Okay, I admit it, I’m congenitally unable to pick a genre and stick with it. . .even for the course of a novel. But while I have ventured into the land of what the Brits call crime fiction with one of the novels I’m currently shopping around New York (a steampunk Victorian detective novel with werewolves), I was surprised to hear one of my readers describe my latest urban fantasy, Raven’s Wing, as something of a mystery. I mean yes, I did try to keep readers guessing through most of the novel, but that’s what good storytellers do, right?
But that reader’s comment got me thinking. (They usually do. Dangerous people, readers.)
I’ve been on a bit of a police procedural/Victorian detective novel binge lately. Mostly it’s the fault of Tana French and Laurie R King, who are such bloody brilliant writers that I don’t think it matters what genre they choose. And then of course King’s Holmes/Russell materials have me going back to her source material, Arthur Conan Doyle, the master himself.
I think writers of all genres can learn a lot from mystery writers, because every good novel has a hint of mystery to it. Even in books where the reader knows from the start who the bad guy is (Sauron, Voldemort, pick your dark lord) there still has to be things for the reader to puzzle out and worry over. Can Strider be trusted? Which of the companions will fall to the ring’s spell? What tragedy will come out of Denethor’s madness? Or, in the Goblet of Fire, who put Harry’s name in the goblet? And throughout that series the reader is left to wonder what side Snape is on. (I was a Snape believer from the beginning and am very pleased to be vindicated, thank-you-very-much.)
Some speculative fiction authors are very upfront about their alliance with the mystery genre. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are basically paranormal detective noir in a modern setting. Charlaine Harris did very well writing paranormal romance mysteries (a genre-bending feat I can only bow to.)
So here’s my challenge to readers: the next time you read or watch something in the science fiction, fantasy or paranormal, whether it is overtly in the mystery field or not, try looking for places where the author borrowed techniques from the crime and suspense novel. Misdirection, multiple strong suspects, seemingly inexplicable happenings.
And my challenge to writers: Find ways to do what mystery writers do best in order to make your books even more compelling. Keep your readers guessing. Lead them astray occasionally. They’ll love you for it.
(Sorry this is so short. This is actually my third shot at a blog. The first two were trying to play off of tax season and talked about civic duty, either in RL among the writing/fandom community or in fiction among characters. Trust me, you aren’t missing much.)