What are the elements of a mystery novel that are most important to you? It is pace? Or setting? Or maybe the plot twists and turns.
And what makes your very favorite mysteries hold that space in your heart? This is a question I ask myself frequently. Why do I love the books I love?
For me, the mystery genre has always been a comfortable fit, as a reader and as a writer. I enjoy most crime fiction, but my tastes do run towards the more traditional and the lighter side of mystery. No hard-boiled noir or graphic descriptions of coroner’s steel tables for me. But that’s just a personal preference. Regardless of the sub-genre, I believe that what makes a good mystery is a good story.
Maybe that is the basic element of any book in any genre, even in non-fiction. The story has to get our attention and make us want to read more. For mystery books, there has to be some element of the unknown that we are promised will be revealed if only we hang around long enough. Or even if we figure out ‘whodunit’, how the perpetrators are brought to justice may be enough to hold us fast to our seats and keep us turning the pages.
How the story is told and the definition of the main characters are close behind in terms of factors that make up a good mystery. Style, pace and plot development are keys to ensuring that we are not just entertained, but engaged along the way.
The sub-genres of mystery start diverging here, particularly around style which tends to involve detailed and sometimes flowery descriptions in cozies or technically detailed forensic talk in police procedurals. But they all come back together when it comes to the flow of the story.
Good mysteries in all forms have a rhythm that somehow just seems right. Great mystery writers have the ‘Goldilocks’ touch: not too fast, not too slow, just right!
Great characters are another key to great mysteries. We all remember the giants like Poirot or Miss Marple or Rebus or any number of great cozy writers. But I find that it is actually the sub-cast of characters that separate the great from the good.
And it’s not usually the person or persons who get killed that are the most interesting. It’s the Corporal under the Sergeant, or the old friend who always shows up with advice or a bottle of scotch at exactly the right time.
What really sets the mystery category aside from all other writing is the added characteristic of surprise. Every mystery book has a few twists and turns but a great mystery book has an absolutely brilliant surprise. It may be that the butler didn’t actually do it, but he was certainly involved in helping the less than legitimate heir bury the bodies. Or an unheard-of relative who surfaced just after the will is read or… you get the picture.
Reading a great mystery book is like having a candle to light the way down a dark and unfamiliar hallway. You don’t know what you are going to find down there, but you just have to go and see for yourself.
A Tangled Web is the latest book in the Sgt. Windflower Mystery series set on the East Coast of Canada. The previous book in the Series A Long Ways from Home was shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award as the “Best Light Mystery of the year”.
“Life is good for Sgt. Windflower in Grand Bank, Newfoundland. But something’s missing from the Mountie’s life. Actually, a lot of things go missing, including a little girl and supplies from the new factory. It’s Windflower’s job to unravel the tangled web of murder, deceit and an accidental kidnapping that threatens to engulf this sleepy little town and destroy those closest to him. But there’s always good food, good friends and the love of a great woman to make everything better in the end.”
Mike Martin is a long-time freelance writer and the author of the Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series. The series is set in Newfoundland and features Cree, RCMP officer, Sgt. Winston Windflower who solves crime and discovers the natural beauty, food and culture of Newfoundland along the way.