What Makes a Good Mystery?

What makes a good mystery? A seemingly simple question, but the answer is not so simple.

In 1928, Father Ronald A Knox, Roman Catholic priest, mystery writer, and one of the founders of The Detection Club, set forth the rules for fair play for detective fiction, known as Knox’s “Ten Commandments” or the “Decalogue.”

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

These rules guided mystery writers during the Golden Age of detective fiction and were distilled into the oath sworn by the initiates into the exclusive, invitation-only Detection Club. During the ceremony, the initiate would be asked to swear on Eric the Skull the following:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?

Detectives in mystery novels rarely changed during the Golden Age. As Dorothy Sayers put it her essay, “Gaudy Night,” The Art of the Mystery Story, 1946, 1974, 210-211.

I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet [Lord Peter Wimsey] through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes. But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understanding what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of 9 or 10 volumes. . . . If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being.

Change was inevitable. The rules were simply too constricting. One by one the rules were broken. And in 1973, Josef Skvorecky, in a collection of short stories, deliberately broke all ten rules in Sins for Father Knox.

But the rules of fair play are still there lurking in the background. In a recent interview, P. D. James said that in the detective story:

The reader can expect to find a central mysterious death, a closed circle of suspects each with credible motive, means and opportunity for the crime, a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it, and a solution at the end of the book which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues presented by the writer with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.

For me, the key elements in what makes a good mystery are these:

• An engaging detective
A puzzle I can solve
• Interesting characters
• A great setting
• And most of all storytelling so powerful that the world of the mystery becomes the world I live in while the real world vanishes—whether it’s the wacky world of Janet Evanovich, the racing underworld of Dick Francis, the violent world of Michael Connelly, or the English upper-class world of Agatha Christie.

What are the key elements for you?

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I agree with what you want in a mystery. My favorite is characters that stay with me. But I also like an ending that floors me. I’m a huge O. Henry fan.

    • Kaye,
      I like an ending that floors me too. If the puzzle is good enough, the revelation of the killer should do that. Or, maybe you were thinking more along the lines of a thriller?

  2. I think I see twist endings in darker stuff usually, although I enjoy reading from cozies on over to noir. A cozy can surprise me with a final revelation, but, as I said, I don’t think I see them as much there.

    • You are right. It’s a difficult task constructing a puzzle that is fair but not that easy to solve. Agatha Christie was a master at it.

  3. My editor required that anything my protagonist knew or discovered must be immediately revealed to the reader and she wouldn’t let me leave a secret as a chapter cliffhanger.

    I was thinking about that when I watched a couple of the Hercule Poirot films recently shown on PBS. We were rarely privy to Hercule’s discoveries until the wrap up scene at the end. As much as I love Poirot and the mysteries of that period, I’m glad we don’t do it that way anymore.

    • Pat,
      One of the things to keep in mind about film or TV productions of Agatha Christie is that a script writer has turned her book into a ninety-minute or two-hour drama. The resulting script is often based–sometimes very loosely–on the actual book.

  4. Hey, this is great! I’m in the middle of answering a bunch of interview questions that includes “What do you think makes a good mystery?” You’ve given me a lot to think about to answer the question well. Thanks!

    • Robin,
      You’re very welcome!

  5. Just create. Keep composing. Don’t believe about it. When you least expect it it will start flowing and you can correct the stuff before later.

    • I see you are a seat-of-the-pants writer. The question still remains: How do you “correct the stuff before later” if you have no idea what makes a good mystery?

  6. Perfectly indited written content. Really enjoyed looking through.

    • Jonathon,
      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. I loved this site

    • Miguel,
      Many thanks! 🙂

      • Miguel.
        You are very welcome!

  8. […] further reading, M.T Logan has a list on what makes good mystery, be sure to check it […]

    • Many thanks! Glad you liked it.

  9. It says no ‘Chinaman must figure in the story’. Does that mean nobody that’s Chinese can be in a mystery book?

    • No. Those were the rules in the Decalogue. Nowadays mystery writers don’t follow those rules. Think of Charlie Chan in films in the 1920s—30s. Nowadays you can have any nationality in a mystery. For example, Xiao Di Zhu’s Judge Dee novels.

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