In my post on Tuesday, I discussed two parts of what makes mysteries so compelling for me, the puzzle and the investigation. Today, I’ll cover the other two.
The detective character is what people remember and the reason they return to a series. Few people know the details of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, beyond, maybe, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But almost every human on the planet knows who Sherlock Holmes is. The same is true for Agatha Christiie’s Hercule Poiroit. Readers know the detective, but the only case they can name, if any, is Murder on the Orient Express.
The detective should be someone I want to be with as I follow her investigation. She can be admirable or likable or relatable, but she must have some quality that makes the reader want to spend time with her.
Sitting by my bed was The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. When my youngest saw it, he asked, “Why do you read all those books about blood and murder? You must like murder.”
I said that, no, I didn’t like murder. I read those stories because I want to see justice done and the guilty caught. Or, as several authors said at the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, readers want to see the world made right again and order restored.
As I said in my last post, the stakes of the puzzle should be high to involve the reader emotionally as well as intellectually. That doesn’t mean it must be gory or sordid. Just high enough for readers to care. The solution is the pay off, satisfying again both the intellectual and the emotional parts of the story.
Puzzle + Investigation + Detective + Solution = Great Mystery
When those four components come together in a meaningful or surprising or fun way, then that’s a mystery I will read again and again.
Those components are also what I kept in mind when I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes,” a short story that is my first true whodunit. As I wrote it last December, I wanted a puzzle that grabbed readers’ minds and hearts, an investigation with lots of twists that will reward readers for spending their time with it, a likable detective whom readers can root for, and a solution that leaves them feeling satisfied.
I hope I pulled it off. If you read my story in the anthology Christmas fiction off the beaten path, let me know if you think I succeeded.