Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Mystery Writers, Mystery Readers, and Cracking the Case

I’m not one to abandon a novel midway through reading it. Most of the time, even if I'm not enamored with a book, I can’t quite let myself quit! But I discovered recently that mysteries are a special case. After sorting out a story’s central twist, and at a spot much earlier than I had expected, I couldn’t help but put the book down. It had all just happened too soon!

This is not the fault of the book, Beast in View by Margaret Millar; I probably only pieced the mystery together because Millar's novel has had legions of imitators in the decades since its publication. (Though I’d still recommend Charlotte Armstrong’s  Mischief and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer first, both of which are present—along with Beast in View—in the Library of America’s excellent Women Crime Writers collection.) But the whole thing got me thinking about the different relationships readers and writers may have to mystery stories.

Say you’re a mystery writer: As you put a story together, how much thought do you give to the process of deduction a reader might go through, as opposed to your character’s process of deduction? Do you ever feel like you’re challenging readers to figure out the puzzle before your sleuth does?

C.M. Surrisi is the author of The Maypop Kidnapping, a witty middle-grade mystery set in a Maine vacation town, out this year from Carolrhoda. (A sequel, Vampires on the Run, arrives in spring 2017.) When I posed these questions to C.M., she said,

I write my stories in the first person from the POV of the detective. Since first-person POV only reveals to the reader what the character experiences, the reader and the detective are one. However, mystery-loving readers in this circumstance typically enjoy trying to second-guess the detective. Clues can be interpreted differently, events can take on varying significance, and so on. So I expect the reader to view the world through my detective’s eyes, but I provide clues that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. The reader is free to agree with or question the detective’s analytical conclusions.

Trisha Speed Shaskan’s foray into mystery begins next year with Q & Ray, a series of graphic novels for early readers, illustrated by Trisha’s partner in crime, Stephen Shaskan. (The first case, The Missing Mola Lisa, will arrive in fall 2017.)  Trisha told me that,

While writing the Q & Ray mysteries, I figure out the plot and how it might unfold, then plant clues and evidence for the characters and the readers. Gillian Roberts, author of the Amanda Pepper series, states in her book You Can Write a Mystery that crime stories are three stories in one; what physically happened, the theory of what happened, and what really happened. I hope readers experience all three of those stories. I also hope they are challenged to try to solve the mystery before Q and Ray do!

Mystery writers are also mystery readers, of course, so I had another question for the authors. When you read a mystery yourself, do you find yourself working to crack the case, or do you prefer to sit back at let the story unfold?

C.M. tries to keep one step ahead of a book’s sleuth. “No question about it,” she said. “And I prefer mysteries where the author gives me some latitude to question the detective’s handling of the case.”


Trisha agreed: “When I read a mystery, I don my deerstalker, collect the clues, and try to crack the case!”


Post by Greg Hunter, Associate Editorial Director - Graphic Universe

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