Over the last couple of years, since I’ve been running the Field of Mystery Book Group, I’ve had lots of occasions to think about what makes a good mystery. Some of the books we’ve selected have been all right, some have been less than all right (one I actually hated, and said as much in the meeting), and some have been really good. Reading our most recent selection, The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves, helped me to come to some conclusions about what kind of mystery I like best.
I’m as fond of a good twist as the next person (though, having read a lot of thrillers and mysteries, I’m a little harder to surprise with a twist these days), and a clever puzzle with lots of red herrings and dead ends is always entertaining, but what really makes a good mystery for me is more than the plot, however clever and twisted.
The depth of characters and the breadth of the world the author creates are what I’m looking for. I want a mystery that sucks me into a whole world, a place that feels alive and realistic, where you feel the people go on and have lives outside their roles in this particular case. When you’re reading the book, you should feel as if you’re actually there, whether “there” is a small town in Devon, England, or a private school for girls in Dublin, or a neighborhood in Tokyo.
The other thing I look for is characters as complicated and conflicted as real people. I especially love a book that starts out with a character presented in a particular way that then reveals more and more facets to the character, so you’re forced to question whether the initial impression was accurate at all. For instance, in The Long Call, we’re given one view of the victim at the outset, and then as we gradually learn more and more about him, he becomes more and more of a human being, flawed and struggling, and quite different from the person we originally thought he was. Lots of writers devote this kind of attention to their main characters and the continuing characters in a series, but to me, the mark of a really good writer is that they give that kind of loving attention to many characters, not just the detectives and the suspects, but the people surrounding them. P.D. James was good at this, as are Tana French and Ruth Ware and Ann Cleeves and Minette Walters, to name a few.
Which is not to say that plot isn’t important. Obviously a mystery where the answer is obvious from the outset isn’t much of a mystery, and neither is a mystery where the answer, when revealed, seems to have no relationship with the rest of the plot. A great mystery plot turns on the particular characters of these particular individuals, and when the solution is finally revealed, you feel as if you should have guessed it all along but you didn’t because it was too cleverly hidden from you through the book.
Reading a good mystery is an immersive experience, one that engages the emotions as well as the intellect. I’m delighted to have discovered so many really good ones through the book group, and hope you, too, will find the kind of mystery that keeps you up extra hours because you just have to find out what happened to these characters you care about.