What Makes A Mystery?

I started writing children's stories about dogs and cats when our writers' group challenged its members to write mysteries. We came up with a neat short template for the creation of a "quick" mystery:
  1. At number one, write down who is going to misunderstand something.
  2. At number five, write down the dire consequence of the misunderstanding.
  3. At number seven, write down the resolution – all is calm, mystery solved, misunderstanding corrected.
  4. Back to number three: What did your protagonist misunderstand? What incorrect conclusion did they draw?
  5. Number four: How did they act on that conclusion and how did it cause the dire consequences at number five.
  6. Number two: How did they come to hear/see/learn the thing they misunderstood?
  7. Number six: How did they come to realize they’d got things wrong, and how did they fix it to land us at number 7.
It works for a short story, maybe, but not for a novel. After all, novels need multiple peaks and troughs, problems that build on what's gone before, and resolutions that tie far more than just the one loose end. I kind of suspect I'll never write a "real" mystery, but I'll certainly enjoy reading them.

Of course, if my list really isn't enough, I've got to ask what makes a real mystery? 
  1. A cozy mystery will offer red herrings, a limited list of possible antagonists, and a single or securely well-defined collection of crimes. Probably the crime shouldn't be too gruesome, or the mystery might devolve into horror.
  2. A procedural mystery will follow someone who investigates crime while following, or choosing not to follow, well-defined, well-outlined rules. Investigations might lead to dead ends or dire dangers, but the route should be clear.
  3. A character-driven mystery might use crime and consequences to draw the reader closer to a character - probably the investigator unless we're heading back into horror again - who's personal background and progress are as important as solving the crime.
  4. And a literary mystery will break all the rules. Literary mystery can include horror without horrifying, must include character, might follow procedures but leaves doors open to loss, and paints its herrings in far more intriguing shades. After all, red's a bit plain.
  5. Maybe...
Maybe every story has an element of mystery - something unknown which the reader seeks to learn, even if it's only the end of the tale. But I'm sure you'll have your own sorts of mysteries to add to my list. But here are three books I've read recently, with mysteries in their core. Find a coffee, and see what you think.

First is Murder in the Marais by Cara Black. There are mysteries piled upon mysteries here.The protagonist's only background is shrouded in her father's still unexplained death, but that mystery's reason (besides giving fuel for a series) is the depth it gives to her emotions, and the skill to her technique. Meanwhile there's a dead woman, a mysterious photo, a curious man who offers a curious task... and more, and more. The present (recent past) blends with terrors of the past (World War II), and the author renders both with convincing skill. I look forward to enjoying more of the series when I can find time, with elegantly complex four-star coffees to drink.

Likewise fueled by history of the second world war, Hitler Mussolini and Me by Charles Davis might not technically be a mystery, but it's literary and it's got secrets. Darkly comedic, wonderfully researched, and fiercely irreverent, it's narrated by an honest Irish art historian who somehow was credited with kindness to men best remembered for anything but. Watching the story unfold through his eyes, and sharing his mixed sadness and regret at its ending, the reader is convincingly reminded that the world's most evil men weren't followed by selfish fools, but by honest citizens with honest needs. The sins of the future weren't seen in the past, and the worst monsters can grown from flatulent men. Enjoy this one's dark humor with another complex four-star coffee.

Clamour of Crows by Ray Merritt tells parallel tales of mystery and redemption as a man, broken by loss, returns to the world he once knew and is straight away involved in the question of whether a rich man's death is from murder, suicide or natural causes. Intricate, word-spanning, and oddly heart-warming, it's a complex, clamouring tale, with a wonderful dog, and a wonderful sense of hope and surprise. Enjoy with more complex four-star coffee.

And then decide, if you will, what makes a mystery. Was I right to include HM&M in this list?


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