Friday, July 3, 2015

Mysteries Don't Need Murders

by Gerrie Ferris Finger

Every mystery writer who has stood at a podium for long gets asked about murder: Why must there be a murder in a mystery? Why is murder so fascinating? Could you actually murder someone?

No, there doesn’t have to be a murder in a mystery, but it’s the best source of conflict I, and most mystery writers, can think of. That accounts for the fact that murder often appears in books not classified as mysteries. I figured out a long time ago that murder mysteries aren’t about murder, per se, and that a murder mystery must possess a plotline that stands alone with or without the murder.

Characters must drive the story and be people with whom readers identify and believe in. Their story (plot) needs to be dynamic, have conflict, and a puzzle they eventually solve. From the pen of a good writer, crime plays an important role in these elements regardless of genre. At the heart of the story, actions are created by a set of circumstances that drive reactions that lead to the inevitable resolution. Different subgenres require different resolutions. The cozy mystery requires at least a satisfactory resolution while a romantic suspense needs a happy ending.

On the other hand, a noir murder mystery lends itself to unresolved conflict and even the death of the hero.

It’s axiomatic that readers must identify with the hero or antihero in a murder mystery (and to a lesser degree develop opinions on secondary characters)—again depending on the genre. In that the reader may see himself as a beaten down hero trying to resolve his own personality issues, or in the traditional mystery she can see herself as the copy hero out to save the world from evil. In these vehicles, readers will naturally wonder how they would react in the situations, given their own personal peculiarities.

Yet readers play a guessing game with the unknown evil-doers and the heroes. They play every angle to figure out who did it, but are pleased when they don’t. In my novel, The End Game, I got this reaction quite often: “I never guessed. Well, I considered everyone, but I overlooked the obvious one. I was shocked.”

In the end, for readers to feel fulfilled, everything must be revealed. And reveal styles change. In the modern mystery, the clues are scattered so that the denouncement isn’t a la Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In those stories everyone gathers in his old brownstone where he lays out the conclusion and how he got  to it.

So there you have it; the reason the murder mystery isn’t about murder after all. You could say it’s about how readers process their lives through the most traumatic thing that can happen to characters they’ve come to know, and with whom they identify, understand, sympathize, love and or hate.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers: Interviews and Advice, where you can read Gerrie’s interview as well as many others, including Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block. James Scott Bell,  J.A. Jance, and Julie Garwood.)

You can visit Gerrie Ferris Finger’s website at and her blog site at

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