Murder Mystery – The Ingredients for a Great Detective Novel

A top-tier murder mystery story requires the skillful combination of all the essential ingredients needed to produce a story that will keep us turning the page eagerly until the final denouement. At the end of the story, we can often feel confident that we have spotted the villain of the play (It was Miss Scarlet with the rope in the conservatory!) only to find that, once again, we have been duped. and indeed it was Colonel Mustard with the Dagger in the Billiards Room. And on the rare occasions that our deductive skills do allow us to arrive at the correct solution, the satisfaction is immense, we are super sleuths!

So what are some of the basic components that make a perfect crime novel? First of all and very obviously, there has to be MURDER, at least one but preferably at least three. Depending on the story, these can be by the same method (as with a serial killer) or with completely different weapons and settings. This last one is possibly the most interesting, since although the murderer can use different ways to kill, the type of crime must be the same (opportunistic or well thought out, for example). This should allow us to deduce the personality traits of the killer (always remembering that he or she may well be masking her true nature) and this knowledge is a CLUDE to the identity of the guilty party.

CLUES are a vital element of a murder mystery. There are the physical clues: Items discovered at the crime scene, significant documents found in the victim’s personal effects, muddy shoe prints, traces of lipstick on a wine glass, a recent cut on someone’s wrist – the list. it is endless. And there are the clues that the crime solver can pick up, for example, by listening to what the protagonist says. Has this man contradicted a previous statement? Did this woman lie about her relationship with the dead man? All the little pieces of the puzzle; which when placed together complete the picture. Unless of course one or more of them is a RED HERRINGS.

The RED HERRING is a legitimate plot used by murder mystery writers to get us looking in all the wrong places, and it very often succeeds. We usually realize our mistake fairly quickly, often because the person the red herring led us to suspect is eliminated; and then we turn our attention to another SUSPECT.

About half a dozen SUSPECTS is probably the ideal number, all of whom should appear from the start to have had the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crimes. We’ve usually (rightly or wrongly) eliminated all but a couple by the end of the book, at which point the DETECTIVE will reveal what really happened.

As we know, DETECTIVES, in murder mystery fiction can be male or female and come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, ages, and personalities. They may be professionals or gifted amateurs, but they all have one thing in common: they always get their man (or woman). They must be almost infallible. When they point out the meaning of some object or comment that has been found during the course of the case, we should think ‘Sure, why didn’t I see that?’ And while we probably didn’t see it coming, the ENDING must be SUCCEEDING.

And it’s a SATISFYING ENDING that keeps us coming back for more. If we feel like we haven’t been given all the facts, if some character shows up late in the story and turns out to be the culprit, or if the villain doesn’t get proper justice, then we’re left feeling ripped off. The author must play fair with his readers.

A good murder mystery story should intrigue us, mystify us, keep us guessing until the last few pages, and ultimately leave us feeling like we’ve enjoyed every minute and look forward to the next.

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