March 14, 2022

How to Read a Mystery by Marshall Thornton

How to Read a Mystery by Marshall Thornton

Since I’m a mystery writer myself, it should not come as a shock that I enjoy reading mysteries. In fact, there have been long periods in my life when I’ve read nothing but mysteries. Naturally, writing mysteries has changed the way that I read them, and the way that I read them has changed the way I write them. Here are a few suggestions on how to read a mystery.

Early on in a book or a story or a movie, you should ask yourself, What kind of mystery is this? There are many, many types of mysteries and you don’t have to pick just one. There are whodunits which rely almost entirely on the puzzle of figuring out who the killer is, there are suspenseful mysteries which are less about who did than how will your protagonist survive, there are cozy mysteries which love the puzzle but avoid the violence and then there are whydunits where you know what happened, you just don’t know why. You could be reading a procedural about how a police officer solves a crime, a PI mystery following a private investigator, a legal mystery where the intricacies of the court weigh in heavily, or you could be following an amateur sleuth with a bad habit of tripping over corpses. Understanding the kind of mystery you’re reading will not only help you understand the book you’re reading, it will help you choose the next one.

Now, it could be that an author is blending several types of mystery together, and that can be quite lovely as long as the author is playing fair. I have read—unfortunately I don’t remember where—that the killer should be introduced early on so that the reader can figure it out if they’re able. I like this idea and try to introduce my killers during the first third of the book. If the killer shows up in the last chapter, well, that’s not very fun and a bit of a cheat.

Another way authors don’t play fair is by withholding important pieces of information. Yes, that is the nature of mysteries, but when a writer withholds information solely for the purpose of tricking you it can feel like a cheat. In my opinion, the best information to withhold is things the characters don’t want anyone to know. But even then, even in the case of an unreliable narrator, there should be opportunities to see what’s really happening. Either through the situations presented or the dialogue of other characters, there should be the sense that it is the character trying to trick you, not the author.

Of course, a mystery can be disappointing if it’s too easy to figure out. That said, some readers will always figure out who did it early on. Shortly after I began writing mysteries, I decided not to worry too much about whether readers could figure out who did it. I thought about mysteries where I figured out who the murder was early on but still enjoyed, and decided the reason I enjoyed them had to do with the characters themselves. The characters should always be people you’d be willing to read about even if there were no mystery. That way your brightest readers will still enjoy your book.

Like any kind of story, mysteries have a specific structure. If you read (or watch) enough mysteries, you’ll figure it out. Years ago, I had the flu and binge-watched Law & Order SVU on a cable channel (before streaming). Of course, I kept falling asleep, but the great thing about the show was that I could figure out what was happening by checking the clock. It if it was quarter past or half past, whoever the bad guy seemed to be, they weren’t. If it was fifteen minutes to the hour, whoever seemed to be the bad guy was the bad guy. Books are like that as well. Now, in order to get around the reader’s ability to pick up on structure, I sometimes (and other writers do this too) make it seem like the real killer is the killer early on, then switch to one or two or three strong possibilities. An astute reader will think, he seemed like the killer on page fifty so he can’t be the killer. Then I circle back on page two hundred and fifty and—aha! he is the killer.

Another thing to keep an eye on are the details. There should be lots and lots of details. Most of them will just be interesting on their own. Some of them, possibly even many of them, will mean much more than they appear to. Just like the killer, the details of the crime, the secrets that lead to capture should be presented as early as possible. So, if one of the problems is that there’s no murder weapon. It should be there in plain sight. That puts me in mind of a great episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: a woman bludgeons her husband to death but the police can’t figure out how she did it. Meanwhile, dinner is cooking in the oven. A previously frozen leg of lamb!

One of the things I most enjoy about writing mysteries, and I think this is true for readers as well, is that I can write about anything. One of my early books, Boystown 5: Murder Book is at heart a book about grief. I realized that after I wrote it. I also realized that normally very few readers would buy a book about grief from me. In order to sell a book solely about grief you have be someone like Joan Didion or Joyce Carol Oates.

This might sound a bit like I’m pulling a bait and switch, and to a certain degree that’s true. I think a lot of mystery readers would not pick up a book strictly about grief even when it’s by a famous writer. But that same reader may enjoy what they’ve found when they read the mystery… or, they’ll pretty much ignore the parts about grief or love or betrayal or growing up or whatever the book is really about and focus on the mystery.

Working the mystery genre has allowed me to reach readers I’d otherwise never reach. It allows me to use the genre as a platform to say almost anything I’d like to say. Like most genre-books, mysteries can be dismissed as not being ‘important’. But I think that’s too easy. Mysteries actually have much to say, they just do it in an entertaining way.

You can ignore all of what I’ve just said and still have a lovely time reading (or watching) a mystery. The most important advice I have about mysteries is to jump in and enjoy them!