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Mysteries: We know what we like but do we know why?

We know what we like but do we know why we like it?

There’s a big difference between an intellectual exercise and a good story. For many years, as a reasoning lesson, I gave college students a little story called the Locked Room Murder Case and told them to solve it, alone or in a group, their choice. They made their cases passionately, arguing loudly with each other.

At the end, though, they all looked at me. Who got it right? What’s the real answer? And the answer was there was no answer. They universally hated that and never once saw it coming. All that passion and excitement was now turned into complete irritation with me. “Well, make one up then” or “I’m locking this room until you tell us who is right” were the standard reactions. Many would think I was kidding them. “Come on, now, tell us.” I had lots of fun.

Last weekend I watched a Master Class taught by Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and other mystery/thrillers. His subject was what makes a great mystery. What do we expect in our mysteries and thrillers that separates winners from losers?

Brown would say that my Locked Room Murder Case violates a main principle that makes a satisfying story – I broke an implied promise with the readers. Good mysteries, according to Brown, never promise the reader something they don’t deliver. They must keep every promise, no matter how small, with the reader. Saying “there is no answer” is breaking this big promise.

I’m in the middle of reading One by One by Ruth Ware who writes mysteries with the pace of thrillers, such as The Girl in Cabin Ten. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that Ware’s latest book is essentially the locked room case – a limited number of people in what Brown calls a crucible and at least one someone dies. Ware’s implied promise is that she will let us know whodunnit.

Brown keeps a list of promises he makes in every book to make sure at the end he has kept them all. Ware’s book has a character, Erin, who gets a lot of space with her internal monologue, and we discover early that she has a huge and obvious scar down one side of her face that she makes no attempt to cover with makeup. I don’t know yet, but if Ware doesn’t tell us where that scar came from, I’m going to consider it a broken promise. I’m also willing to bet that backstory will be relevant to the current situation in the book.

Another Brown principle is that the bad guy should be introduced with a bang. This made me immediately think of John Sandford’s books, both the Virgil Flowers and the Lucas Davenport series. Sandford normally begins with a crime, usually a murder, in a heart thumping opening. We might not know exactly who that killer is, but we sure come to understand that the stakes are high (another Brown principle) and the killer is going to need a Big Gun Good Guy to stop him or her.

To make these fanciful stories believable at all, the characters have to be, according to Brown, in a crucible. Stories that don’t do a good job of this become jokes. Why do the victims run upstairs to escape the creepy clown instead of right out the door to safety? The crucible refers to circumstances that force characters to search for new solutions beyond the obvious.

In the Ware book, if they had wifi or working computers or a sat radio or an open road and a car, the tension in the story would be dissipated, the authorities would be brought in, and everyone would have gone home. But a group of people in a small ski resort in France trapped by an avalanche with the power out – no one can get in and no one can get out – that’s the crucible. They are all stuck in it and must work around it. Readers have to be able to buy that crucible.

Next time you pick up a mystery or are reading a favorite author’s thriller, ask yourself what really makes it work. Brown had much more to say, but these principles will give us all a little analytical edge.

Remember, we can get you pretty much any book you want along these lines including all of Brown’s, Ware’s, and Sandford’s.

See you at the Library! (Published in the Frankenmuth News, Nov. 3, 2020)

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