03 July 2023

There’s no solving the mystery of great mysteries.

Our benevolent overlords here at SleuthSayers, Robert Lopresti and Leigh Lundin, give us wide latitude over the topics we want to focus on. For which I’m very grateful.  But since this is a mystery writing blog, I thought, why not write about mysteries?

I’ve argued long and loudly that mysteries and thrillers are really no different from any other form of literary expression.  And vice versa.  I once asked a reviewer if a general fiction book I was working on could be considered a thriller.  She asked, “Does it have a gun?”  I said yes. “Does it kill somebody?” Yes, a mafia thug.  “Then it’s a thriller.”

And she reviewed it. 

Though to be fair, there are a few guidelines to follow if you want to write within the genre.  First off, you need a mystery.  A puzzle to be solved.  And a protagonist who is launched into solving it - unwillingly, eagerly or professionally.  The book ends with the solution revealed, though it doesn’t have to be clear cut or definitive.  That’s about it.  Everything else is up for grabs. 

Mysteries are also quest stories.  Beginning with the Odyssey, quests are probably the most frequently employed plot convention.  If you’re going to solve a mystery, you have to venture into the world to find clues, analyze evidence, and doggedly canvas the likely participants.  I think it was Ross MacDonald who said mysteries are about detectives driving around in cars and interviewing people.  Essentially, there’s something that needs to be learned, and someone on a mission to discover what it is. 

There are elements of danger for the protagonists – wicked characters who don’t want the mystery solved, or malign bureaucracies who’d rather just let things be.  You don’t have to be Mickey Spillane to clothe your story in a mood of menace and imminent peril.  Usually the challenges are made of misdirection, dishonesty and obfuscation.  So it’s not just a matter of being quicker on the draw, the hero has to have a good analytical mind to navigate through the murky waters and overcome obstacles constantly thrown up by the opposition.

So by definition, mysteries are solved by smart, determined and resourceful people, who have the ability to perceive the psychology of criminal minds, without having to be criminals themselves (though sometimes they are). 

Often the protagonist is the reader herself.  The puzzle is laid out in the unfolding story, and the thrill is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. 

I think Gone Girl is among the most brilliant mysteries of all time, though there’s no intrepid detective central to the story.  You may argue that it’s more a thriller, and thrillers can have no mystery involved at all, the suspense derived from other plot details (the bomb beneath Grand Central is going to blow on New Years Eve!), but those are pure thrillers.  Mystery thrillers need at least the skeleton of a mystery at its core (I’ll refer you to Lee Child). 

What sets mysteries apart is there’s an intellectual component.  A figuring out.  A puzzle, a literary crossword, acrostic, jigsaw, Rubik’s Cube. 

I don’t see these things as restrictions.  In fact, I believe they make for better books, because the writer is forced to have a well-formed plot.  Usually characters are the most engaging features of a good mystery, so the plot doesn’t have to be an intricate brainteaser, but it has to be there, and believable and satisfying once resolved.     

As a genre that encompasses the psychological, historical, hard boiled, sci-fi, romantic, fantastical, Western, closed-room Victorian, and on and on, there’s plenty there to suit everyone’s tastes. 

One of the most appealing features of good mysteries are what I call mini mysteries.  Those ancillary stories embedded in the plot where the protagonist has to solve something that is necessary to move along his/her quest.  (Whose DNA was also there at the murder scene?  The name Joey was on a slip of paper in the victim’s pocket.  Who the hell is Joey?) The reader gets almost the same charge out of solving these incremental steps as the story overall, and they help keep the pace ripping along.  Sometimes these mini mysteries are red herrings, misleading trails.  Sometimes a red herring consumes most of the plot, which is fine.  Near the end of a book, you’re thinking, oh no, if it wasn’t that evil steel-foundry plutocrat who killed the Swedish biology professor, who was it?!

I still maintain that great mysteries are great literature.  And some recognized literary fictions are in fact gripping crime novels (I refer you to The Great Gatsby and The Name of the Rose).  

It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  A wonderful book is a wonderful book no matter how it fits into literary taxonomy. 



  1. I'm with you, Chris. Years ago, friends who knew I previously taught English were amazed and baffled that when I started writing, I wrote mysteries instead of "serious literature" (cough, cough).

    It's a stupid and artificial divide. Fiction is fiction. Then I cited the following works as mystery or crime fiction:

    Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer; Albert Camus: The Stranger; Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (esp The Pardoner's Tale and The Miller's Tale): Wlater Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident; Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and The Secret Agent; Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov; Dreiser: An American Tragedy; Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, and "A Rose for Emily"; Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables; Hemingway: "The Killers"; Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird; Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye; Shakespeare: Almost every play involves a crime; Sophocles: Oedipus Rex and Antigone; Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl; Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson; Robert Penn Warren: All The King's Men; Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome; Owen Wister: The Virginian; Richard Wright: Native Son.

    This is about a quarter of my list. I wonder who people think they're fooling when they scoff at mysteries. I wonder even more if they enjoy reading.

    1. Steve, obviously you're a true scholar with a far bigger list than mine. But I agree with all your picks, those that I've read. I'd like to see the whole thing. I agree that it's a silly and artificial divide, only sustained by literary snobs

    2. Chris, I published the "entire" list, which I would expand considerably now after further thought, on this blog in December 2016. I called it "Genre in the Classroom" because I also included romance and sci-fi.

  2. Chris and Steve, absolutely true. Between the two of you you've covered some of the great mystery / thriller / classics.

    1. Thanks, Eve. Steve has the definitive list, I'm sure.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn03 July, 2023 11:18

    You're absolutely right, Chris, & I guess I need to read Gone Girl ASAP. Unless you think I should see the movie first, or instead of reading the book?

    1. Please read the book first. This is usually the best approach, even if an occasional movie adaptation improves on the book. That written, the movie is excellent, I'm guessing partly because Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay.


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