The devil is in the details in a mystery novel, but how do you know which details to pay attention to while reading (or writing) a cozy mystery?
What makes a good mystery?
We've all read cozies where the killer was all too obvious, ones where the mystery was impossible to guess, and those satisfying stories where we guess the solution right when we're supposed to - just before the sleuth does at the very end of their investigation. That's right, a successful cozy mystery gives the reader just enough clues to solve the crime right along with the sleuth. We, the readers, don't like to feel that a solution has come out of nowhere, or that it was too easy to solve. We're looking for those Goldilocks books - the ones that hit just the right balance of genuine clues to red herrings, with a twist or two not overdone.
The stories are, after all, told from the perspective of the sleuth, and we readers are right along for the journey. Reading mysteries are not a passive act, no way! We are sleuths, too, figuring it all out, hopefully just a little ahead of our book's main character.
How do we do that?
It's elementary, my dear readers.
Step 1: Gather your clues.
If you're a writer, you'll do these all in a slightly different order. You'll want to know who did it from the very beginning, then scatter your clues and red herrings like breadcrumbs in trail leading to the culprit. But if you're a reader, you'll be following the trail the author has left for you.
Writers will leave some obvious clues sometimes right from the start of the book. You've heard about motive, means, and opportunity, and that's a great place to start when looking for clues. All clues generally fall into one of these categories. They could be things like:
- Personal issues (cheating, divorce, money matters, or breaking up friendships)
- Business issues (competitors, exposing illegal practices, losing a business deal)
- Heat of the Moment arguments and threats
- Violent weapons like guns, knives, etc. usually show the murder was in the heat of the moment so someone with a passion toward (or against) the victim or someone prone to rage is a likely suspect
- Poison and other subtle weapons show planning and purposeful intent to harm the victim
- Alibis that are missing, too perfect, or too flimsy
- Timings that seem off or missing time during the crime
- People who happen to be nearby during the crime
- The possibility that more than one person is involved in the crime (this often gets overlooked)
Keep in mind that authors use things like foreshadowing as clues, too. Pay attention to things like gut feelings your sleuth has toward certain people. If your sleuth sees something as strange but dismisses it, don't dismiss it with them. It may be a clue they're making the (often dangerous) mistake of ignoring. Don't fall into that trap!
Step 2: Sort Clues from Red Herrings
As you go through the story, you'll want to figure out which clues actually get you closer to catching the culprit and which are there to mislead you. Don't stop reading a book simply because the killer seems obvious. If a writer is making it far too simple to figure out whodunit, it's probably not who actually committed the crime.
Red herrings, or clues that are purposefully misleading, come in all kinds. These are where the masters of deception show off their skills. Look out for characters who are giving you those clues that don't seem right or don't pan out. If following a clue put the killer in danger, the clue-giver might be innocent, but they also might have given the sleuth that clue just to get them out of the way. If following a clue likewise leads to catching the killer far too soon in the story, the sleuth has probably caught the wrong killer because of the clue.
Great red herrings are:
- People are bound to point fingers when a crime occurs. They'll remember hearing arguments, repeating gossip they heard, or telling the sleuth about weird feelings they get about people. Because these things might be true, the sleuth needs to follow them to see whether they were motive enough to kill.
- Lies and Half-Truths
- The killer might plant evidence at a crime scene, tell a lie to the sleuth to point the finger somewhere else, or lie about an alibi. He/she might also tell a half-truth in an effort to get the sleuth to trust the false information. Sometimes, an innocent person lies because they're afraid of becoming a suspect, so just because the sleuth finds out someone is lying, doesn't mean he/she is the killer.
- Accidental Observations
- Sometimes the sleuth notices something on his/her own. It could be an object at the crime scene that was planted by the killer or an object left there on accident that has nothing to do with the crime. Sometimes, the sleuth witnesses and odd interaction or overhears something, which is misinterpreted as having something to do with the crime when it doesn't.
How do you know which clues are red herrings? Usually, the sleuth follows multiple trails and hits dead ends, or finds out new information that contradicts the old. You'll generally find out about the red herrings just when the sleuth does. But this is where paying attention to foreshadowing helps. Listen to the sleuth's gut feelings about characters and characters that seem off to you, too.
Step 3: Watch out for the Twist!
Things get interesting when there's a twist involved. Maybe the sleuth thinks the killer has been caught and is safely behind bars, only to find herself in danger when the real killer comes after her/him. Maybe the sleuth thinks the evidence points one way, only to find out a trusted source has been lying the whole time.
Terrific twists include:
- Characters that were never suspected end up being the source of false information
- A clue that has been misinterpreted the whole time until the very end
- Danger! The real killer has motive to kill someone else - possibly even the sleuth
Step 4: Adding up the Clues = Catching the Culprit!
Now that you've sorted all the clues and survived the twist, it's time to catch the culprit! A good sleuth knows how to wrap it up, like the "Here's what happened" part of a crime TV show. Ideally, you'll know who did it before the sleuth reveals the truth to the other characters. You'll be able to follow the explanation starting with the motive all the way through to the murder.
A wonderful wrap up:
Begins with a motive for which its believable someone would kill.
Moves on to the means the killer used to plan the crime and to cover it up.
And concludes with the way in which the crime was actually committed.
Step 5: Justice is Served
Cozies often wrap up with the criminal being carted off to jail, giving justice to the victim's family and friends. Thus, the crime is solve and the community is safe once again. What sets a cozy mystery apart is that the end of crime isn't usually the end of the novel. I love an extra chapter at the end returning the sleuth to a life of comfort among friends. We end the book feeling all is well, as it should be.
Have I missed any steps? What makes a great cozy mystery? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join the conversation on social media.