It was always called Crime Fiction in the UK and Mystery Fiction in the USA. Then, along came the internet and definitions blurred. Dozens of linked genres and sub-genres muddy the waters. You have detective stories, murder mysteries, whodunnits, hardboiled, cosies, historical, noir, private detectives… The list is practically endless and overlaps all the time. It’s perfectly possible for a historical whodunnit to be a police procedural about a serial killer, with a woman detective.
Mystery Fiction must be centred around a problem that needs solving. Traditionally, the puzzle would involve at least one murder. Or, at the very least, a serious crime such as high-end art theft or blackmail. Misdemeanours, such as house-breaking and mugging aren’t serious enough to get the reader’s attention. Good Mystery Fiction fully engages the reader.
The Detective or Detectives
The protagonist in Mystery Fiction is usually a detective of some sort. They can be amateur or professional. In the sub-genre known as police procedurals, she would be officially employed. Notable examples include Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus, Inspector Maigret, the 87th Precinct series of Ed McBain, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels.
Many of the best detectives seem to work in the private sector. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, and George Pelecanos’s Derek Strange spring to mind. These sleuths will work with the official police, but only when it suits them. Let’s not forget the amateur detective. These guys come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from the ageing spinster of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, to the suave gads-about-town such as Simon Templar, Arthur J Raffles, and Nick & Nora Charles. You don’t have to dig very deep to find amateur detectives who are writers, bakers, actors, undertakers. Even cats.
Mystery Fiction Needs A Mystery
Having found the protagonist, the next step is to examine the crime. As I said earlier, it usually takes a murder to get things going. Being Mystery Fiction, the reader won’t know who did it or why until very near the bitter end. There will be a corpse, of course. And a small number of suspects who had both the opportunity and the motive to do away with the deceased. Think of a typical English country house, a storm raging outside. The owner, a rich businessman called Colonel Mustard, has just announced to his collected family and family friends that he is going to cut them out of his will. He intends to leave his fortune to CND. Well, maybe not CND, but you get the idea.
A couple of hours later, his corpse is discovered in his study. His head was stove in with his favourite Maasai hunting club. Did I mention the Colonel was a collector of traditional African military artefacts? Well, he was. Luckily, one of the guests staying for the weekend just happens to be the noted detective, Hercule Marple. The sleuth sets about collecting the suspects together for questioning. Needless to say, he will have solved the mystery within twenty-four hours.
Bring on the Suspects
Some say that Mystery Fiction should always have an enclosed group of suspects. It depends on your definition of the term but I have to disagree. Part of the fun of many detective stories is watching the protagonist tease motives out of the most unlikely subjects. Provided the reader doesn’t know who the killer is until the end, I have no problem with the suspects coming to light by whatever means the author deems necessary.
Very occasionally, there will be a distinct lack of suspects and no discernible motive. Part of the mystery involves the detective working out who hated the victim enough to shoot, stab, and poison him or her, and why. To make matters worse, sometimes the body is found inside a locked room that no human being could have entered. This genre is generally known as the Locked Room Mystery and was most successfully showcased by the American John Dickson Carr in the 1930s and 1940s.
It is important the author does not cheat. In Mystery Fiction, it is imperative that the reader is given the same clues as the detective. Part of the author’s skill is to disguise these snippets of pertinent information. Inserting a ‘red herring’ here and there may be difficult to do, but it is necessary. When the reader has come to the end of the book, it is important for them to feel satisfied with the mystery. If the general feeling is disappointment or disbelief, then the author has failed.
I suggest all would-be Mystery authors read as much of Agatha Christie’s fiction as they can. They will see that the prose isn’t always well written. The descriptions and characterisation may be on the sketchy side. All that doesn’t really matter. Let’s not forget that Dan Brown didn’t get rich because of his superior writing style. Agatha Christie had some great ideas and her plotting is seamless. Similarly, she could drop a clue in full view and, even when you are expecting it, would fail to make note of it. That’s genius.
Mystery Fiction is very hard to write. At least, it’s hard to write well. To be honest, when I started work on Murder by the Seaside, I had no idea how difficult it was going to be. Those who know me will be aware I’ve written around twenty novels under pseudonyms or as a ghostwriter. Because I was determined to write a mystery series under my own name, I put myself under additional pressure.
In the past, when I’d been commissioned to write a mystery novel, I was able to work out a story in a morning, almost on the back of a cigarette packet (though I’d not smoked since 1990). Writing it was usually a doddle. I’d be working from a detailed synopsis and I knew where I was going. Occasionally, I’d stop and think, ‘this part could be better’, or, ‘does this work?’ but, unless it was something major, I’d shrug it off and keep going.
When it’s my own name on the cover, I found I look at it differently. I really wanted it to be the best I could make it. I know it’s an impossible goal, but I would like every reader to enjoy Murder at the Seaside. I’m hoping I’ll get better and better and that one day I’ll be able to knock out a mystery novel in a week, like past masters such as John Creasey and Isaac Asimov. Fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the DI Marc Coren detective mysteries as much as I enjoyed writing them. You can sample the series with the novelette, Last Bus to Ramsgate, which you can get for free by clicking here and joining my email list. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy those too.