Why I Can’t Get into Mysteries

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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.

So, with that in mind, tell me your best mystery recommendations! Show me there’s hope!

9 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Get into Mysteries

  1. Annika @ Hiding in Books says:

    Nice post! I’ve been a bit hesitant about mysteries too!
    I just recently read the Unforgotten by Laura Powell and quite liked that one: we see the events happening in the 1950’s and then 50 years later. It’s probably the historical angle of it that made me read it. But it surprised me! Which is good 😉


  2. Lisa @ Lost in Literature says:

    Hmmm… I never thought about it this way. I actually really enjoy mysteries, though I don’t read them all too often. Maybe that’s why? I’m always stumped, and I NEVER guess who the killer is. So for me, they’re quite enjoyable. Though I do know a few other bloggers that have said it’s very easy for them to know who the killer is, or to play out the story ahead of time, so I can see why for that type of reader they wouldn’t be enjoyable at all. Great discussion post! 🙂


  3. Kate @ Midnight Book Girl says:

    I love mysteries- but I like the darker side of mysteries- thrillers. I love Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter and Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. I really liked a stand alone by Tess Gerritsen called The Bone Garden, loved The Girl on the Train, and for cute, fun, cozy mysteries I like Heather Blake.


    • Briana says:

      I don’t normally read thrillers, but I think they do tend to be a bit more original than the sort of standard mystery I’ve been reading lately. And I’ve only heard good things about The Girl on the Train!


    • Briana says:

      Especially if the character is an amateur detective BECAUSE they like to read mysteries. They should know that’s a terrible idea and you should just call the police!


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