Writing A Successful Classic Mystery

Attribution: J. R. Cotner

I recently spent time browsing through my rather dusty bookshelves, taking stock of the great reads I’ve collected over the years. Many are intricate, classic mysteries written by some of the most successful and admired authors of that genre and era. Why were they so popular? What made them such a success?

Writing a classic mystery novel is a complex process that requires careful thought and planning. Here are three of the most important considerations for authors in this genre:

Plot Structure and Clue Placement:

The classic mystery is intricately designed with a sequence of events occurring within a believable timeline. Clues—neither too obvious nor too obscure—and red herrings are essential plot elements planted at key points of the story to build tension and suspense. That structure allows a gradual revelation of details to guide the discerning reader through the story toward an eventual resolution that ties up all loose ends and leads to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

Character Development and Motivation:

Characters, especially the detective and the perpetrator, must be well-rounded and have clear motivations that drive their actions. This can add depth and make the story more engaging. Secondary characters also play a critical role, as they often contribute to the plot through their relationships with the main characters, their secrets, and their alibis.

Setting and Atmosphere:

The setting of a classic mystery often plays a critical role in the mood and the unfolding of the plot. It must be described in a way that adds to the tension and supports the story. Whether it’s a gloomy mansion, a small village, or a bustling city, the setting must be depicted in a way that complements the tone of the mystery and aids in the unfolding of clues.

Writing a mystery requires a delicate balance between these elements, and a failure in any of these areas can lead to a less-than-satisfying reading experience. Many successful mystery writers spend significant time planning and outlining their novels to ensure that these aspects are all carefully considered and integrated into the story.

Here are examples of classic mystery novels that particularly exemplify each of the three considerations I’ve listed. First up is Plot Structure and Clue Placement and I’ve listed a work by Agatha Christie.

“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Christie (published in 1926) is, I believe, an excellent example of a meticulously crafted plot structure and clue placement in a classic work. Christie employs a series of twists and turns, carefully planting clues that lead to a shocking and unexpected conclusion. The use of an unreliable narrator and the placement of red herrings are particularly masterful.

As an excellent example of Character Development and Motivation in a classic mystery, I think “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (published in 1930) fits the bill as it showcases character development and motivation as key elements. Sam Spade, the protagonist, is a fully realized character with complex motives, and the villains have clear motivations that drive the plot forward. Relationships between characters are intricate, and the interactions are essential in unraveling the mystery.

As for Setting and Atmosphere, I will recommend “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (published in 1938). The classic setting of the Manderley estate as a critical component of the story is very effective. The eerie and atmospheric mansion almost becomes its own character, and the descriptive language paints a vivid picture that adds to the mystery and suspense. The setting creates a gothic tone that deeply impacts the unfolding of the plot. The opening line of the story is unforgettable: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Classic.

I held these three rules close and emulated them when writing my own work, “Mystery Of The Death Hearth”. For anyone wishing to write an effective, compelling, and engaging mystery in the classic style, I suggest dusting off a copy of each of those works to read again. Their influence can still be seen in contemporary mystery writing.





9 thoughts on “Writing A Successful Classic Mystery

  1. Christie actually had a formula that she and other purveyors used and expounded upon while at regular meetings of the Detection Club. Her bit was x happens by page y, this herring, that herring… all of her books can be diagrammed like a sentence. Hammett, like Louis L’Amour, Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard just wrote. Howard Hawks had a great line, that echoes through a lot of the genre when he said, paraphrased, “what a good movie needs is great scenes, not necessarily a great treatment of the material.” He found out in “The Big Sleep” that superfluous events are forgotten and no one cares as long as the movie has great scenes. Even Chandler couldn’t explain why Marlowe found the body on the beach. Bogart asked Hawks, “Hey, who killed this fellow?” They called Chandler, he offered them a name if they had to have one, but it wasn’t in the book. Marlowe finds a body on the beach, nothing to do with the story, next good scene. Leonard was a master of good scenes and didn’t waste a lot of time when it came down to eliminating someone with one or two lines that stopped the book. “Maximum Bob” comes to mind. Or “Tishomingo Blues” which is nothing but a well populated caper romp and too much Civil War history/reenactment. But it works because the characters carry it.
    I tend to let the characters talk. They’ll get there a lot sooner than I will. Besides, motivation is often externally influenced. The cops or the bad guys or a friend or a situation is leaning on the lead.
    What I get from the best is their good habits, and letting their bad habits go. MacDonald’s moralizing, Chandler’s over use of simile, Parker’s occasionally too obvious English degree and the soft focus when he writes Spenser’s domestic bliss. I don’t care how he manufactures a meal out of spare parts, that sort of thing.
    Oh well. Good shot!

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