Never Clueless

By Jacqueline Seewald

Mystery and detective fiction continue to be extremely popular with readers of fiction. Why should this be the case? Why this strong appeal to readers? The building of various popular series is one factor. Readers greet each new book in a series as if visiting with an old friend. They become familiar and comfortable with the author's characters and style of writing. Name recognition whether of a particular detective or the author is significant. Humor is also appreciated by many readers of fiction. Witness the popularity of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series or The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. However, there are other factors to consider as well. Let us examine the clues to solving this mystery.

The traditional whodunit appeals to readers because it is a puzzle that challenges the intellect. With that in mind, mystery writers provide clues that point to the solution. The creativity associated with these clues is one of the ingredients that make for entertaining mystery fiction.

Mystery writers often plant various clues throughout their novels and short stories. Verbal clues are typical. An example of the traditional verbal clue is the murder victim's last or dying words statement. One of my favorites is Agatha Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The solution of this mystery hinges on finding the answer to a dying man's question. Christie was never clueless in any of her mysteries. Her readers loved her for it.

Another type of verbal clue is one in which the guilty person gives a statement that no one else could make except the perp. As we know, police often don't allow full details or disclosure of a crime in the press, hoping the suspect will slip in making his/her formal statement.

The missing clue is also a common popular technique. Usually the "missing" clue is an object that should be present at the crime scene but isn't and so it becomes the basis for the mystery's solution. An example of this occurs in The Shooting in the Shop by Simon Brett. The body of a young girl is found shot and burned, and her cell phone is missing. This becomes a significant clue for the amateur sleuths who search for the missing object.

Physical clues have grown in importance with new developments in forensic science. DNA evidence is often crucial. The increased interest in forensics is often reflected in the modern whodunit. Patricia Cornwell popularized this type of mystery with her Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner series, which appears to have influenced many current TV programs.

The best mystery novels use all three types of clues. To give readers a fair chance to figure out the perpetrator, clues of all varieties may be planted throughout. Although some well-known mystery writers claim they start writing with no idea of who the guilty person will be, this type of novel really needs precise, careful planning. For this reason, some mystery writers work backwards, starting with the solution and plotting accordingly. It's also best if clues are scattered through the novel so that not too much of an explanation is needed at the end.

But mystery writers can't afford to be clueless about other important factors either. They also need to create well-rounded characters for both the detectives and the suspects. Creating a distinctive setting is necessary as well, whether the novel takes place in a big city or a small town environment. Very often writers will choose a location they have lived in or visited. This is something I've done with the Kim Reynolds mystery series. Authors may want to fictionalize such things as the name of a town if the mystery takes place in a rural setting, for instance. Sometimes writers may choose to use a real place as in the form of a large city setting, which can help to establish authenticity. This verisimilitude is important to readers. They need to be able to accept the background setting of the novel as real.

In this regard as well, it's important for writers to make certain of their facts and the accuracy of any and all details. Doing thorough research is a significant part of creating a realistic novel. Mystery readers are particularly intelligent and pick up on errors.

For mystery and crime fiction, it's an advantage if authors have a background in some form of law enforcement: police personnel, attorney, or journalist. This can set the author up as an authority. Joseph Wambaugh, for example, was a policeman long before he wrote his novels. John Grisham was a practicing attorney. Michael Connelly was a journalist. However, writers often interview people who work in law enforcement and collect vital details and information in that manner.

For those writers who do not have a background in law enforcement, it is common to choose an amateur sleuth with a similar background to that of the author. This too provides authenticity. Kim Reynolds, for example, is a librarian and a teacher, just as I have been. Amateur sleuths are particularly successful within the cozy mystery genre.

Well-written novels of mystery, crime and detection will hopefully continue to flourish and fascinate readers for a long time to come.

Ms. Seewald is a prolific and well respected author, both in fiction and non-fiction. Her articles on mystery writing have appeared in THE WRITER and THE GUMSHOE REVIEW. She has taught Creative Writing, Expository Writing and Technical Writing courses at the college level (Rutgers University) as well as high school English, eventually getting an MLS degree and working over the years in a university, high school and elementary school library.

Copyright 2012 Jacqueline Seewald. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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