Mystery Writing: Taking a Clue from the Pros


Vision 13


Mystery Writing: 
Taking a Clue from the Pros



Russ Gifford

Copyright © 2003, Russ Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Of all the genre stories, the mystery might have the best known blueprint for a successful story. Tell an intriguing tale, seasoned with an underlying theme of danger and liberally spiced with tension, and you have the basis for a great book. Combine those traits with a great character, and you might have an evergreen series, if the results of those authors that spend their time on the bestseller lists are any indication. The stories of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Philip Marlowe and many others still draw readers today. And the stories written by the man who brought the private eye back into style in the 1970's, and the woman who put the first female private eye on those same lists, are still writing their exploits today.

The mystery/suspense genre offers a clear outline for would be writers.  Obviously, however, writing any book is difficult, writing a good book is even harder, and writing a best seller is an incredible feat. Let's look at the body of evidence compiled by Robert B. Parker and Sue Grafton, and see if we can find any clues to creating a best selling mystery.

Robert Parker published his 29th Spenser novel, "Widow's Walk," in 2002, and did something he rarely does: he actually built the story around a murder mystery. Did the young wife kill her aging husband? Everyone thinks so, and Spenser, hired by the defense attorney, has to find the answer. This is strange turf for a Spenser novel. In most cases he is seeking a missing person, or a stolen item, and the murder comes later. 'Mystery' is rarely the driving force. Frequently, Spenser decides who is the likely culprit, and spends his time "tugging on loose threads" until he finally forces the bad guy to reveal himself. 

Sue Grafton, the creator of the first female private eye to reach bestseller status, almost always has a true mystery on her hands. In "Q is for Quarry," the 17th Kinsey Millhone outing, Grafton has returned to her roots, looking into an unsolved murder. Unlike Spenser, though, in almost every Grafton novel the mystery remains until the final scene, following the traditional formula for the mystery/suspense genre.

Characters We Care About

These books, and the other best sellers like them, give us an important first clue: unlike the traditional mystery novel, the plot might simply be an excuse to spend time with the lead character! Like youngsters sitting at the foot of an aged grandparent, we readers are really only buying these books to see what pithy truths we might glean when we view the world from Spenser or Millhone's perspective. 

However, as we see from recent reviews and sales history, that formula has faltered in recent years. Let's look closely at the problems, and how these best-selling authors have worked to overcome these issues.

Lack of Mystery Equals Lack of Suspense?

Since the "bad guy" is often known early on in many Spenser books, the suspense is generated by the question of Spenser's survival. In the early stories, before Spenser was a household name, that fear of death or serious injury carried the series, and served the writer and the reader well. But as the Spenser books became a fixture, the nature of a continuing series undercut that strategy. Not much chance Parker, or anyone else, would walk away from a highly profitable series before the author was ready to hang up his pen for good. Given Parker's intense love affair with the two supporting characters, and their success as characters, he isn't likely to kill or maim Hawk or Susan, either, so that avenue was closed as well.


Grafton, meanwhile, tried a different track. A number of her stories became "on the road" adventures, where Kinsey is sucked along in the whirlwind of events, which prevented a normal structured approach to the plot. Unpredictable things happen, which Kinsey could only deal with, not foresee. Unfortunately, the situation also left readers wondering what happened to the forceful character they liked reading about!

Surprise Endings

Grafton's other attempts remained more traditional mysteries. But in an effort to keep the series lively, the plots suddenly incorporated an additional twist at the end, surprising Kinsey – and the reader. Unfortunately, these endings were too much of a surprise, and violated the genre agreement that the ending will provide a satisfying answer, since they seemed contrived only to fool the reader.

Thus, recent outings for Spenser and Millhone have been met with some indifference, and in many cases, disappointment. Would the market finally put these premier private eyes out of circulation? 


Both of these authors had proven early on they are grandmaster writers of mystery and suspense fiction, and neither would willingly be consigned to the "hack" pile. Watching their efforts to resurrect their series' fortunes tells us a great deal about what a great P.I. novel requires.

In the newest Spenser, Parker clearly makes the effort to re-introduce the concept of a mystery, and keeps the tension on by drawing out the suspense. By keeping the reader guessing as to the actual killer, and more importantly, as in all Spenser books, the reason why someone acts as they do, he successfully keeps the reader's attention.

Not only did he add the air of mystery, he also brings back a character that could sow trouble for Spenser, as in a former love interest. Parker also allows the normally imperturbable Susan to display a jealous side as well.

These actions show us that the balance between plot and character are important. The effort also shows us that Parker knows where his problems lie. Is it completely successful? No. Is it better than the last handful of Spenser books? Absolutely. And these are lessons we writers need to learn. Too many of the recent Spenser novels have been pre-programmed. More importantly, Spenser had stopped giving readers those deep insights or sardonic asides on his peculiar view of the world. He no longer described the colors, textures, or clothes in the ironic sense or style that he used to tell the reader how he really felt about fashion, or fads. Parker, obviously, could see this loss as well, and moved toward correcting it.

These are things we would be writers also need to learn. Can we infuse our characters with a viewpoint that helps our readers see the world in a different light? Can we impart excitement, or displeasure, strictly from our description of the item, not our statement of our feelings?  This is something both Parker and Grafton previously excelled at. And it is important. We base our view of the character not on them telling us how they feel, but by feeling it with them.

Status Quo?

Another problem is inherent to continuing characters: They rarely are allowed to grow, as that would mean change, and we, the reader, might not come back. That, of course, flies in the face of the concept of a book, where a character must face a major crisis, and demonstrate personal growth in overcoming that problem. Since the series character ostensibly does not change -- much --the impact of the climax of the previous book rarely has a long-term effect.

Aging Heroes vs. Aging Writers

Also, preventing change encompasses another problem. How do we handle the maturation of the character as the writer grows older? As an example, Spenser in 1971 could be a Korean vet, but if that's so, today he'd be older than Dirty Harry, and less likely to win fights. Parker chooses to still refer to Spenser's aging, but mainly because his age was a theme from the beginning. Spenser was older than the "normal" P.I. at the time of his first book, and all the early books dealt with a man who had made his way in the world by physical means dealing with the slowing that comes with age. Spenser was in his late thirties, if not already 40, in his first book.

As Parker has aged, there is more rumination in Spenser as well. And, this has also led to another difficulty: the action has decreased in these later books, as well as the romance. 

Kinsey "Ages" Gracefully

In her latest outing, Grafton has chosen to meet this challenge directly. She has sown the seeds of future change for Kinsey. She is foreshadowing these changes, and providing a hook to bring readers back to the next book. This time, she is perhaps less subtle than others, leaving many unresolved issues to later books. If the action or the plot falls short of the goal in a particular story, it appears Ms. Grafton hopes you'll return anyway, to learn details of Kinsey's childhood, and how the story of newly discovered family will play out.

This perhaps reveals more of Grafton's TV background, but it is a good technique to consider, since the continuing character shares much in common with a TV show character.

Grafton, too, has toned down the violence, and the sex, from her earlier stories. In her case, however, it seems a bit off. Early on, Grafton made it clear she was tackling the aging issue. In the first 3 books, each published a year apart, only three months passed in Kinsey's world. Now, almost 20 books later, only 3 years have gone by.

While a good ploy, again, think of the problems this presents for the writer. Computers and the World Wide Web are not beckoning to give the answers to Kinsey, as well as a host of other changes in the past 17 years that cannot be allowed to affect her world. This can be a bit disconcerting for the reader, since it makes us shift gears, rather than the character. "Why doesn't she have a cell phone? She could call for help… oh. Right."

The Results

Thus, both writers, acknowledged as top writers in the suspense/mystery genre, have taken the effort to re-energize their marquee titles. They have faced the reality: their recent books were not as good as the earlier ones. They also acknowledged that the key issue was the characters had to return to what drew the readers to the first books. Did they succeed? The answer is "yes." Though both took different paths, they reached the destination. Both of these are better books than the previous one, and buy each another year.

Pulling the Lessons Together

Even for Parker, who talks of how much he enjoys writing, and how the Spenser books "write themselves," saw that he needed to make changes to the trend of the previous books. He chose to branch out, and bring the character's insights back to the fore, but also to try to introduce a stronger plot, moving back to the mystery of earlier books. It is easy to see the difference that effort has made.

Grafton, also clearly has a plan to reach 'Z', and has taken the steps necessary to see we get there with her. She chose to change the safe, static structures that surrounded Kinsey, pushing her into the "real" world, and changing Kinsey as she responds to these new problems. The response has been positive, and has resulted in more attention to this book than the last four or five.

Though these authors are no longer young Turks, desperately hungry for fame and success, money or recognition, they could have taken the money and ran. Instead, they are both willing and able to make changes to prolong the public's interest in their books.

Perhaps this is the most important thing we would be writers can learn from these masters: everyone has to work at writing, even the "big guns."

The second most important this we can learn, though, is that no matter who you are, if you work at your writing, you can improve.