27 March 2021

Three Good Suspects: The Five Things you need for a Mystery Novel

~~~Three Good Suspects~~~ (as opposed to the usual suspects...)

Many of you know that in addition to being a writer of mob heist novels, I'm also the past Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. (For my sins. Of which I've lost count...) I'm just coming up for air after serving as a judge for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence.  So this post is timely.  It is also cathartic...which may prevent the consumption of too much scotch.  (I know, I know.  There can never be too much scotch.)

In the crime fiction world, most books fall into two categories:  mysteries or thrillers.  (Note that in decades gone by, we used to call thrillers 'suspense novels'. Same thing.)  I write both and find them very different to write.  I'm not alone.  Lots of readers who have a preference for one or the other tell me they wonder why mysteries and thrillers are shelved together in libraries and bookstores.

So to start, let me offer one commonly held description of each, as accepted by Crime Writers of Canada, via many publishers.  Like so many things in life, it has to do with goals.  (And of course, we'll add the usual disclaimer that there may be exceptions.)

Mystery fiction is a puzzle story.  It starts with a murder (or crime) and the goal is the solving of the crime.  The protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime and why.

In contrast, suspense fiction is driven by a character in jeopardy.  A suspense novel or thriller is one in which the main action (crime or murder) has not yet taken place, and in most cases, the goal of the protagonist is to prevent it from happening.  The emphasis is on the tension built by the anticipation of the outcome.

Of course, there will always be suspense in a mystery novel too.  I don't want to discount that.  But let's focus on the puzzle that a mystery novel presents.

In many ways, mystery novels are like chess games.  They are to some extent a cerebral experience.  I would argue that no other type of novel invites the reader to engage in such an involved way with the protagonist.  

Why? Mystery readers like to pit themselves against the fictional detective to uncover who committed the crime.  The reader and the detective both receive the same information at the same time (anything else is not playing fair.)  

In a great mystery novel, you will hopefully come to the same conclusion as the protagonist, at the same time.  It's the challenge that intrigues us, the joy of the intellectual chase, which leads to a supreme high when you compile all the puzzle pieces together in your mind in such a way as to unveil the antagonist. In fact, the ultimate letdown in a mystery novel is when the killer is easily detected before the half way point in a book.

So why do I occasionally find murder stories where there is only one suspect?

Jeeze Louise, people!  A mystery must be a mystery!  If you go light on your suspects, what challenge is that?  

Thirty years, seventeen novels, fifty short stories, three agents, and six publishers have taught me the essentials of writing mysteries.  I'd like to pass this list on to several entrants to the awards this year, who seemed to have missed the memo.  But as anonymity is our credo (always good to remain mysterious) I will present them here instead.

1.  Three good suspects.

Every mystery novel needs at least three good suspects that you can't dismiss out of hand.  Three suspects with good motives (more on that below.)  Five is even better, particularly for a full length novel.  Make it a challenge for the reader!  That's what we're looking for.

2.  A believable motive for each suspect

A suspect must have a motive for murder.  Yes, really.  Serial killers aside (and even some would argue them too) people don't murder each other for no reason.  The motive for each suspect must be believable.  So many times, I have read books (and particularly, watched television shows) where the motive for murder is simply too trite.

There's an expression we use in romance writing:  TSTL.  This translates to Too Stupid to Live, and refers to that particularly daft female protagonist who get herself into predicaments so stupid that a chimp could have figured out how to avoid it.  The ditz factor is simply off the charts.  This is how books get thrown against walls.

Murder is risky.  If caught, you'll go to prison for years and in some countries, lose your life.  With a mystery novel, the reader must believe that the murder is worth the risk.  Don't slack on this!  Make your motive so rock hard that no one will question it.

 3.  A believable motive for the protagonist

Most amateur detective series start with a personal reason for the protagonist to become the detective in the first book.  Either she is a suspect wishing to clear herself, or a possible 'next victim' - but some reason why it is imperative the main character become involved in the solving of the crime.  Of course, if your book is a police procedural, or PI subgenre, the detection is part of their job and requires no explanation.

But if your amateur detective has no stake in the outcome, why the heck would they chance going head to head with someone who has already murdered?  Silly, if not stupid to put yourself at that risk.

This is what becomes unbelievable in many cozy mystery series.  The gal who runs the bakery shop solves the first murder, and then goes on to solve many more, for no reason other than it becomes a hobby.

I demand more than that, of my mysteries!  There must a valid motive for the protagonist to become involved.  Give her a good motive each and every time.

 4.  Risk for the protagonist

Remember I mentioned putting oneself at risk in the above point? Here's what I'm talking about.

You know that crazy device in so many television shows where the two leads are in a deserted warehouse, and one says to the other, "You go that way, and I'll go this way, and we'll save time" … and you, the viewer at home are going, "NO!!!!  Don't be so stupid - you need to stick together!"

Well, there's a reason for doing that.

In my "Nine Steps for Writing Suspense," step seven talks about 'Isolating the protagonist.' Because even in a mystery novel, we need to put the protagonist at risk.  The climax of your book should be accompanied by a black moment, where all seems to be lost, where the protagonist isn't going to get what she wants (safety, money, love, the identity of the killer…)

Any mystery that doesn't put the protagonist at risk in the end is a bit ho hum, in my books (sic).  Go hard on your protagonist.  Make it risky for them to search for the killer.  Make it do or die at the end.  And hopefully not die.  Which leads to point 5.

5.  A Clear Resolution

Don't kill your protagonist in a mystery novel.  Please don't.  Countless readers have told me that they absolutely HATE to read for four hours, and then discover that their beloved protagonist kicks the bucket in the end.  Readers want the protagonist to win, in a mystery novel.  They want justice to prevail.

At the same time, we also need a clear resolution to the story.  Nothing will get people storming your publisher's website than an ending to a mystery novel that isn't an ending.  We don't know whodunnit in the end.  

That doesn't mean you can't have the bad guy escape to play another day.  Even Arthur Conan Doyle did that regularly.  My point is: we need to know Whodunnit by the end of a mystery.


It will be possible to find novels billed as mysteries that don't play by the rules above.  They may even be bestsellers.  So I'll leave by saying, here are some clear guidelines I offer to help writers tackle their first mystery book and look like a pro.

With any luck, readers will also mine gold in the above, as we've demonstrated how much thought must go into creating a really good mystery story.

Melodie Campbell writes mob heists as well as mysteries.  Crime Club is her latest mystery.  The pug is not a suspect. www.melodiecampbell.com


  1. Words to write by! Thanks, Mel! I agree - other than "The Cask of Amontillado" type stories, which I think can be great (and I have written that type - and published it - in "Drifts"), you need more than one suspect, even in a short story. And I hate it when the beloved protagonist dies; almost as much as when the author kills off the protagonist's beloved partner / spouse / pet just to give the protagonist something to agonize about in future sagas.

    1. Oh, isn't that true, Eve. I can't count the number of time male authors (sorry guys, but it's always you) kill off the wife so that the man can have a reason to go violent in the next book, and also have a new love interest, doncha know.

  2. Great advice Melodie. I am writing a rare true mystery right now and this is very helpful! Just what I needed. Cheers!

    1. So nice to hear that, William - good luck with the mystery! I wrote heists first, and and I find mystery really challenging, myself.

  3. Good column, Mel. But do you really think suspense and thrillers are the same? Of course I can't remember the details, but I once heard someone explain on a panel what the difference was between the two, and I went "Ahhhhh!"

    1. I'm a bit sad about this, Barb. We might separate out romantic suspense from thriller, but everyone and his dog is calling them thrillers these days, because they think it will help sales. So I'm told by my agent. Burns me, because I like to read and write what I like to call suspense, not thrillers. But I may be behind the market there.

    2. Barb and Melodie, to me, suspense is all about foreboding, menace, impending doom, dread, which may or may not be physical. Thriller suggests to me physical danger without time do build foreboding and dread. But that's just me.

    3. Now that's interesting, Leigh! I think the publishers need to get together on this. I've seen suspense as a genre removed from the lists (replaced with thriller, which they seem to think sells better.)

  4. I quite enjoyed that, Melodie.

    I chuckled at #4. In my first published story, the leads split up not once, but twice and, the first person narrator draws attention to how dumb those decisions are.

  5. Smile - Leigh, I get students seeing me in the halls at college, and they'll stop in their tracks and yell out, "Isolate the protagonist!" It seems to be the one thing they take away from class (probably because they can see it relate to movies and tV)

  6. This is great!! Thank you for the tips. I recently read a "romance/mystery" novel in which the male and female characters were working together to solve the mystery, and then fell in love - but never solved the mystery!! They shrugged it off at the end with "well, many crimes go unsolved." Yeah, well that book went in the trash.

    1. Teresa, wow - that would not be called a mystery novel, that's for sure - smile. Actually, we almost always weave a romance into our mystery novels. There is no greater motive, is there? Thanks for commenting!

  7. Lovely, Melodie! Your usual blend of humour, intelligence and qualified advice - a threesome not always seen together in public.

  8. Lovely, Melodie. Written with your usual unique blend of intelligence and humour. (They're not always seen together in public.)

  9. So timely! I've always wanted to write a mystery novel and wondered where to start!

  10. "There can never been too much Scotch" should really be Rule #6. Or Rule #1. Let's just meet in the middle and call it Rule #1.


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