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Demystifying the Mystery

Deadly Ruse_coverBy E. Michael Helms

What makes a good mystery? Could there be a simpler question? On the flipside, could there be a more broad-based question? Each reader has his or her tastes and opinions, as does every writer. I can’t—and won’t— presume to have the answers. What I will do is share some aspects of what I believe, as a reader, makes a good mystery, and what works for me as a writer.

A good mystery is plot-driven.

Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water. You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s worth repeating again: you must pull the reader into the story, and the sooner the better. In my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, the opening sentence sets the stage:

The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare.

Short and sweet, but doesn’t it make you want to read more and find out why?

Had I opened with back-story, how Mac had recently retired from the Marine Corps and traveled to the Florida panhandle for a fishing vacation, you might have kept on reading for a while hoping the pace picked up. Personally, I would’ve thought, “Ho-hum.” Before the third chapter of Deadly Catch ends, Mac discovers a body, is suspected of murder, and warned not to leave the area by the local sheriff. Information important to back-story can be fed in by piecemeal as the story progress, but keep that plot moving! And speaking of moving, it’s the characters that drive the plot! Every scene, every action, every sentence or phrase of dialogue, must be used to reveal character or propel the storyline forward. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong.

In a good mystery there is no cardboard allowed.

(Okay, maybe for book covers.) The characters, especially the protagonist/hero and important secondary characters must be well-rounded and three-dimensional. Everybody has good traits. Everybody has flaws. Even Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite (and Lois Lane). Mac McClellan is a southern gentleman, a combat veteran, and has a wry sense of humor. He’s also suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is bitter toward his ex-wife, and drinks too much. Kate Bell, Mac’s girlfriend and partner in solving mysteries, is independent and strong-willed; she also has a slightly shady past that she keeps hidden from Mac until it comes out in the second Mac McClellan Mystery, DEADLY RUSE.

The villain must also be a complex person. No Satans allowed. Every good (meaning bad) villain should have a redeeming quality or two. In an upcoming Mac McClellan Mystery, the villain suffered abuse as a child. Said villain (no spoilers here) is also intelligent and a great achiever. But the past often overpowers and shapes the future. Even minor characters must be minimally fleshed-out. If they are worth mentioning by name, they deserve to be more than cardboard cutouts.

In a good mystery the crime must be worthy of the story.

Meaning—almost without exception—MURDER! Even most cozies have a murder (or more) as the catalyst of the plot. Violence and bloodshed should fit the mystery’s sub-genre. Most cozies (which I enjoy, by the way) involve a murder happening “offstage.” And, in most cases, there is little blood and gore. The darker the mystery, the more ramped-up the murder and violence can be.

Also, the murder should happen fairly early in the story. It’s what draws the hero/heroine into the plot, the driving force behind his/her compulsion to dig-in and solve the mystery. In Deadly Catch a body is discovered in chapter one. There are/have been exceptions, but today’s reader generally wants things upfront and happening quickly. There is way too much competition today for an author to chance dragging things out too long.

In a good mystery the killer can’t come from “out of left field.”

Nothing infuriates mystery readers more than having the killer introduced late and with little involvement in the story, only to learn that he/she is the real perpetrator of the crime. The bad guy/gal should be inserted into the plot early and often. The perp can be a “friendly” or a suspect, one of few (or several). In Deadly Catch Mac is acquainted with the real villain (via back-story, fed in later) before the opening scene. Of course, Mac is unaware that he/she is the murderer. That info comes later—much later—as it should.

A couple of years ago I read a mystery by a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) where the killer turned out to be the brother of a secondary character who wasn’t an important “player” in the story. The problem is, this brother was introduced late in the storyline, with very little information revealed about him. Only near the end (after the case was wrapped) did I learn he had a very sordid past. That was a “left field villain” if I ever saw one.

In a good mystery, you’d better get your facts right.

Today’s readers are a savvy bunch. Almost nothing slips by them. If the murder victim has a big hole blown through him, the murder weapon had better not be a .22 caliber rifle or pistol. If the victim dies of poisoning, the poison used better match the dying throes a witness observes, or the autopsy results. Radio transmissions should be accurate. For example, if a cop is taking a break for coffee and doughnuts, he’d better not call in an 11-99. If the private eye is tailing a suspect in a real location, the streets and landmarks had better be correct. There is no excuse for not getting the facts straight in this day and age of computer access.

In a good mystery there are red herrings, dead ends, and clues—oh my!

Tidbits of information scattered here and there throughout the story are inherent to a good mystery. Red herrings, dead ends, and clues are key elements to get the reader involved in solving the mystery along with the protagonist.

With apologies for preaching to the choir, a red herring is simply a clue that takes the reader and/or characters in the wrong direction. Think smoke and mirrors, or in football, a misdirection play: the offensive linemen pull and block to the right side as the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and slips the ball to the fullback who hits the left side of the line of scrimmage. By faking a run to the right and running to the left, the offense has just handed the defense a red herring.

A dead end is simply a clue that leads nowhere, wasting the sleuth’s time. Or does it? Maybe following the false lead, only to be stymied, allows our hero to cross off a suspect, or points the finger at another possible perp, or leads in an entirely new direction that might prove invaluable as the case unfolds.

In a good mystery, when a clue actually points to the real killer, it shouldn’t be obvious. No bells and whistles allowed. Subtlety is the keyword here. Perhaps pursuing a red herring or dead end results in our hero eliminating a suspect from her list, only to realize later as things play out that “this” minor clue and “that” subtle clue were telltale signs that she’d overlooked at first.

In a good mystery the hero will face conflict, resistance, danger . . . and prevail.

There is no room in a good mystery for the hero to have a pleasant walk in the park, conveniently find and pocket clues, and waltz to the other end unopposed. There must be conflict and resistance, even from those close to the protagonist. “Yes” people are boring beyond words. The pathway through the park (the plot/storyline) must be strewn with tripwires, stumbling blocks, antagonistic characters, and danger.

Without those elements, why bother? Will the reader give a hoot? I don’t think so. Above all, our hero must find herself in hot water, the hotter the better. And just when it looks like all is lost, she must use intestinal fortitude, wits, and a bit of (believable) luck to turn the tables.

After all, as Sherlock Holmes would say, it’s “elementary.”


E. Michael HelmsE. Michael Helms is a USMC combat veteran. His memoir of the Vietnam War, The Proud Bastards, has been called “As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written . . . a modern military classic,” and has been in print for over 20 years.

Book One of his two-part saga of the Civil War, Of Blood and Brothers, was released in September 2013, with Book Two following in March 2014. The first of his Mac McClellan Mysteries, Deadly Catch, was published in November 2013. Deadly Ruse, the second in the series, is scheduled for release November 2014. The Private War of Corporal Henson, a semi-autobiographical fictional sequel to his memoir, The Proud Bastards, was published in August 2014.

Helms lives with his wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Upstate region of South Carolina, where they enjoy canoeing, hiking and bird watching.

To learn more, please visit his website.

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