Friday, August 24, 2012

What Makes a Good Mystery? by Marcia Applegate

Hi, folks!

Please join me in welcoming back former communications/media consultant and columnist Marcia Applegate, who has kindly agreed to guest blog with us every month on Murderby4! We are thrilled to have her here, particularly because she's also known as "The Mystery Lady." Welcome, Marcia!

- Aaron Lazar


copyright 2012, Marcia Applegate

What makes a good mystery is a matter of opinion. While individual viewpoints will vary depending on whom you ask, there is one definition on which almost everyone–writer, editor, agent, publisher, or reader will agree. A good mystery is one that readers will read and that will sell.

Because a mystery sells, does that mean it’s good? That depends. Not everybody will buy every writer’s work. Some see a name and know they won’t read that one. Others have every book a writer has written. So that brings us back to our starting point–what makes a good mystery is a matter of opinion.

I rarely buy a book simply because of an intriguing title, although it may get me to open the book. My buying decisions are based on a bit of sometimes on-the-spot research. When I’m browsing in a bookstore and a title or jacket catches my eye, I read the jacket blurb for a sense of what’s inside, what the author offers–or what the publisher thought would attract readers. On the web, I look for reviews from newspapers–the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, my local Citizen-Times, others.

I also read and thoroughly enjoy online reader comment at bookseller sites such as B&N, Amazon. The variety of opinion among all sorts of critics, especially the casual readers on the bookseller sites is entertaining, provocative, and opinionated. Comments cover the waterfront–I loved it! I hated it! It bored me. I just couldn’t get into it! A great read! Don’t waste your time! So, here we are again, back where we started. What makes a good mystery is a matter of opinion.

So, here are my expectations when I begin to read. . . .This is what I look for in any novel or short story–mystery or otherwise. In line with full disclosure, I’ve been a published and professional writer for many years. Now that I’m retired, I write mysteries (unpublished) for fun more than profit. Note that this is not a lesson for writers on how to write; this is my opinion based on years of reading and writing mysteries. After all, this is a mystery blog. What follows is a brief overview, to be sure, but I’ve learned that starting with these expectations gives my mystery reading more depth and value, more of a sense of time well spent.
  • Plot . . . The plot must make sense to me; it must be realistic according to its own terms. The plot can be and usually is revealed bit by bit, but every revelation must fit logically with the earlier ones. I don’t want to feel “Whoa, did I miss something?” I love to be surprised and follow complex twists and turns, but I don’t want to be yanked out of the story by something that doesn’t fit.
  • Characters . . . For me, here is where a book lives or dies. The characters must seem real–while I’m reading. They can do surprising or extraordinary or unexpected things, but everything must fit the character the author is creating. If I find myself thinking “She’d never do that,” the writer has gone too far afield and I lose interest.
  • Setting . . . A story can be set in any century or any location, but to me, there should be a reason why the story takes place there. I not only want to feel the climate–hot and sweaty, cold and dreary, whatever it may be–and feel as if I’m there along with the characters, but if there are elements in the tale that wouldn’t work anywhere but in that place and time, it adds to my enjoyment. Conversely, it strikes a sour note when a character uses a tool, makes a joke or tosses off a slang term or insult not in existence when the story takes place. And certainly, clothing and hair styles that don’t belong in the era reduce the authenticity of a plot.
  • Language . . . I prefer plain English in most cases, although I can enjoy a story written in dialect, accent or bad grammar, if they are rendered consistently. I recently read a short story, in one of the leading crime and mystery mags, where a character would say, “He don’t . . .” in one comment, and “He doesn’t . . .” in another. If the writer is going for bad grammar for a character, let’s stick with it all the way.
  • The  crime . . . The crime can take place anywhere in the plot from the first paragraph to halfway through or even farther along, assuming there is a reason for it being where it is. The crime can be straightforward, understated or even implied, it can be shocking and ugly. Someone can shove a pedestrian, an apparent stranger, under a bus, but there should be a rationale for its happening the way it does.
  • The conclusion . . . After all is said and done, I want all to have been said and done. The end must follow logically as the reader is led through the story to its conclusion. It’s nice, I think, if there is a they-got-what-they-deserved feel about the ending of the tale. But many times, there are loose ends that the story requires be left hanging. And that’s fine, too, as long as the story calls for that.
In other words, a good mystery to me can be . . . set anywhere and at any time, have any characters and any crime, or be long or short. It can be one that I’ve solved before the writer chooses to reveal it. It can be one that keeps me guessing until the last sentence. But, in every case, a good mystery plays fair with readers and–however convoluted and strewn with red herrings the path may be–it leads us from the promise of the beginning to the logical end of the tale.


Marcia Applegate blogs as  and tweets as!/meladolce
She is a retired communications/media consultant and columnist. For fun, she enjoys reading (and writing) mysteries and studying Italian. She also loves music, her husband and family, her two cats, eBooks, blogging, and her brand-new IPad! Visit her blogs at and


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Marcia, thank you so much for being here today, we truly appreciate this fine guest blog! The question is one I'm sure all of us mystery writers ask ourselves all the time, I know I do. There are certain elements that almost seem intangible with some writers which bring them out and above the pack. In the end, I think it's pure talent and great writing. Like John D. MacDonald (my hero) - his plots are good, his characters memorable, but it's that deep down gorgeous writing that just hooks me every single time, coupled with his insightful commentary on society and all its ills...I'm currently re-reading(listening to) A Deadly Shade of God again. My God, it is brilliant beyond brilliant. I can't get enough of Travis McGee stories!

Kim Smith said...

Marcia, what a fantastic post! thanks so much for sharing and for being with us!