This book draws on ideas used in Frey's other books (How to Write a Damn Good Novel, How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, The Key), but you don't have to have read anything else by him to get a lot out of this one. He starts off by talking about mysteries, why they are the way they are, and why they are so popular. I don't agree with everything he says -- for example, he says that mysteries have to be murders, but I think a well-planned theft might well work. However, it's a good framework to discuss mysteries within.

He has a detailed discussion on what makes for a good hero/detective, and what traits a murderer needs to have to be compelling. Interestingly, according to his analysis, both are likely to be wounded, but whereas a villain becomes embittered, afraid, and ready to lash out, a hero, through her actions, is likely to become at least partially healed.

The hero's journey also comes in for some discussion, with reference to his earlier books as well as Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. He breaks the "damn good mystery" down into five acts, each of which corresponds to stages in the hero's journey, from accepting the quest, to death and rebirth, to continued testing, to confrontation with evil, and finally to homecoming. For each of these acts, he has a separate chapter showing how to use that particular part of the arc in a novel, with a chapter dediciated to how to write the climax.

After his discussion of the plotting, he turns to the normal meat of writing books everywhere -- what makes good prose (or "damn good prose," in keeping with his nomenclature), how to choose viewpoint, the importance of revision, and what to do when you're done writing, such as how to get an agent. In the chapter on prose, he gives a useful exercise for how to check your prose to see what you might be lacking -- comparing your work to that of a published writer for active verbs versus "to be" verbs, for sensuous details, for emotion, for metaphors, and for telling details. (You probably want to do this for more than one author; I imagine the balance of these elements varies from writer to writer, and seeing the level of variation would be good, too.)

In the final chapter, he talks about having a killer attitude -- getting out there to sell your work, yes, but also always working at improving your craft and always writing new things. Very good reminders.

The single most useful thing I got from the book was the reminder that every character has their own story. Not in a general sense, but specifically -- he shows the plotting of a book, including what the reader never sees as each character goes about his own life. That single idea will vastly improve my next mystery, and quite possibly any other story that I'm writing from a single viewpoint. (Multiple viewpoint books tend to cover that material by not having much of anything be off-screen.) Red herrings and false trails will develop organically rather than being something I feel I need to put in to mislead the detective. The other characters will take care of that for me!

On the flip side, not everything he said resonates with me. There is no way I'm writing a twenty to thirty page biography exploring the physical, psychological, and sociological background of all my characters. Ten major characters? That's half a book (or more) right there. Twenty characters? Nope, I'm not writing a book's worth of background material before I write the actual novel. I'm glad it works for him, and if it works for you -- and you enjoy it -- more power to you. Me, not so much.

One of his decisions in writing the book actually slowed down my progress in reading it. In the tradition of the best teachers, he used examples to show how things were done, and he worked out all the background and plotting of a book called Murder in Montana as his primary example. The hero of that book -- a woman called Shakti -- I felt not the slightest trace of identification with and I couldn't care less what decisions she would make in the book. I found most of the supporting cast far more interesting, and even the short examples that he would use for only a paragraph per chapter (such as the woman found headless in a fish tank) were more interesting. I'm well aware that this is certainly a matter of personal taste, and others may have no problem with her as a character. However, this makes it clear to me that no matter how carefully one follows his guidelines for creating a character or plotting a book, one will not please everyone with the outcome.

I recommend this book for anyone writing a mystery -- or a book in another genre with a mystery plot, such as an urban fantasy. Yes, that includes writers who don't outline their books before beginning to write. Even if you don't follow his plotting and character-creation guidelines, you will find ideas to consider as you work your way through your manuscript.

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery

By James N. Frey

Published by St. Martin's Press

Hardcover ISBN: 0312304463 / ISBN-13: 9780312304461

eBook ISBN: 1429974133 / ISBN-13: 9781429974134