What Makes a Mystery Good?
What Makes a Mystery Good - The Kate George version.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it takes to make a good mystery, and you know what I’ve discovered? I don’t know. Yep, I’m a mystery writer and I don’t know what makes a good mystery. I think that’s because the characters are more important to me than the plot.
Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated by the Da Vinci Code. That was some interesting stuff that Dan Brown threw in there. I was right there with him the whole way, examining The Last Supper and wondering how much of this stuff was true. In fact, I still want to know how much of it is true. But at least in part that was because I identified with Dr. Robert Langdon. That Dude was in a heck of a bind.
What gets me interested in any story, mystery or not, is the protagonist. Can I relate? Do I get inside his or her head? Are the characters believable? I can take quite a bit of improbability if the protagonist comes alive for me. It’s the cast of characters, the human – or not so human – interactions that make or break a story for me. If the relationships fall flat, if they don’t ring true, if the cast is acting out of character, then it doesn’t matter what the writer does with the plot, I just can’t get into it.
Jenny Crusie was talking about this on her blog (http://www.jennycrusie.com/ ) the other day. Characters need vulnerabilities in order for us to care about them. When a flawed person unravels the murder it’s much more satisfying than if a perfect person figures it out. After all, it’s not that difficult for a perfect person to do anything, we expect perfection to succeed. But when a person with physical, emotional or psychological wounds triumphs, we triumph with them. We cheer the underdog.
Think of your favorite protagonists. Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall loves her ex-husband but can’t live with him. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is an incompetent bounty hunter and terrible at relationships. P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh get’s too involved in his cases, and also has relationship troubles. Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax is aging and doesn’t think there is anything left for her to contribute to life. She is the antithesis of everything we expect the hero of an international spy to be.
As at turns out Emily Pollifax is a tough old bird and comes through a lot of trials and tribulations. But we never stop worrying about her. She could be our grandmother, and how dare anyone put her in harm’s way.
But here’s the thing about Mrs. Emily Pollifax; she makes connections with people wherever she goes. Language and cultural differences don’t dissuade her. She’s wise enough to know what binds us together as the human race. She lets others see her vulnerabilities and as a result she is liked and helped by people around the world. She is especially respected by the younger, stronger men she ends up working with because she can accomplish through reaching out to people what they cannot do with spy skills and brute force.
Are the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries probable? Probably not. Do I care about her and want her to succeed? Yes. And in the end, when Mrs. Pollifax comes home stronger and wiser, having thwarted an international bad guy, I’m elated. Because if Mrs. Pollifax can do it so can I.
So in the end what makes a good mystery for me is a flawed protagonist I can relate to, dipped in enough hot water that I worry how it’s all going to turn out all right.
And so we come to my Protagonist, Bella Bree MacGowan. Here we have a thirty-year-old woman who hasn’t really gotten around to starting her life. Bree went to college, but then went to work as a paste-up tech at her best friend’s weekly newspaper. She works two jobs to keep herself in dogs and ponies. Her relationships are all short term. She attracts trouble, which may be why she can’t keep boyfriends. Bree is a flawed protagonist if I there ever was one.
But she rises to the occasion. She does what needs to be done with what the materials at hand. She’s resourceful, and best of all Bree has a sense of humor. She handles everything with a little irreverence and takes us along on the ride with her. If you like your mystery with a side of laughter, Bree is the protagonist for you.
Award winning writer, Kate George, is the author of Moonlighting in Vermont and California Schemin’ (due out March 1, 2011). She lives in Vermont with Dogs, kids, and currently, snow. You can reach her at http://www.kategeorge.com/ . Her books are available at http://www.mainlymurderpress.com/ , amazon.com or can be ordered from any bookstore.