“The butler did it.” … “Elementary, my dear Watson” … “Little grey cells” I love a good mystery. From Agatha Christie to Stig Larsson, I revel in taking the ride with provocative characters to solve a crime. The puzzle intrigues me. I respect the heroes and hiss at the villains. I care about the characters. I crave travel to interesting settings. And I take on all those red herrings with relish—certain that I can solve the crime and track down the guilty one. Sometimes I even do guess correctly!
What makes a good mystery? At the risk of disturbing the magic of the genre, I’d like to explore the ingredients of a satisfying whodunit.
It all starts with a good puzzle. Whether solving a murder, burglary, or missing necklace, we need pieces of a story to lead us bit by bit to a conclusion. There is always a victim, and we work to understand who or what caused the offense. We gain components of the dilemma as we read on, but a slow, meticulous revelation grabs us the most.
Next, we must care about the characters. We don’t necessarily need to want to invite them for dinner, but we do want to care what they say and do, whether it be the neat-in-appearance Hercule Poirot with the “very stiff and military” moustache or the gothic-like Lisbeth Salander with her unique research skills.
Authors have provided a variety of sleuths. We can become engaged with the crime-solving efforts of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch—a “hard-boiled” detective. Or we can struggle along with amateur sleuths who have no crime-solving background, but solve the puzzle using other identifiable skills. I tend to like most of them—as long as they solve the puzzle with some cleverness and likeability. Oh, and if there’s a little romance along the way, well, we can take pleasure in that as well, e.g., Nora Roberts.
Characters can be heroes or villains. Typically the sleuth is a hero, and the villain is the perpetrator. But there can be more than one bad guy. Let’s presume for a moment that TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD is a mystery. Atticus Finch is definitely a hero—but there are more villains than just the one who committed the murder—like most of the townspeople.
In addition to compelling characters, I truly appreciate the opportunities offered by a unique setting. The limitations of a train setting in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS gave Agatha Christie the chance to show off Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells.” We could always count on some kind of horse racing background and crime in Dick Francis novels. The darkness of long Swedish winters offered a chilling backdrop for the Stig Larsson series.
To solve a puzzle is the objective of a mystery. But it can’t be too easy or we won’t enjoy it. To slow down readers from solving the misdeed, authors mix in red herrings with real clues. To be effective, red herrings are integral to the story. Authors cannot introduce them just for the sake of throwing off readers—well, maybe sometimes.
What makes a page-turner? Whether a story is a spy thriller or a cozy mystery the element of suspense enhances our enjoyment. We want a reason to start the next chapter and stay up all night to solve the crime. Will the heroine be rescued in time? Is the detective going to realize that he is headed into a trap?
As with any story, a mystery should be credible. Crime stories solved with forensic evidence are more convincing if based on the science of forensic evidence. Police procedure should at least approximate how police actually do their job—or any deviation explained. Travel times should be accurate, especially if the solution to the crime relies on timing. Accurate descriptions of setting and back story help draw readers into a story.
Ahhh—all this talk of mysteries makes me want to start reading one. There are so many mysteries still to be pursued. Some of them go beyond these simple ingredients. They engage us with especially memorable characters or complex tricky puzzles. Regardless, what fun to become absorbed in a new puzzle.
Mystery author Joyce T. Strand, much like her fictional character, Jillian Hillcrest, served as head of corporate communications at several biotech and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Unlike Jillian, however, she did not encounter murder. Rather, she focused on publicizing her companies and their products. Joyce received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA She currently lives in Southern California with her two cats, a collection of cow statuary and art, and her muse, the roadrunner.
Jillian Hillcrest returns as a PR Executive to join with a local Silicon Valley reporter who is uneasy about the supposed DUI death of an informant. He solicits Jillian’s help along with that of her neighbor, a retired police officer, to look into events in his hometown north of the Napa/Sonoma wine country. Jillian’s ex-husband grows more and more certain he wants to re-marry her. OPEN MEETINGS was inspired by a network of criminal ex- and current police officers in the broader San Francisco Bay Area.
Murder intrudes on PR Executive Jillian Hillcrest's routine as head communications executive at a small Silicon Valley biotechnology company. She is eagerly staying on message to inform investors, the media and the community about her company and its products. When someone near to her is murdered, a determined San Francisco police inspector involves her in the investigation, convinced she is key to solving the crime. She co-operates fully only to find that solving a murder is more hazardous than writing press releases. On Message is the first in the Jillian Hillcrest mystery series. As with all the novels in this series, it was inspired by a real California case.
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