It could be argued that all works of fiction are mysteries: from Bronte to Fielding, Dickens to Byatt, the finest literature in the world is a collection of words that include a gathering of elements similar to the mystery genre: characters with flaws, origins unknown; enigmatic drama; furtive plot components that wind to a denouement, not necessarily happy, and not necessarily with the sense of justice we wish to find for the characters involved.
But the mystery genre, with its black and white dichotomy of crime and punishment, its sense of right and wrong, is somewhat formulaic and quite unlike any other genre.
Altering the prescribed expectations of whodunits and yet keeping within the format of what the reader wants is where the challenge arises for fledgling crime writers. You don’t want to get mired in the generic aspects of the genus, but you do want to do something different, something that might also catch the eye of an agent so at some point down the road, readers can share your musings.
So, do you create a protagonist so winsome, so droll and intelligent, so wise and knowing that the character alone is irresistible? Maybe. But a regular old Joe or Jill might be a better solution; a central character who struggles with the everyday, just as we do.
My favorite books include diverse and quirky casts of characters with personality flaws and deep-seated troubles: Ian Rankin’s Rebus comes to mind. Martha Grime’s Richard Jury and his sidekick Melrose Plant are others; then there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and Kate Atkinson’s beset Jackson Brodie. Each struggles with something from the past, an episode or personal tragedy that drives their sense of justice and the need to right wrongs. Those flaws drive the spirit of the books.
Relatively newbie author Elly Griffiths’ protagonist, forensic archeologist Ruby Galloway, has certainly got herself into a delicate dilemma. Unwavering in her professional skills, she is floundering in her personal life as she has had a child with a married police officer with whom she has worked to solve a number of crimes; a touchy matter. She’s an admirable and independent spirit, despite her self doubts.
We’re all weak, strong, adventurous, sedate. If you’re of any age, you’ve seen it all, done most of it, suffered the slings and arrows, rejoiced in life’s good things and figured out a mystery or two of your own.
And so should our protagonists be much like us: fearful and wise, unsure and certain, helpless and strong, funny and sad, and clever enough to make all that’s bad in our mysteries see justice.
Oh yeah. And they should be durable enough to get us through the plot and help us get it ‘write’ to the end!