What’s the mystery about today’s photo prompt? The boy or man on the ladder has definitely noticed something that’s unusual enough to make him pause on his climb. What is it? The bleak woods automatically make me think something sinister is going on. I don’t know if my mind would leap to a mystery if he was overlooking a field of spring wildflowers.
Here’s how I was inspired:
I glanced at my phone. Mom would have supper almost ready. Time to head back and put up with all the noise four kids under twelve can make. I slipped my book into my jacket. At least, I’d had a little peace before starting my homework.
As I stepped onto the ladder of the old hunting blind, a few shots rang out of the valley below. Somebody target practicing.
I frowned. I’d have to skirt the valley, staying up on the ridge, and that would make me late.
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.
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.
Since this month’s theme is mysteries, I thought I should write about why it’s my favorite genre. But when I came to write this post, I quickly got stumped. I’ve been in love with mysteries for so long that I find it hard to step back and explain why. But after some serious, deep thinking — I’ll take an aspirin later — I’ve discovered four reasons.
I love puzzles that challenge my intellect. The mystery starts with something that is wrong in the lives of the characters. A series of robberies have occurred, and the police must stop them. The obnoxious newcomer to town gets killed. A high school senior receives threatening texts from an anonymous source. The puzzle must be solved in order to put life right again.
Sometimes, I just like a puzzle, like the stories by Agatha Christie. But if the puzzle can have some kind of emotional stake tied to it, that’s even better. The detective faces dire consequences if he doesn’t solve it. If the detective is in a series, it may stretch believability to the breaking point if ever mystery is high stakes for him. But it can be high stakes for some character the detective it trying to help.
How the detective solves the puzzle determines how much readers will enjoy it. Agatha Christie is still the gold standard for whodunits because the process for uncovering clues and drawing conclusions made sense in most of her stories.
I’ve read mysteries that were entertaining but the detective’s explanation of how she pierced together clues to reach her solution didn’t make sense to me. So while it was a good story, it wasn’t a good mystery.
In the novella Kill Now—Pay Later by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe accepts as a client the daughter of the man who shined his shoes for three years. A man at the business where the daughter worked as a secretary was murdered. The police think her father did it because the man seduced the daughter. When the father is found dead, the police believe it was suicide. Case closed.
The daughter tells Wolfe that she was not seduced, and her father would never have believed that about her. She offers Wolfe all the tips her father collected from Wolfe over the three years. Her father wanted to save the money for something special.
Wolfe later tells the police he believed the daughter’s story because if the story of the seduction was true, she had no reason to make up her tale and offer what was for her an exorbitant amount of money. Therefore he knew both deaths were murders.
It’s those kind of deductions, ones that ring true to life, that I love to come across in a mystery.
It must be the librarian in me, but I also love when the detective has to conduct serious research into a mystery, especially a cold case. In the 1973 TV movie, The Night Strangler, reporter Carl Kolchak is investigating the strangulation murders of several women. He visits the newspaper’s librarian, or what used to be called the “morgue attendant”. The librarian remembers a similar set of strangulation murders from some time in the 1950’s. They haul out the huge books that have the old editions for the paper pasted in them. The librarian was right. A set of strangulations murders occurred in 1952, all women.
The librarian and Kolchak dig more and discover that six women have been strangled every twenty-one years from 1889 to 1973. The scenes for these discoveries is the dark basement of the newspaper building. Eerie musical cues screech each time Kolchak opens up an old book to discover yet another newspaper article on the murders.
Unexpected discoveries that a detective unearths during his investigation thrill me as a reader, or viewer, and makes mysteries so intriguing.
I’ll have the other two reason I love mysteries in my next post.
What’s the mystery about this quaint photo? The scene looks so peaceful. An elderly man reading a book on the porch of his small cabin. With a rifle across this knees. Things can’t be as peaceful as they seem. Here’s my opening. I’d love to hear yours.
I trudged up the dirt and spotted a man sitting on the front porch of his cabin, reading, a rifle balanced on his knees.
I stopped. Most people kept a cup of coffee or tea close by when they read. Not a gun.
The man looked up from his book, scanned me from head to toe, and then smiled. “Need help?”
“Yes. My car broke down, and I can’t get reception. Do you have a phone with a land line?”
“Only kind of phone that works around here. C’mon in.”
I thanked him and walked onto the porch.
As I pulled open the screen door, a large SUV ground up the road and parked in front the cabin.
The man set aside his book. Any trace of a smile gone, he swiveled the rifle toward the vehicle as a tall man slammed the driver’s door.
If you are looking for one resource to introduce you to the world of law and order, I highly recommend Police Procedures and Investigations: a Guide for Writers by Lee Lofland.
Last winter, I got the inspiration for a a new mystery series and realized I needed to know a lot more than I already did about police work, which was zero. This book covers such areas as how men and women are trained at a police academy, the proper process for arrests and searches, the different departments of law enforcement in the U.S., how the court system works (I’ve never understood which courts try which crimes), and much more.
The copyright date is 2007, so some of the science may be out of date. My favorite chapter is the last one. Mr. Lofland writes about how many Americans believe they understand law enforcement from what they see on TV. This leads to people on juries misunderstanding forensic evidence because it’s not presented in a trial like it is on the C.S.I. shows.
Mr. Lofland offers some quotes of what real police officers think of their fictional counterparts.
“Police officers don’t fire warning shots! For goodness’ sake, what goes up must come down!”
“TV cops return to a crime scene over and over again to collect evidence. In real life, you usually get one shot at the scene.”
All of these quotes are from officers in Ohio, which is especially helpful to me, because that is where my series is set.
Another part of the book that I found fascinating were the short, personal essays. The author relates stories concerning the first autopsy he watched, putting a gang under surveillance, and trying to arrest a mountain of a man without using his gun. Those stories make law enforcement seem real to me.
No one in my family, except for a cousin, who is now a member of the Army police, or my husband’s family is involved in law enforcement. So reading this book has opened my eyes to a life I knew nothing about. As a writer, I want to tell a compelling story. But not at the expense of reality. I want to write about the men and women in law enforcement in a realistic way. I’ve found the more research I do hasn’t limited my inspiration. It has actually sparked it.