Out of all the tried and true story-telling formulas out there, none quite have the charm of a good ol’ fashioned mystery. Sure, epic journeys across fantasy lands and stunning battles with aliens in space are certainly cool and don’t get old. But a well-written mystery has something that no other kind of story has.
At its core, a book has one objective. To put the reader into the shoes of the protagonist and whisk them away on a grand tale. We as readers want to experience these journeys ourselves, to step out from our draining daily lives and become something new or do something impossible.
There are thousands of fantastic books that perfectly accomplish that aim. The Hobbit sucked us away on a fantasy epic unlike anything we’ve ever seen! Ender’s Game made us feel triumphant as we overcame every obstacle to become stronger! These stories, through their protagonists and their narratives, made us as readers feel special!
But this is where the mystery genre stands out. Sure, it pulls you away from reality just as well as every other genre does. But mystery doesn’t have to rely on its characters to do it.
Let’s face it. Most mystery stories don’t do much for character development. Agatha Christie’s character Hercule Poirot will always remain the same, no matter how many cases he solves. Sherlock Holmes will always be the same, whether you’re reading A Study in Scarlet or The Hounds of the Baskervilles. Mystery novels don’t often focus on the characters emotional developments much, if at all.
So how do they do so well? The answer is right there on the tin! It’s the mystery itself!
A truly great mystery novel is like a logic puzzle. It puts the reader in the shoes of the detective not because the detective is a relatable character, but because he is the one receiving all this information. As one reads a mystery novel, one cannot but help to make a list of all the pieces of the puzzle in their minds and try to solve it themselves!
This is an incredible and unique way to grab the audience’s attention and make them remember every little detail. They start to remember the characters names and faces to put together a list of suspects. They pay attention to every detail, wondering which one will be the one that unties the whole knot. They’ll suck in every word, every line of dialogue, in order to figure it out.
A good mystery novel is a logic puzzle. A truly phenomenal one is a difficult logic puzzle.
This makes a great mystery novel incredibly difficult to put down. You burn through page after page, sucking in every detail as you undergo your own analysis. Then, once you’ve reached a conclusion, you sit with a strong sense of anticipation as the story nears its conclusion.
Better yet, there is no failure at the end in this regard, so long as the ending is satisfying and makes sense. If the reader was wrong, it delivers an interesting shock, gives them that “Aha!” moment they’ve been waiting for. Meanwhile, if they were right, the story delivers the ultimate feeling of satisfaction! It makes the reader feel brilliant, as if they just solved a real murder.
Now, it is worth noting that this same strength also serves as the great weakness of mystery. If the book is poorly written, then it is likely that the answer to the mystery is obvious. Then the reader will crack it almost immediately and spend the rest of the book screaming about how obvious it is and how stupid the characters are at each page. Then, when the end comes, there is no satisfaction for the reader. Only a sense of relief to know that the protagonists weren’t completely brain dead after all.
It can be very difficult to get this genre right. Audiences are smart, far smarter than a lot of people give credit for. They approach stories from different angles, some that maybe the author had never even considered. Crafting a truly surprising and engaging mystery is more difficult now than ever before.
Especially since you can’t ever go with ‘the butler did it’ again.
But it is that very hurdle that makes the mystery success stories so great! Truly great mystery novels overcome everything to make the reader feel challenged but smart! Through clever twists and turns, they manage to tie a confusing knot which is immensely satisfying for a reader to untangle! For a time, the reader feels like a true genius. A master detective.
Even if they were wrong from the very beginning.