages? What aspects of the writing inspire me or make me thing about craft? What characters seem to live on when the story is finished?

I’m sure that each of us has different likes and dislikes. That’s why there are so many writers who occupy different corners of the big crime writing tent and why there are so many mysteries for readers to choose from.

From time to time, some interviewer or blogger will inquire about whether as a reader I have boundaries beyond which I will not go. What sorts of books land outside my comfort zone? It’s funny how it seems easier, in a way, to talk about what I don’t like than what I do, but they are really two sides of the same question. So, what don’t I like? Stories that seem to relish the bad guy’s brutality and ugly acts. Gratuitous violence, particularly toward women.

I know. You are raising your eyebrows and thinking, “But Kate . . . look at the violence in your own books.” To which I reply that the operative word is gratuitous. I write crime novels. I write police procedurals. I write dark and gritty books in which bad things happen, sometimes to good people, sometimes even to children. But what I try to incorporate, and what I look for in the books I read, is a moral component. A sense that my protagonists, or the protagonists in books that I read, are aware of the impacts of the crime both on the victim and in the ripples that affect those who knew the victim. I’m looking for a book that moves beyond graphic depictions and explores how the world may be made right again. I’m looking for characters upon whom crime has an impact and they don’t walk away unscathed.

What else? I am looking for great writing. A use of language that moves beyond the

Audiences may think they are looking at me, but I am always studying them.

mundane or the merely adequate. I’m always looking for language that replaces the easy clichés with something personal to the characters. Language that moves the story. Language that reflects the time and place of the story and the speakers who are using it. Looking for sentences that make me sigh and say, “I wish I had written that,” or that very briefly pull me out of the story to make a note for my own work in progress.

I’m looking for characters with individual and vivid voices and voices that are instantly recognizable and let me envision the speaker. Characters a reader can care about, flaws and all. I often tell the story of my mother, an English teacher writing her first mystery in her eighties, who got feedback from a reader who liked her setting and her plot but noted that probably not everyone in a small Maine town talked like an English teacher. It can be a challenge to learn to write individual voices and I often encourage my students to listen more and talk less. Hang out in a Dunkin Donuts and listen to people as they chat in line. Or hover in a dressing room and listen to the surrounding conversations. Notice the differences in the way people talk.

The world is so full of visuals. Carry a camera so you can save them for later

I’m looking for a vivid sense of place, whether it be a description of a city and its buildings or the cold and empty desert at night. I’m looking for ways the author uses weather and smells and sounds and descriptions of people to make the place where the story is located come alive and use it as part of the story. I don’t want the generic, I want the particular. My great writing teacher Art used to tell us to “presence” our characters on the page.

I’m looking for ways the author can create a sense of menace or unease without coming right out and saying it. A creaking branch, a rustling curtain, or a character who looks in her back seat and under her car conveys menace far better that saying, “John was nervous.”

What else? I’m looking for a plot that feels new and fresh and surprising and for plot twists that I never anticipated. I’m looking for imagination and great storytelling. I am always looking for a book that will make me forget about the here and now and draw me into its world. I’m looking for an author who has me so captured by the story I don’t see the bones.

What about you? What do you look for in a book and what lasts when the book is done?

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3 Responses to What Do I Look For In A Mystery?

  1. John Clark says:

    Make the bad guy somewhat sympathetic if appropriate. I also love a story where the setting is such that it becomes a character. AND if you make the perpetrator so well hidden that I slap my forehead at the end, that’s five extra points.

  2. Roslyn Reid says:

    Haha! It won’t be the perp’s ID which makes you slap your head at the end of my mystery, John! Altho one reviewer said her “mouth gaped open like a fish” instead. 😀

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