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.
Tell a compelling story
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.
Everything is explained by its conclusion
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.
A stand alone story
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.