Writing a Truly Great Mystery

Writing a Truly Great Mystery


That question has been challenging writers since the day that Edgar Allan Poe sat down in 1841 and penned The Murders in the Rue Morgue, widely regarded as the first modern detective story.

Thrillers, procedurals, horror stories, mysteries … they all account for a lot of danger and death. So much death, in fact, that by the time the average student has finished elementary school, he or she has seen 8,000 murders on television. God knows how many of those are scripted.

Trying to surprise audiences with a surprising whodunnit is surely one of the greatest challenges for any writer in any medium, particularly those scribing for the screen. And keeping ahead of a savvy audience, one that has seen 8,000 by the end of 6th grade, is a daunting task.

Indeed, is anything harder in the world of fictional storytelling than coming up with an ending to a mystery that no one sees coming?  

Surprising audiences is such a challenge that by the time Agatha Christie was penning The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her third Hercule Poirot novel in 1926, she felt the need to turn the mystery genre on its head and make the narrator of the story the villain. (It’s only revealed on the last page, too!) In 1968, to add surprise to the genre, writers Richard Levinson and William Link pitched their detective show "Columbo" as a procedural where the audience would see the murder done in the first act. The second and third act fun would focus on the wily detective trying to figure out what the audience had already seen. That novelty, among other factors, made the show a worldwide hit.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle figured that the way to keep mysteries fresh was less in the reveal of the culprit and more in how his detective, Sherlock Holmes, assembled the pieces of the puzzle to nail the culprit. Since then, that approach has informed every detective drama from Christie to Hammett to "Law and Order" to "CSI."

The "CSI" franchise was especially good at breathing life into the whodunnit as the particulars of carpet fibers always make for a good rug pull in the plotting. You can only have so many suspects in any mystery, but how they did the dirty deed, or get exposed, is chock full of possibilities as long as there are plenty of microscopes and cans of luminol spray. Science, it seems, has become a greater aid to the mystery writer than Microsoft Word spell-check.

Another trope that has replaced the whodunnit and the howdunnit in plenty of mysteries is the backstory. Showcasing what drove a villain to his or her evil deeds is often where the truer mystery lies these days. The Netflix series "Mindhunter" eschewed crime-solving by and large to concentrate on detectives finding out what makes a criminal tick and what egged him on to be so prolific a maniac. The show, based loosely on FBI papa of all the profilers, John Douglas, examined what pushed miscreants and misfits into taking out their frustrations in the form of serial murder. More often than not, whether it was Edmund Kemper, Charles Manson, or Wayne Williams, an atrocious home life was rooted out as the cause, conjuring some sympathy for the devils since their abuse at home led them to lives of crime.

Indeed, even crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino gave up trying to add the element of mystery to most of their underworld stories. Instead, they concentrated on the quirky characters toiling in the world of robbery, murder, and heists, rather than the intricate bobbing and weaving of their actions that lend themselves to twisting cat-and-mouse tales. Tarantino treated the structure of a story and plot as more of a mystery, keeping audiences off-guard by how he laid out chapters or dispatched characters more than how any cop figured out whodunnit.

There are simply too many procedurals and murders everywhere these days—on streaming services, in true crime documentaries, and blanketing the news. It’s no wonder it’s getting harder and harder to pen mysteries.

Even those genres that have mystery components seem to have given up. Did any of Christopher Nolan’s Batman’s truly exploit the Caped Crusader’s talents as a detective? Did any of Daniel Craig’s Bond films work overtime to showcase 007 as an intellectually driven spook? No way.

Even horror has eschewed mystery, by and large, forgetting that the genre used to be seeped in it. Long gone are the days when Henry Jekyll’s cohorts tried to decipher why on Earth he’d be contemporaries with someone like Edward Hyde. One only has to look at the ridiculous laziness of the new Halloween Kills movie to see just how wholly screenwriters have given up on instilling mystery in horror. There’s nothing left to be gleaned by studying the particulars of Michael Meyers. The mystery is over; he’s just an unkillable devil by now.  

There is some hope for the trope of mysteries, however, but it’s happening in places outside the realm of the usual suspects. Gobsmacking mysteries and supremely surprising revelations are seeping into narratives not originally set up as mysteries. Take Netflix’s "Squid Game" for example. It’s been described as a survival drama, a dark comedy, and even a social satire, but it’s a wonderful mystery, too, having two mixed into its complex story. No, the mystery doesn’t involve just who’s going to win the piggy bank full of Korean won, even though that’s a great question. Rather, the mystery surrounds its two evil puppet masters pulling all the strings in the horrific games.

I won’t divulge such "Squid Game" spoilers here, but suffice it to say that both revelations are genuine jaw-droppers, and in essence, the entire last two episodes serve as much as Christie-esque reveals as anything concerning the game’s finalists and winner.  

Indeed, for writers wanting to carry on the tradition of astonishing reveals, the best way to do so may be to add a touch of mystery to genres where you’d least expect it. If audiences are getting ahead of the writer in the never-ending parade of cop shows and killer thrillers, perhaps the best way to keep them on their toes is to add mystery elements to genres they rarely show up in: romances, epics, biopics, westerns, holiday comedies, or even musicals.

Less luminol and more illumination where you’d least expect it—that’s the answer.

*Feature Image: "Squid Games" by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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