Why do we love reading mystery and crime? 

  • escaping from the dull reality/routines,
  • fear mixed with passion: we live in a world where more than 400,000 people die from homicide each year
  • we identify ourselves with the detective and, as a result, seem stronger, feel more courageous, or smart
  • an exercise for the mind – many people like to guess charades; it has become a sport among amateur detectives/sleuths 

 The four pillars of a mystery novel

  1. The reader and the main character are looking for answers to the questions: What was the reason? Who has done it?
  2. For the reader to be seriously interested in the mystery, something important must be at stake. Therefore, detective stories appeal to such fundamental values ​​as life, freedom, and money. The dynamic plot and high stakes create tension, and the reader wants to know what happens next.
  3. The detective is rooted in ancient legends about the epic journey of a warrior who fights evil. Solving a crime, especially murder, is a symbolic victory over death. Therefore, in the detective story, white is separated from black, and Good and Evil are in a state of irreconcilable war.
  4. Theoretically, the reader has the opportunity to solve the crime himself: in the course of the story, he is given all the necessary clues. But often, he is disappointed if he still guesses who exactly killed Miss Jane or stole the diamonds from the bedside table. 

Types of detectives

  • Closed type. The crime is committed in a closed space (on a ship, in a mountain boarding house, etc.), and suspicion may fall on a limited circle of people. The closed detective was especially popular in 1920-1930.
  • Psychological detective. The main emphasis is on the psychology of both the criminal and the detective.
  • A tough detective (a noir). Violence, corpses, and sex are depicted in every detail.
  • Historical detective. One of the varieties of a historical detective story is the investigation of a crime committed long ago. The action takes place in the past.
  • Political detective. The action revolves around elections, political movements, or the private life of politicians.
  • Spy detective. The adventures of scouts are described.
  • Art history detective. Art theft is under investigation.
  • Love detective. A love affair (often between two antagonists) seriously affects the development of the plot.
  • Ironic detective. Amateur ladies usually do investigations. The story is told in an ironic tone. The gory details are omitted.
  • Police detective. Investigative procedures and the work of professionals are described in detail. Variation – forensic detective. The authors of these works are usually lawyers or former law enforcement officers.
  • Fantasy detective. The investigation takes place in a fictional or surreal world.
  • Private detective. A private detective conducts the investigation.
  • Amateur detective. A non-professional is taken to solve the crime – a witness, a suspect, a relative, or a friend of the hero involved in the case. If we are talking about a series of novels about an amateur detective, a paradox arises when a seemingly ordinary person stumbles upon a corpse every six months. 

 A detective is a person who conducts an investigation. As mentioned above, investigators are divided into the following types:

  • law enforcement officer
  • lawyer
  • spy
  • private detective
  • sleuth

The characteristic features of the protagonist of detective stories are courage, a sense of justice, isolation, and the ability to break the law to save the day. For example, a detective might intimidate a rogue witness to find the truth. He can stand up for himself and is ready to help others. He is a professional in his field, although it is not necessarily about investigative work. Often he has an exceptional talent: a unique memory, language skills, etc. In a word, he is always somehow different from us, ordinary mortals – this is part of his myth

 Oddities and paradoxes in the hero’s character adorn the story: a quiet librarian can drive a motorcycle, a pathologist – work as a clown on weekends, etc. But here we must be careful: a lumberjack who loves ballet looks unnatural. If a librarian drives a Harley to work, let there be a rational explanation for this. For example, she inherited a motorcycle from her deceased brother or … 

Assistant – serves to ensure that the detective can explain to someone the details of the investigation. As a rule, this is a person of average abilities, against whose background the main character looks more representative.

 A criminal is a person who has committed or organized a crime. As a rule, his name is not known until the end.

From “How to Write a Damn Good Mystery” by James N. Frey: here

  1. The perpetrator must be selfish and act out of self-interest. If the reader discovers that the murder was committed by a kind nun who protected orphans, one of the factors of pleasure from reading the detective story is lost. People want evil to be punished.

No evil – no conflict – no sense of satisfaction

  1. If a good criminal is needed to advance the plot, escalate the conflict in other ways!
  2. The offender must be afraid of exposure – otherwise, the sharpness of the conflict is lost again. Make it intelligent and resourceful. Let them fight with the detective on equal terms.
  3. A criminal in the past may have had a mental trauma, after which he went on a crooked path.
  4. The suspect is the person who is initially suspected. As a rule, he turns out to be innocent.
  5. A victim is someone who died or was injured due to a crime.
  6. Witnesses are people who provide the detective with important information about the crime and/or the perpetrator.
  7. Wise Man – gives the detective valuable advice on how to conduct an investigation.
  8. Expert – provides the investigator with necessary scientific or professional data, for example, in ballistics, linguistics, art, symbolism, etc. 

 The big plan 

Typically, a mystery novel is built according to the following scheme:

1) The detective takes up the investigation. Sometimes, the author describes a crime scene or introduces a prologue to create the right atmosphere.

If the main character is a professional, then there is no need to explain his motivation (why he agreed to conduct an investigation): this is his job. If the protagonist is an amateur or a private detective, you can’t do without an introductory part: you need to show why on Earth the hero got involved in the case. This can be done in flashback order.

2) The detective begins the investigation, and at first, he is lucky. In mythology, this is called initiation – the hero leaves his ordinary life and finds himself in the distant realm of crime. 

 The investigation is carried out in two ways:

  • hunting – the detective immediately finds a critical piece of evidence which allows him to unravel the secret.
  • gathering – the detective studies disparate facts, which are subsequently combined into a picture of a crime.

 The conflict can escalate if the detective finds himself in a different environment: for example, a simple, laconic guy from the social classes is investigating the murder of the King.

3) The detective faces a serious crisis that turns his life upside down, gathers strength, and continues the investigation in a new direction.

4) The investigation is in hot pursuit. The detective discovers the missing links in the chain. Suddenly comes a moment of enlightenment – he finds answers to all key questions. 

5) The detective catches the criminal. The killer (kidnapper, spy, etc.) gets what he deserves!

6) It tells how the events of the novel influenced the characters.

 To be continued…
Stay tuned for part 2! 



  1. An excellent primer on the development of a mystery, Ray. Thanks for sharing

  2. Remember to give the investigator some major flaws. That’s been the norm for the past forty years.

    1. Author

      We love some flaws. For example Jules Maigret … he doesn’t have powers of deduction 🤔 but he’s one of my fav characters in crime fiction

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