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What Makes a Mystery?

Take a peek behind the literary curtain, sleuth.

what makes a good mystery book?
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  • Photo Credit: Dariusz Sankowski / Unsplash

There’s nothing quite like a mystery that literally rewires the way you think. Maybe it leaves you paranoid, considering what it means to truly trust others—or perhaps it shines a light on a corner of the world that you knew very little about beforehand. Mysteries are consistently among the most popular and most addictive because, at the end of the day, we want to see behind the tired veil of a fictional world and discover something nefarious, something so dastardly and curious that it forces us to take notice, turn the pages—and join in on the journey. 

The more into mysteries you are, the more likely you’ll be to treat the mystery novel itself as its own kind of quandary—a case in need of solving, so to speak. 

So: what makes a mystery? How is it that one character becomes so much more memorable than another, or one novel so very propulsive—when others seem unappealing or otherwise lackluster? It comes down to six key ingredients that, when harnessed, add to that palpable balance between narrative and the unknown.

Related: 10 Classic Mystery Novels Everyone Should Read

A clever—and often unreliable—protagonist 

A mysterious character in a mystery story
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Perhaps the most obvious of the ingredients is developing a memorable character. Of course, a story should have a character readers—such as yourself!—can get behind; however, what mysteries and thrillers often do so well is challenge the expectations of what—and who—that character can be. How often do you have characters like Alex Cross or Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, Lisbeth Salander or Nancy Drew redefining what it means to be an endearing character? 

Related: Every Nancy Drew Adaptation, Ranked

A great mystery protagonist isn’t merely unreliable or clever: they’re both. They tend to reveal their flaws alongside their strengths. Be it a detective with a drinking problem, or a young sleuth clouded by revenge, they have their would-be positives—or those characteristics that readers instantly get behind (it helps for them to have a sense of humor and are maybe borderline on eccentric.) But they also have their demons, aspects of themselves they wish to hide from others—and therefore, the reader. That alone creates a nice meaty plot point. Discovering that the protagonist who endeared themselves to you for over 100 pages happened to also hurt, harm, or maybe even kill someone themselves? That will get you every time. 

It begins and ends with the voice/character’s perspective

This works in tandem with the complexities of the protagonist. Be it written in first person or third (or even the rarer second), equipping readers with a window into a unique and peculiar take on the world aids in securing the clever/unreliable complex balance. 

Much like the creation of the character themselves, their perspective is webbed into the nitty gritty details: the way they speak to other characters, the subtle quips they drop in dialogue. The character’s worldview is built into the actual details offered to the readers. Every line is in service of the way the protagonist sees the world—and acts as a reader’s main window into the narrative.

Related: 15 Must-Read Mysteries and Thrillers by Diverse Authors

A killer premise—sometimes literally 

A good mystery has that special kind of hook—you know what I'm talking about. First, you're reading the back cover copy; the next thing you know, you're turning to the first couple pages. And after that, you're a goner. Think of the premises found in books like Gone Girl or The Silence of the Lambs, In Cold Blood or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. These are mysteries with irresistible hooks. Clarice Starling’s skillful naivety all weaved together around a killer so heinous her only option is to seek the assistance of another, equally barbaric killer, Hannibal Lector… now that’s an interesting hook. 

thrilling beach reads

The Silence of the Lambs

By Thomas Harris

Nowadays, it’s far more common for the lines between “good” and “bad” to be blurred, with double crosses and twisting plots spiraling narratives into murky depths. These kinds of irresistible hooks risk going the way of the unknown. 

Great mystery writers will take a story about a murder and make it about less about the killing—and more about the weapon used. They’ll write a mystery about a cult, but make it about the people who don’t understand the cult rather than the so-called “evil” cult itself. The authors we love think outside of the box and break expectations apart, finding that key to an intoxicating plot. 

Related: 9 Thriller Authors Like Gillian Flynn

Tension and suggestion: how much detail is “too much”?

Mystery stories
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Like the precarious balance of clever and reliable, the authors of your favorite mysteries bring a critical eye to the line level. Though many authors offer less in the way of details at the start of a story, what they decide to show the audience is chosen with deliberate care. The details an author compartmentalizes and builds into each scene not only inform the protagonist’s worldview—but these same details also paint a very purposeful picture. These are the details that pique your curiosity as a reader. 

You keep turning pages because of subtle hints and clues you're dying to piece together. You read late into the night because of the tension that’s built through a careful balance of suggestion and reveal. The best mystery authors never reveal things too easily—and the most effective ones know when the suggestion is enough. At this point, it’s time to bring out that pivotal line of dialogue from a character who unexpectedly outs themselves as the killer.

Related: 9 Mystery Books with Surprise Plot Twists

The tried-and-true techniques

Cliffhangers, red herrings, Chekhov’s gun—whatever the technique, their intention is inevitably the same: skilled authors lead readers far enough astray to keep them curious about what will happen next. These tried and true narrative devices and tropes work in tandem with tension and suggestion. These techniques are often woven into scenes, as the mystery writers of past and present have used them to achieve their own timeless narratives. The key is that many mystery authors find exciting ways to use something familiar—like the red herring trope—to tell a fresh and compelling story.

Distinguished readers—such as yourself—can tell when an author is just checking items off the mystery box, such as figuring out what will be the red herring and where they’ll incorporate it. A seamless and innovative mystery will use a convention like “the red herring”—and use it to open up their own narrative purposes. These techniques, when wielded by a skilled pen (or keyboard, as it were) have the potential to open creative doors for writers to build out a complex mystery—the kind that will make your head spin. These tropes are like keys to locked doors—but there’s still a need to fill those rooms.

Related: 12 Domestic Thrillers That Make You Read Between the Lies

The power of “callbacks”

Murder board mystery clues
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Callbacks are details, character ticks, bits of dialogue, anything in a narrative that is built out enough to be remembered—if even offhand—by readers. When an author mentions a character perusing the bookshelves when they enter someone’s home, on the surface, it’s nothing more than a simple action within a scene. But when the same character repeats this action a second—perhaps even third—time when entering new locations, this creates the potential for a callback. As a reader you’re probably accustomed to witnessing these echoes within a story—and skilled mystery authors will use this for a satisfying effect.

When implemented well, it can really become a eureka moment for readers. Say the aforementioned character looks at bookshelves across the entire narrative, only to—somewhere in the 60-70 percent mark of the mystery—find something very specific to that character’s knowledge. It could be a rare tome that reveals deadly truths.  Or perhaps it is the antagonist’s personal volume, in which they stored incriminating correspondence with a network of villains. Whatever it is, a callback holds pure potential for adding unexpected reveals—the kinds that will catch your breath as a reader. 

The end result: you’re hyperaware of every happenstance within the narrative, recognizing that every word is a clue. That’s a good thing; it means the author has lured you into their story, kept you turning those pages, seeking the mystery’s solution. And a good mystery? It makes you question reality itself.

Related: The Best Mystery Books of All Time

Featured photo: Dariusz Sankowski / Unsplash