The Mystery of Mysteries: 12 Steps to Writing Traditional Mysteries

QuestionsLast month, I gave you some homework to be prepared for writing your mystery. If you haven’t yet completed it, there’s still time. To write the mystery that fits your needs, you need to answer these questions.

Now on to today’s category: the traditional mystery.

Traditional mysteries are reminiscent of mysteries written during the Golden Age of mysteries in the 1920s and 30s. Prime examples of traditional mystery authors are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P.D. James. They, and many others, popularized the genre in Great Britain, and then traditional mysteries “crossed the pond”. Traditional “soft boiled” mysteries soon morphed into “hard boiled” mysteries in the U.S. (Think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald.)

In Great Britain, traditional mysteries were typically set in rural areas in country homes, containing everyone from the upper crust to the scullery maid, adding in-bred suspicion of those both within and out of one’s class. A belief in the necessity to maintain order and morality runs throughout, and the mystery upsets that stability. Sleuths work with authorities to restore order and impose justice. The reader works alongside the sleuth, using the same information the sleuth has, and readers should arrive at the solution at the same time as the sleuth.

Plot devices in traditional mysteries were common. One of the most popular is the “locked room” in which it is impossible for the crime to have happened, but it did. Authors also use false identities/twins, muddled timelines, conflicting testimony, hidden motives, camouflaging the murder weapon, the least-likely-suspect, false clues, red herrings, disguises, discredited witnesses, staging/faking death to divert suspicion, co-conspirators to detract, setting a “deathtrap” to divert suspicion, amnesia, mistaken identity, clues in plain sight, “copy cat” crimes, anonymous poison pen letter, room that kills, message from the victim, and staged to appear supernatural. Of course there are others. Why not put some in the comments section below so we all learn?

Some people lump “traditional” and “cozy” mysteries into one category, but today’s cozy mysteries almost always have a theme or occupation for the sleuth that runs through the series. And most all cozies are series, but not all traditional mysteries are series. I’ll deal with specific cozy mystery elements next month.

To be considered a traditional mystery, certain elements predominate. Here are twelve steps to writing a traditional mystery:

1) Traditional mysteries are always a puzzle to solve.
2) All clues are revealed to the reader but obscured with red herrings and false leads.
3) These mysteries feature a murder (most often) or a crime of great substance.
4) The crime takes place within a “closed circle”. Suspects and victim know one another. (Sometimes they are even sequestered when the crime happens. Remember And Then There were None?)
5) The highly-intellectual sleuth is not a professional and is part of the community. Often the sleuth is of the upper class and is a well-balanced personality.
6) The power of reasoning is trusted to restore order and solve the puzzle.
7) Murders take place “off stage” so there is little or no explicit violence or gore described.
8) The murdered person is not typically admirable, thus the murder seems more justifiable.
9) The traditional mystery uses plot devices to further the confusion of clues, suspects, and timelines.
10) The language of sleuth and suspects is closer to literary than colloquial and reflects social status.
11) The villain is the intellectual equal of the sleuth.
12) The murder/significant crime occurs very near the beginning often in the opening pages.

Many of the elements of the traditional mystery are foundational to other sub-genres of mystery. Once you understand the traditional mystery, variants on the theme are easier to write. The first paragraph of this post lists the types of mysteries I’m taking apart for you. Next month: how to write cozy mysteries and how they are the same and different from traditional mysteries.

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

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