In April 2022, I had a heart attack and spent ten days in the intensive care unit. I had wonderful surgeons, doctors, nurses, and staff that were professional, proficient. To them, I will always be grateful. They saved my life. While lying in recovery following surgery, I had lots of time to think. Of course, my mind went to writing and the several works in progress that languish on my computer and the notepad on my writing desk. Yes, I still use a lined notepad and pencil to jot down notes and ideas. Why? Because I do not and will not ever completely trust computers. Sorry, computer people, but if I can’t hold it in my hand, it doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, while contemplating my next series of murder mystery short stories (because it seemed easier than working out the perennial writer’s-block I’m experiencing for my second murder mystery novel), I began contemplating some of the better-known murder mystery plots published through the years.
I have a short list of ten recurring plot lines and have listed examples of one or more published murder mystery stories that follow said plot. Read along. I’m sure you can think of other examples to illustrate the plot lines.
Our first murder mystery plot involves a murder that occurs in a small town or village and the local detective must solve the crime. My choice of an example is “The Moving Finger” by Agatha Christie. A small village is tormented by apparent suicides and vicious, anonymous hate letters. Miss Marple to the rescue.
Second plot: A detective or amateur sleuth must solve a series of murders that are connected by a common thread. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson featuring a Swedish publisher turned amateur sleuth who solves a series of murders connected by a common thread and is a perfect fit for our example plot.
Third on the list: A person is falsely accused of a crime and must clear their name. “Presumed Innocent” by Scott Turow features a person falsely accused and who must clear their name and so, clearly fits the bill of our number three plot.
Plot Four: A treasure or valuable item is stolen, and the thief must be caught. Since this is part of the main plot of my Celtic murder mystery, “Mystery of the Death Hearth” I will defer instead to the classic “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle—a collection of short stories featuring the famous detective solving various mysteries; in one of them, a treasure or valuable item is stolen, and the thief must be caught. Another contender with the same plot line is, Agatha Christie’s “Theft of the Royal Ruby” with her intrepid detective, Hercule Poirot.
At number five: A missing person case is solved by a private investigator. Let’s go for another of the classics here and select “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler featuring a private investigator, Philip Marlowe. He’s hired to find a missing person, but the case soon becomes a complicated web of murder, blackmail, and corruption.
My sixth selection: A serial killer is on the loose and must be caught before they strike again. “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris featuring a serial killer who is on the loose and must be caught before they strike again. The story follows FBI agent Clarice Starling as she hunts down the infamous serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill.” I wouldn’t recommend reading this before going to bed for the night.
Number seven on the list: A crime boss or organized crime ring is taken down by law enforcement. “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo featuring a crime boss and organized crime ring busted by law enforcement. The story is about the Corleone crime family, the patriarch Vito Corleone, his sons Michael, Fredo, and Sonny, and their criminal empire.
Our eighth plot: A murder takes place in a closed community, such as a boarding school or monastery. Not a book, but “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot is a play. It’s a verse drama about the assassination of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. The play is set in the Cathedral, and the characters are the monks, the priests and the people who were present at the time of the murder. But if you’re not into plays, check out the book “Name of the Rose” by Italian author, Umberto Eco. That historical murder mystery is set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327. One of my personal favorites.
At number nine we have: A detective or amateur sleuth must solve a crime that has been unsolved for years or decades. “In the Woods” by Tana French is the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Here, a detective must solve a crime that has been unsolved for years. The story follows detective Rob Ryan who returns to his hometown (where he was a victim of a traumatic event as a child) to investigate a murder case that has eerie similarities with the one from his past.
Number ten: A crime is committed on a luxury train or ship, and the suspects are all passengers or crew members. Well, of course, I’m going with the classic “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie. A crime is committed on a luxury ship, the S.S. Karnak, and the suspects are all passengers or crew members. The story revolves around detective Hercule Poirot as he investigates the murder of a wealthy heiress on board the ship. Another of Christie’s novels with this plot and her famous detective Poirot is “Murder on the Orient Express” which takes place on a train.
What good mystery have you read lately?
The Briarpatch by Ross Thomas. He won an Edgar and some other awards for it. More on the Hitchcock vein of Government investigator returns to hometown to get an old friend, now wealthy ex arms dealer’s statement and his sister, a cop in that hometown, gets fried in a car bomb the day he’s leaving to get the interview. Solid, no frills. I know why he won the award. In fact, it’s so well done I could kick the two short gratuitous but not over written sex scenes and say I wish I’d written it. However, regardless of the trope and the wrapping paper, all mysteries are procedurals. Becaue, as the man said, in a homicide investigation we have to slog through to figure it out because the only person who could tell us what happened is dead.
Excellent! Thanks, Phil.