19 January 2016

Merging Magic and Mystery

by Barb Goffman

When I was growing up, I soooo wanted to be Samantha on Bewitched. All she had to do was wiggle her nose, and she could do/be/get/go whatever and wherever she wanted. How absolutely cool.

But Samantha would be make a terrible amateur sleuth because with a wiggle of her nose, she could go back in time to when someone was murdered and watch it happen, thus learning who the murderer is and either catching him immediately or preventing the murder from the start. Talk about a short story, and an unsatisfying one at that (except for the dead guy--he'd probably appreciate the help).
Wiggle that nose, baby!

Readers want their amateur sleuths to actually sleuth--find clues, observe things, figure the puzzle out. If your character has unlimited magical powers like Samantha, there won't be much to the story. But I know from experience that it can be fun to write about magical characters. So how do you  merge magic and mystery and still have a satisfying tale? Your sleuth's powers must be limited so that solving the crime is based on deductive skills, not on magic.

In my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my main character is a fairy named Annabelle. She's in charge of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. When Santa tells her he's skipping Jersey this year because the state is too dangerous--a murderer is on the loose, killing people who look like magical beings--Annabelle realizes she has to find the murderer to save Christmas. But I couldn't make things too easy for her. What would be the fun in that? So Annabelle's powers are limited. She can "wink," which means she can wiggle her invisible wings (kind of like how Samantha wiggled her nose) and magically appear somewhere else but only in the current time. (This was a helpful skill because it enabled me to move the story along faster without having to worry about Annabelle driving (or flying) from place to place.) Annabelle can also snap her fingers and have items appear. In this case, she snapped up all the police files on the murders, allowing her to quickly get up to speed.

But when it came time to figuring out whodunit? She investigated like any good sleuth. She went to a wake and spoke with friends and family of one of the victims. She talked with the head of her security team about her hunches. (It's always good to have another character to bounce ideas off.) She went to the bookstore where one of the victims worked to chat up his co-workers. Her magical powers made the story more fun, but ultimately she figured out who the murderer was using her powers of deduction, and that made the story satisfying. Combine fun with satisfying and you have a good mystery (at least I hope so). You can decide for yourself. The story is available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html.

My friend Donna Andrews used this approach when she wrote a short story called "Normal" a few years ago. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ultimately published this tale about a private eye who came from a magical world, but she had no magical powers herself. She fled her world for earth, where she hoped to fit in. But she found herself surrounded by magical beings here too: trolls, vampires, and more. The unfortunate tutor (a wizard) who discovered--and was blamed for--her lack of magical ability came with her to earth, and when he is murdered, Donna's character is determined to figure out whodunit. But does she tap her friends' powers to get the answers? No, that would be too easy. Donna instead allowed her character to figure out whodunit using her powers of deduction and her understanding of human nature. That's what made the story work. And you don't have to take my word for it. You can listen to Donna read the story herself: http://podbay.fm/show/351202656/e/1349099269?autostart=1.

Do you have any favorite stories that mix magic with mystery? Please share. There's always more room on the To-Be-Read pile.


  1. Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series - set in an alternative universe where magic is a science, and Richard the Lion-hearted came back from the Crusades, settled down, and became a great king. (Kind of Steampunk, actually.) Anyway, Lord Darcy has no magical abilities, and while he investigates murders, all the murders are done by "regular" means, and he solves them by old-fashioned detection. The magic is often a red herring. They're a lot of fun.

  2. That sounds cool, Eve. Thanks for sharing!

  3. In my mystery, SHE HAD TO KNOW, two sisters search for one another and a murderer in a Scottish castle. One sister has the Second Sight, but doesn't know it. Clues appear in a dream, but she doesn't have any idea what they mean. She and her sister have to use conventional means to solve the mystery before the villain ends their search, permanently. Hope you'll check it out.

  4. Eve beat me to Lord Darcy, but I wanted to add that in the novel TOO MANY MAGICIANS Darcy visits the Marquise of London, a very fat genius whose assistant is Lord Bontriomphe (Bon Triomphe = Good Win), a lovely tribute to Rex Stout.

    James Powell writes a story for EQMM's Christmas issue almost every year, many of which involve supernatural crime. My favorite is "The Plot to Kill Santa Claus," about the North Pole's chief security elf, but there is another classic in which a pet store owner is killed at midnight on Christmas Eve, the moment when animals supposedly can speak.

  5. That sounds like a good book, Coco. Thanks for stopping by.

    And Rob, I've never seen that pet-store story. That sounds great. Any chance there's on online link you know about?

  6. Barb, I looked it up in the bibliography in the back of Powell's excellent A POCKETFUL OF NOSES. The story "Midnight at Manger's Bird and Beast" appeared in EQMM December 1994, and was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian mystery short story. As far as I know it has not been reprinted, which is too bad.

  7. Oh, I wish they would reprint "Midnight at Manger's Bird and Beast" - I'd love to read it!

  8. If you're looking for examples of works that mix mystery and the supernatural, there's always HAMLET: Near the end of the first act, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to reveal not only whodunit but also how, where, when, and why he done it. So in a sense the ghost doesn't leave Hamlet with much detective work to do, except that Hamlet doesn't know if he can trust the ghost and feels compelled to to find ways to confirm everything before he brings the guilty to justice. I'm sure there are other mysteries in which the ghost of a murdered person comes back to demand justice--I'm sure I've read some, and seen some in movies--but no titles come to mind just now. Any suggestions?

  9. Good point, B.K. Lawrence Block wrote story called I think ?Miles to go before I sleep," in which a man is murdered, goes to the light, and is ordered back to solve the crime. In other words, he doesn't quite die. And what's clever is, that as he interrogates all the suspects he is fixing the relationships he left in a disastrous mess. Sort of "It's A Wonderful Murder." You can find it in BLock's collected stories.

  10. I love the Hamlet example, Bonnie, and that he tries to confirm the information. (I read Hamlet in high school, but I must admit I don't remember much of it other than bits of dialogue.)

    There are a bunch of other, more modern, ghosts who come back to try to get justice. TJ O'Connor has a current series out with Midnight Ink called a Gumshoe Ghost Mystery series. Christina Freeburn had a short story and novel (I think) involving a ghost sleuth. Carolyn Hart's Bailey Ruth series involves a ghost sleuth. If I had the time, I could come up with more, I'm sure.

  11. I usually shy away from paranormal, but I didn’t consider your Christmas story in that category (and very much liked it). But I agree with your premise, that using something other than deduction is cheating. It’s like good science fiction: an SF world might have its own physics or social rules, but they have to be consistent and realistic. So do supernatural mysteries.

    In one paranormal short I liked, one vampire’s arm (injured by sunlight) provided the vital clue and worked. Terrie Moran wrote a great banshee story some time back.

    Early on, I attempted one vampire story. I have no clue where to submit it, but it still needs polishing. It’s become kind of a decade-long project. (laughing at myself)

  12. Going along with Bonnie's comment, you got to love the witches.

     Double, double toil and trouble.
     Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

  13. I have my own long-term project, Leigh, so I feel your pain.

  14. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series and his Nursery Crimes series both mix mysteries with fantastical elements.

  15. I like crazy MaryJanice Davidson and most of her works, which have supernatural beings and are mysteries.But come to think of it, don't all of the Harry Potters?
    There seems to be more and more books with magic and supernatural circumstances.
    I haven't ventured into any of those realms.
    But I am so addicted to the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock podcasts so much that I just ordered Bluetooth earphones so I can get more done while I listen to them!

  16. Let's not forget the Canadian TV comedy/mystery "Seeing Things" about a crime reporter whose visions offer clues about murders. So he, his semi-estranged wife and a few others attempt to solve the crimes. Wonderfully done!

  17. These are all good suggestions. Thanks, Jim, Tonette, and Jeff.

    Good luck with those earphones, Tonette. I can't use any of the earbuds they say these days. The ones I've tried don't stay in my ears.

  18. Jeff, I LOVED Seeing Things. There is a scene where our hero is dragged into the US Embassy and a CIA agent (with a horrible Canadian idea of a southern accent) threatens him. Louie snaps back, "Wrong as acid rain, mister!" Great show.

  19. I'm going for headPHONES, Barb...over-the-head,over-the-ears, fully padded.Nice.


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