Friday, July 31, 2009

What makes a good detective in a mystery?

While we are reading "A Little Murder" by Cindy Davis, I thought it appropriate to discuss writing mysteries.

Let's start with the DETECTIVE.

The trick to a good mystery or any novel is to create believable and interesting characters. In the case of a mystery, the detective is the character readers will identify with first and foremost.

Rules for the DETECTIVE:


We have all heard the saying "show, don't tell"?

The best way to show that the detective in a mystery novel is the curious sort, who HAS to know the answer, put him/her in a job that seems to attract curious types. The obvious examples are private investigator, police detective, and investigative reporter. The not so obvious might be a photo/journalist, a scientist, a researcher, a librarian, or even a computer hacker (my personal favorite). Not only will the readers accept the detective as the sort who will chase down answers, but also these jobs often lead to fascinating plots.


Consider your detective's occupation. Will it allow time out to go solve a puzzle? If the detective’s job does not allow for time to unravel the mystery of his best friend’s death then there has to be a credible way to excuse all the time the detective is away from his/her “real” job. Perhaps he/she is on vacation. Maybe the detective is on holiday or a vacation. Keep it real to be believable.

The detective will be in personal danger at some point in the novel and will therefore have to be strong. Showing the detective as regularly performing some physical activity like jogging five miles a day, swimming ten laps in a pool before bedtime, or taking a dance class will give he or she the appearance of being strong.

Why is this necessary?

When the detective faces the danger of having to kick a gun away, fight an armed assailant in frigid water, or wriggle out of constraints it will be easier to believe that he/she is capable of performing such feats.

Remember when you first started writing and one of the first things you did was interview your characters, get to know them in-depth? In a mystery, it is helpful to know the hobbies and skills the detective is involved in and will HELP in solving the mystery. Stamp collecting may not be of much use unless the mystery revolves around the death of a small town stamp collecting storeowner. Is she a computer whiz? Does he teach a psychology class once a week at the community college?

Friends of the detective are also useful. Having a pal on the police force or at the Town Clerk’s office can come in handy. A neighbor who is a lawyer or a computer geek can be of use to a detective at different times.


There has to be a reason the detective is compelled to find the solution. In police procedurals or private eye novels, this is easy. The detective is hired to do the job. That is not exactly compelling. Perhaps the detective needs the job because she just opened her private investigative firm and wants to prove herself as competent.

One of the best ways to have an amateur sleuth continue the hunt for clues and the answer is to either make him/her a suspect, or have someone he/she care for a suspect. If the police have determined that he must have "dunnit", then no one else is looking for the real culprit. Another effective motive is if the detective or someone he/she cares about is in danger. She has to proceed with the investigation, regardless of the danger.


The detective in a mystery novel, whether amateur or professional cannot bumble his/her way through investigation and just happen upon clues and answers. This character is going to solve a puzzle. It must be believable that he can unravel the mystery.

Tune in tomorrow when we discuss the VILLAIN.


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