The murder mystery genre' is alive and well and living at an on-line bookstore just a mouse click away. How is it that this over-utilized method of story-telling has remained so fresh and compelling after well over a hundred years? The answer lies in the basics of writing.
Grab Them Where it Hurts and Their Minds Will Follow
An author must first and foremost always tell a compelling story, involving, to one extent or another, recognizable three-dimensional characters. The fact that the story takes place against an otherwise formulaic backdrop, involving the effort to solve a murder mystery is just icing on the cake.
A reader needs to care about at least one of three people: the person who was murdered; the murderer; or the person searching for the murderer. Unless the reader can identify with at least one of them, the story will generally not coalesce. Reading a book utilizes our time, and in the modern world, that is frequently our most precious resource. The author must have a compelling answer to the question: why should I waste my time reading your novel?
The answer to that question is that the story is about someone the reader will find quite interesting: himself. The reader needs to recognize parts of himself in one or more of the characters. Though he will see them in situations that are different from his every day life, he needs the opportunity to ponder whether he would react the same way under those circumstances?
The Murder Mystery Must be Solvable Only When the Story is Concluding
Readers love to guess at the 'who done it' aspect of a murder mystery. Yet they are generally disappointed if they can figure out the answer too easily, or at least too early in the story.
Life is about obscurity. We never really know the secrets held by the people around us, even our most trusted loved ones. That is what makes murder mysteries so compelling: in truth, our own lives are informed by mysteries that are never solved.
Yet, unlike real life, in the novel everything is explained by its conclusion. Hence, we find comfort in the difference between our real lives and the novel; the satisfaction of finding out the answer. Psychoanalysts have a term for this: repetition compulsion. It is the need to duplicate the essence of an earlier trauma and this time, control the outcome. The reader knows there are secrets being withheld by the author, but unlike in the messy and traumatic chaos of real life, if she reads on to the end, all will be explained.
Those Who Can Teach, Write
Some of the best murder mysteries involve discourses on unrelated esoteric topics. This usually leads the reader to learn some obscure subject matter having nothing to do with the murder itself.
The act of reading involves a commitment to inhabit the mind and feelings of another person. Sometimes, that person's expertise and erudition is an integral part of understanding them. Hence, in the course of reading a murder mystery, one might learn the evolutionary symbiosis between butterflies and orchids; the esoterica of military strategy and tactics of the Civil War; or the protocols for DNA identification of human remains.
Another example is that in my recent novel, Point and Shoot, I discussed the subtle intersection of the internal and external martial arts, using the Okinawan art of Shaolin Kempo Karate and the Chinese art of Tai Chi Chuan as an illustration:
I went to the dressing room and put on a Kung Fu uniform that I always used for Tai Chi Chuan practice: simple, loose black pants and jacket with a white collar. When I taught Kempo, I would wear the black Karate uniform with the rainbow of fighting animal patches and under that, the black belt with six stripes, but for Tai Chi, this understated garb was the uniform of the day. It was a tacit reminder that, although admittedly they were both derived from the same original Chinese Shaolin Temple forms, the two arts had developed in wholly distinct ways. Diverging branches from the same tree.
My practice of Kempo Karate had been merely adequate through my mid-adolescence. I had dutifully memorized the movements and their names, making my way up through the belt rankings. In five years, I had reached brown belt level. However, like so many martial arts students at that rank, I felt discouraged by the fact that I performed the movements so inadequately when compared to the black belts. I had reached technical proficiency, but that was all. There was obviously something more, and I had no idea what that might be.
I shared my misgivings with Grandfather, and he suggested that I learn the basic 24 posture Tai Chi short form and after that, the 108 posture long form. At first, I simply learned the Tai Chi as I would any other Kempo form. In fact, the postures and strikes were very similar to the crane form I knew so well from Kempo Karate. I executed them the same way: with focused force, albeit at a slower pace.
But over time, he painstakingly helped me unlearn everything he had taught me about the Kempo. It was a very Eastern undertaking: a Master taking his disciple back to the beginning to start fresh. This was the man who had taught me to move with blinding speed, now urging me to slow down; who had taught me to strike with devastating, focused power, now urging me to be soft and gentle with those same movements; who had taught me to prevail decisively over my attackers, now urging me to yield to the attack. In short, it was the man who taught me the external aspect of the Kempo, now helping me switch to the internal.
It was the hardest thing I ever learned, mostly because it involved unlearning. But I stuck with it, and eventually, it started to come to me. I began to immerse myself in the river of theTai Chi form. I began to move with the flow and relaxation I had often read about in the writings of the ancient Chinese masters, but had never understood. And my martial arts practice finally started to blossom.
The Tai Chi enhanced my Kempo Karate into something beyond simple punching and kicking. I began to understand the difference between learning the martial arts and being a martial artist. I had spent so many years memorizing the Kempo combinations and forms with my head, so much time training my hands and feet to execute them, that I had completely neglected to apply the most important part of my body: the heart. I had never connected with the martial arts as a passion, a life enhancing undertaking. Like Grandfather had.
After that, he suggested I re-learn the entire Kempo Karate system from white belt on up. They were the same Kempo combinations and animal forms, but now they felt and looked different. It was like first learning a beautiful poem through translation, and then because you loved it so much, re-learning it in the original tongue. I was finally learning Shaolin Kempo Karate in its original tongue.
I still cannot adequately define what exactly changed. But somehow, I had tied into something deep and eternal. I had developed a balance and centering that extended well beyond my practice of the martial arts. I found myself becoming a different person: less angry, less anxious, more forgiving and embracing of other's failings, their weaknesses. In a word, the internal arts enhanced me.
In essence, a murder mystery should be a story that could stand alone without the murder and without the mystery. The characters should not be tangential to the story, but instead, drive it forward. They should at least have some characteristics with which the reader can identify. In other words, the reader must care enough about these characters to want to stick around and solve the mystery.