Mysteries

In my first mystery, The Body in the Attic, I meant to write an Agatha Christie type murder where a body is found in the first chapter and then countless witnesses and suspects are introduced until the murder is solved.  That was my intent.  And I didn’t quite stick to it.  But I just finished reading Mary Angela’s A VERY MERRY MURDER.  She purposely structured her book to be like a Christie novel, and she pulled it off.  She even used a Christie story for her protagonist, Professor Emmeline Prather, to teach in her Crime and Passion English class–an elective class that focused on mysteries and romances.  Even better, Angela used the same murder technique for the current mystery that Christie used in hers.  If you’re a Christie fan, it was awesome!

Such attention to detail, alas, I didn’t manage.  I discovered poor Aunt Lynda’s body in the first chapter, yes, but then I introduced a subplot that intrigued me a little too much, and before long, another body was required to move the plot along.  Which, I have to admit, I was pretty happy with.  Which shows that even if you outline, like I do, the best laid plans can go awry.

In my second mystery, The Body in the Wetlands, bodies seemed to pile up without my even trying.  One murder leads to the next and the one after that until Jazzi and Ansel, along with Detective Gaff, finally catch the killer.  The moral of the story?  Try never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And of course, there’s another dog in this story.  I grew quite fond of Cocoa, the chocolate Lab.

I’ve been reading quite a few mysteries lately, and back when I read Christie, the actual murder and puzzle are what made me turn the pages.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed Miss Marple and Poirot.  And Christie could draw a character in only a few brush strokes, so I “knew” them–what motivated them–but didn’t get to know them, if that makes any sense.  Lately, though, I’m every bit as interested in the characters in the story, who they are and what they’re doing, and I’m disappointed if they’re not filled out more.

I liked Mary Angela’s professor and how seriously she took teaching college students who often weren’t as motivated as she was.  I enjoyed the budding romance between Enmeline and Lenny, and I loved the widow who lived across the street and didn’t miss anything.  She was a whiz at baking and let Emmeline know her Christmas cookies were inferior.  All fun stuff that added layers to the story.

I guess, these days, I enjoy lots of different kinds of stories hung on a mystery plot.  The only time I’m disappointed is when the end of the mystery–how it’s solved and whodunnit–aren’t handled well.  After all, it’s a mystery, even if the murder only serves as a foundation to wrap other subplots around.  But I expect a murder, clues, red herrings, and a satisfying conclusion.  The rest is all extras.  I don’t want a murderer pulled out of a hat or for the clues to not add up.  Other than that, I go along for what I hope is a fun ride.  Whatever you’re reading now, I hope it keeps you turning pages and you’re happy you read it when you close the book.

And happy writing!

 

 

 

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The Last Pages

I’ve been reading more than usual lately–my new goal.  I can’t begin to keep up with reviewers or Goodreads or my friend Les Edgerton (who writes a great blog and flies through books), but I’ve set a more realistic goal for myself.  Sort of like exercising and dieting.  For me, moderation means I might actually stick to it.  I’m trying to read one book every week (unless it’s really long, and then I’m in trouble.  I’m a slow reader.  And unless I have house guests.  Then I’d rather visit than read.  And we’ve had a lot of house guests lately).  But things are calming down again, and I have a new book to start.  Happiness:)

I’ve been reading a little bit of everything–a few fun mysteries, an Elizabeth George literary style mystery, a paranormal romance, and a mystery/suspense romance.  These days, I’m too old and too grumpy to finish novels I don’t like.  If the characters are cardboard and the plot sags and waffles, I’m over it.  On top of that, I can’t turn off the editor in my head, so I think I’m pickier than I used to be.  Too many grammar mistakes, verb tenses that change every other paragraph, and I pitch the book.  That means, when I finish a novel, it had to have the basics right and be interesting enough to make me want to spend time with it.  If it’s five-star instead of four-star, all the better.

That said, I’ve been surprised at how many books I’ve joyfully flipped through lately and then grumbled when I reached the last pages.  A great cover and an interesting blurb can lure me to buy a book.  How the author ends that book is what tempts me to buy her next one.  I’m not talking about cliffhangers here.  They annoy me.   I’m talking about satisfying endings.  My agent would attest that I wasn’t too good at them when I sent her my first books.  I was forever having to add a few more scenes or building up the big, black moment, because I rushed the last pages of my books.  It took me a while to figure out that I’d spent the first three-fourths of the story, cranking up to a big showdown for a win/lose situation, and that showdown had better deliver.

Endings are important.  But in three of the mysteries I read, the author forced the finale. Protagonists whom I followed because they were smart and clever did the unthinkable (for me) and walked into stupid situations to prove that the villain was the villain.  It felt like the moment in horror movies when you shout at the TV, “Don’t go in the basement!”  Because a murderer is loose.  People are dying.  And you hear a noise in the basement.  So…you go down there to investigate??  Really???  Why would anyone do that?  I felt the same way about the last pages of those mysteries.  A smart person occasionally does stupid things, but not just to force the showdown between the good guy and the villain.

Info dumps should never happen in a novel–anywhere.  The information should be sprinkled here and there, in one scene and then another, until the reader knows whatever he needs to know before he needs to know it.  But when the info dump comes at the end of the novel, to explain everything that’s happened, it really stands out and slows the reader down.  Whatever tension is happening–like when the killer is holding a gun on the amateur sleuth–fizzles when they start talking about why the villain killed the guy we tripped over at the beginning of the book.  When I watched the movie Kingsman: the Secret Service, I had to laugh when Samuel Jackson holds a gun on Colin Firth and says something like, “In a movie, this is where I’d explain everything I’ve done and why to you, but this ain’t that kind of movie, bro.”  And shoots him.  Dead.  Long explanations are sort of like long, extended death scenes where the dying man talks on and on.  It’s hard to suspend disbelief.

An author should do the work ahead of time so that everything’s in place for the good guy and the bad guy to clash for the final showdown.  And that showdown should be powerful enough to justify all the suffering the protagonist’s done leading up to it.  And the last scenes, after the showdown, should leave the reader satisfied that the protagonist got his happy ending (if you want a happy ending) or awful enough (if you’re going for not-so-happy endings).  I know that there are endings that leave readers hanging, to decide the outcome for themselves, but I’m not a fan of those.  They feel like a cop-out.  But to each, his own.  We all like different things.