Seeking to improve my skills, I ordered a copy of How to Write a Mystery, edited by Lee Child. At first glance, anyone who enjoys a whodunit would get a little excited. Some 70 authors were invited by the Mystery Writers of America to contribute, and I was eager to absorb their wisdom.
A few reasons for my interest. First, my ongoing Call of Cthulhu game. Surely developmental ideas from fellow authors could transition to the TTRPG scene quite nicely. Second, mystery knows no real bounds. The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov is an example of a sci-fi mystery, while the entire Harry Potter series is such in the trappings of magical fantasy. Even the super hero genre benefits. Batman: The Long Halloween is an excellent tale, a puzzling series of murders still discussed and analyzed today.
Coming from some professional experience, I envisioned trying a few new methodologies or perhaps adding a fresh frame of mind to the tacklebox. Unfortunately, How to Write a Mystery wasn’t exactly what I sought.
The first section entitled “The Rules and Genres” was the most effective. If anyone is asking, “wait, why does a genre have rules?” then see Adam Ellis’ hilarious dystopian YA novels parody. All genres form tiring tropes, and it never hurts to learn what has been done if only to ensure your story’s fresh. The essays in here covered several useful topics:
- How to keep a story thrilling.
- Archetypes for amateur sleuths.
- Police procedurals.
- Cross-genre elements (including historical, medical, and spy fiction).
“Other Mysteries” followed. This label was a warning, as “other” and “miscellaneous” are terms reserved for last, the “grab bag” categorization of a subject. Here they discussed catering stories for children, YA, graphic novel, and true crime markets. These were areas I’ve never considered before, and points by Susan Vaught, Chris Grabenstein and Kelley Armstrong provided great contrast to writing for adults. I didn’t expect to be enlightened, and I was pretty pleased.
The latter half of How to Write a Mystery drifted downhill. Advice in “The Writing” section became increasingly generic. The tips lost their context, not quite focusing on why writing mysteries is different from other genres. Although there were a few eye-openers like Frankie Y. Bailey’s “Diversity in Crime Fiction,” most of the advice elsewhere felt rather recycled.
“After the Writing” was the final collection, which left me the most conflicted. On one hand, I’ve known plenty of authors who failed to pull their weight after publication, expecting others to do the marketing. Many great scribes fail here, their pages crumbling into the dust before anyone discovers them. I particularly loved Oline H. Cogdill’s “Secrets of a Book Critic,” which imparted some quiet truths about the elusive critiques every scrivener pursues… sometimes a little too hard.
But then again, the book’s title was how to write a mystery. Book marketing is a whole other beast that cannot be fully conveyed in some 30 pages. I appreciated it but would have preferred to stay on topic.
Another point that may have hurt How to Write a Mystery was the 30 or so authors who contributed excerpts no more than a page long, and often just a paragraph. These were interlaid between essays, meant to refresh the eye with a quick break. A couple were great, such as Bradley Harper’s concise entry on using the senses. Yet overall they just weren’t much of a value add, serving mostly to pump up the page count.
If you’re a new writer who prefers stories of puzzle cracking, How to Write a Mystery is a solid, fast pick to cover the basics. Yet if you have some experience under your belt, your mileage will vary. I hoped for more structure on how to plot out unraveling the mystery, or tricks to get the reader as obsessed as the protagonist in solving it. It takes a psychological deep dive to explain what tickles the brain about mysteries…