In the dictionary “caper” is to “dance or skip about in a lively or playful way.” The caper mystery is the one that plays most with the mystery genre definition.
Capers fit into the cozy mystery category. Think of the movies, “Topkapi” or “Ocean’s 11.” O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” is a classic caper short story. The TV series “Leverage” was a caper show. Humor, audacity, cleverness and adventure are hallmarks of capers.
Capers include one or more crimes that are open to the reader; they happen in plain view. Often the crooks are a bunch of colorful misfits who somehow come together and pull it off. Murder is rare in capers, but the crime is outrageous and outsized for the talents of the criminals. Typically, the planning and execution of the crimes like theft, kidnapping, or swindling is the focus, not the solving of the crime. Very often in caper mysteries, the police and other authorities are depicted as inept and bumbling.
The crooks are typically likable and either plan something too big, or plan too elaborately for a simple crime. The squabbling among the various ensemble members accounts for some of the tension and humor. Each person has a specific role, so they can’t just dump someone who is hard to get along with.
On occasion, a caper involves a single character who must perform all the actions an ensemble crew would, but it is more common to have a cast for the crime.
If you want to try your hand at caper mystery, re-read the cozy mystery elements from above and add these elements:
1) Plan the framing story for the caper. The motivation can be for good or for the money. It is still illicit, but the greater good might be the rationale.
2) Choose the number of crimes and decide how they are related to one another.
3) Plan the caper and the steps needed to pull it off.
4) One hustler is the criminal mastermind, the “brains” of the operation. The main character has a shady background. There can be co-brains if needed.
5) Identify the ensemble needed to pull off the caper and the special talent each has. They are likely low-level crooks.
6) Select contrastive and complementary traits for the ensemble to build in tension and humor.
7) Identify points in the steps to pulling off the caper where it could go awry. Something ALWAYS goes awry and sometimes many things do.
8) Be able to write funny dialogue and scenes that include tension.
9) The main character perpetrator is most often the POV character.
10) Create an ensemble crew the reader roots for, or at least is sympathetic to.
Plotting a caper mystery requires the author not only to understand how basic mysteries are constructed, but to layer on additional elements. I personally think capers are among the more sophisticated and difficult of all the mystery sub-genres. Just getting the tone right is a major challenge in this sub-genre. Creating likeable crooks takes skillful writing.
But maybe the caper mystery is just right for you. Try it. You might like it!
Capers for you to read:
Lawrence Block, Burglars Can’t be Choosers (and others in the “Burglar” series)
Timothy Hallinan, The Fame Thief
Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season
S.A. Stolinsky, Counterfeit Lottery
Donald Westlake, What’s the Worst that Could Happen? (and many more)
3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Mysteries: 10 Elements of the Caper Mystery”
Nice job, Sharon! Even if you didn’t tell me you were an intrepid cook and wrote culinary mysteries, I would know you were good with recipes, as well as with improvising on them. I love the designation “cozy mystery;” had never heard it before, but I already feel a little better about winter coming…
Paula, so nice to see you here again! Thanks for the support of my cooking adventures. “Keep calm and cook on” is kind of my motto. LOL So many cozy mystery options, and yes, especially good for the upcoming long hours inside.