I don’t typically review mysteries on the blog, but I have read a reasonable amount of them–published or submitted manuscripts–for my publishing internships. And while I acknowledge these books don’t represent the entirety of the genre, I find that the more I come across, the less I want to read them. Too many of them sound exactly the same.
Admittedly, mysteries routinely get accused of being formulaic, so I’m not the first person to make this eye-opening observation. I just didn’t realize how much truth was behind the stereotype under my supervisors starting sending me more and more mysteries. Here’s the basic breakdown of the murder mystery:
1.) It opens with a suspensefully vague prologue where the murder victim is either killed or found dead.
2.) Someone tangentially related to the victim hears the news. They absolutely refuse to believe the police report that the death was an accident. They have no evidence or reason for thinking so; it’s just a gut feeling. Bonus points if they already have an idea who the murderer is.
3.) The protagonist spends several chapters going around asking everyone about the victim and whether they, too, are doubtful it was really an accident. (It’s surprising the murderer doesn’t catch wind of this nosiness and nip it in the bud. The protagonist is not subtle.)
4.) The protagonist Googles the victim and/or the suspected murderer. They read multiple reports of the victim’s death. Bonus points if one of the clippings offers something that looks like a clue!
5.) The protagonist snoops around the home of the victim and/or suspected murderer.
6.) The protagonist eventually confronts the suspect in some way. The suspect is innocent.
7.) The murderer is someone else! Bonus points if the protagonist accuses him/her in a secluded space and almost gets murdered, too.
Why is this boring? Besides the fact that far too many mysteries play out with the same structure and you can just interchange characters and their back stories, this structure inherently lacks suspense. The beginning is boring because there seems to be a simple investigation at work: decide whether John Doe is a murderer or the death was really an accident. I’m supposed to read 400 pages of the protagonist asking what amounts to a yes or no question? (And does amateur detective work that primarily involves walking up to people and asking, “Hey, do you secretly suspect Amy was killed? Because I do!”)
But we all know it’s not that simple. In fact, we might as well skip the first couple hundred pages because the one person the protagonist suspects will definitely not be the murderer. It will be someone else, someone we never suspected. (Read: someone we were totally suspecting because they looked so innocent, and that’s how these books work.)
If I, someone who is not a particularly avid mystery reader, can see the pattern, I have to assume everyone else can, too. And while it’s probably nice for beginning authors to have a formula to build on, I’d like to see authors branch out. I want to see something new. I want to actually be surprised! I want to feel as if I’m actually reading a different book.