I still admire romance writers more, in case anyone was wondering. Which I knew you weren’t.
#1 The tradition
There was a time, back around the early 2010s or so, when I’d all but given up on the mystery genre altogether. Which was a damn shame, since it’s one of my all-time favourite genres, and has been, ever since I was a kid. But at a certain point—or so I thought—the whole genre had gone head over heels with trying to match (or even surpass) the whole Game of Thrones style of violence, focusing, of course, on exploitative violence against people of the female persuasion. I’m just not that type of reader. When I feel sick to my stomach, I hope it’s the flu or something.
And then, lo and behold, I had the privilege of crossing over into reading in English, and reading in ebook format, and a whole new world opened up to me. Also—and I might be wrong on this—I have a tiny hunch that in genre fiction, for every action, there’s a reaction, and the recent uptick in oldschool, but high quality contemporary mystery on a higher level of visibility might be exactly that. Long story short—reading Shari Lapena felt like coming home; almost like Agatha Christie (still a fan), but exactly modern enough for me to enjoy it immensely, and fun beyond words.
Some genres just manage to uphold their age-old traditions of being awesome in a beautiful way, is what I’m saying.
#2 The chess-master strategy
The sheer need to hold each and every piece of the thread in your mind, mostly at the same time, makes me unable to do anything other than bow to my favourite mystery writers. They’re like chess players—keeping so many things in their heads at a time, as to not miss anything, and with the sole purpose of that aha! moment for the reader. Or the oh, not that person! moment. I do admit that my appreciation for all of it has gone up exponentially since I’ve realized I was willing to risk my pride by having a go at writing mystery, but still… just speechless, still, always.
#3 The high-quality suffering
As I’ve recently mentioned on Instagram, I like it when characters suffer—and come up happy on the other side (which is why I’m really not into dark anything, these days). Mystery has this weird way of breaking and remaking characters—probably, come to think of it, because one of its basic building blocks is trauma. Yes, we often forsake the trauma so we don’t feel like bad people while reading descriptions of, you know, dead people—but still…
#4 The reread value
Even with simple whodunnits!
I could probably reread the instructions on the toilet paper pack—the, uh, open here sort of thing—but rereading my favourite mysteries is still one of my best loved activities. It probably helps that I’m one of those readers who just can’t figure out the culprit until the very end. I think I probably could’ve trained myself to become that reader, but I enjoy being fooled way too much to start bringing in any kind of analysis into it.
As an example, with my favourite Agatha novel of all time—Cards on the Table—it took me around four rereads over a decade or so to finally remember who’d actually dun it. I’m the perfect reader, in that regard. Come to think of it, I’ll probably have to start rereading some other favourites, these days, to see how the writer had done it. You know, for science.
#5 The character arcs (in some types of series)
Who doesn’t love a grumpy inspector? (A lot of people don’t—you’d be surprised! Or, maybe… not.) I read standalones and loosely connected mystery series, too, but I think the tv show Castle basically screwed me up for life and set me up for the best kind of mystery series—the one where you’re reading for the characters as much as for the plots.
Okay, I actually read for the settings, too—I’m not sure why, but I feel that the mystery genre gets small town a little better than romance, at least in my reading experience—but most of the time, it’s the same old will they or won’t they. In some cases, it’s pick themselves up, and not get together, but still. I’ve been reading up a lot on the craft of writing series lately, and I’ll never forget that simple fact that people love the familiar, and with mystery series, just like other genre series, there’s nothing more familiar and enjoyable than the lead characters. (Some of my favourite people are lead characters in series, duh.)
#6 The fun
I’ll be the first to admit it—nothing beats fun, in my dictionary, when it comes to my reading time. I’ve grown so jealous of my reading choices over the years that I never, ever, read through books I don’t like at least more than, say, 60% percent of the way, the whole experience combined. I’m not sure why I find mysteries this effin’ fun, but I do. I’m really beyond grateful that there are, apparently, so many people out there who feel the same way, which means you can get a flavour of mystery fiction for everyone.
When crafted well, mystery fiction is like a special kind of game the writer plays with the reader, and it’s even more pronounced here than in some other genres, because you’re invited along on the journey, from page one. (Depending on the subgenre, of course, this can change, which makes it no less fun.)
Another reason why, I think, mystery is so much fun, is that we get to try out being bad people more than we do, as readers, in most other genres. We get to try to think like an antagonist to play the game, to try to figure out the culprit. And, as a bonus point—as before, depending on the subgenre—we get to see them lose.
There’s a fine line between art and real life, and mysteries walk it a little more efficiently than other genres.
#7 The surprises!
I’m not going to be naming names—there would, thankfully, be too many to mention, and there would be spoilers—but I’ll never forget the first times I read some of my favourite whodunnits of all time. On the other hand, once I read a six-or-so book arc where I didn’t get the main big bad until they were revealed! I loved it. And now I get to mush about it to you. (Or not, because spoilers!)
Yes, a lot of genres these days love their surprises, even in books written by authors who can actually handle a quality ‘surprise’, one that is not included in the plot for its sheer shock value. The best mystery novels I’ve read, though, were those which played with the genre; with the framework of the genre, with the canons, with reader expectations. Of course, as a writer, you can only pull some of those the once. (I’m actually going to be trying to pull one of them—a really minor one—in a few months’ time, and I’m scared shitless already.)
For the reader, though—once you’ve done it, they’ll be grateful to you in all of eternity.
Like I’m grateful for the great mystery writers I had the honour of reading in my time.
The realization that I wanted to write mystery snuck up on me almost as unexpectedly as the realization that I wanted to write romance had, a few years ago. These days, I write both—and the novel Johnny’s Girls the first in my alt!history murder mystery (don’t you just love what the language does, when stacked like this?) series. As of writing this, it’s actually looking for reviewers, as I’m getting book two up and running—and who knows, it might just be the thing you’ve been looking for.
I know for a fact it’s the book I had been waiting to write for ages.
Cover photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash.