We all like mysteries with a layered plot that solves a murder, like pealing an onion until we arrive at a satisfying resolution. This is what keeps us reading mysteries and keeps fans of other genres from taking the plunge.
As much as I relish solving sometimes unsolvable puzzles, I enjoy reading mysteries with characters I care about in much the same way as great literary novels do, like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.
As a mystery writer, I’ve written blogs about the essential components of a mystery novel. I wrote one a few years ago that listed six essential elements to have in a mystery. Murder, motive, evidence, red herring, suspects and deduction that solves the crime. What did I leave out?
With experience I’ve learned I left out perhaps the most essential component, characters with which the reader will want to invest their time. Classic mysteries of the twenties and thirties are full of memorable characters; Nick and Nora Charles, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot to name just few. In the hands of modern mystery writers, characterization has taken on even greater importance.
Who’s the best at this? In my opinion, no one does it better than Dennis Lehane.
He’s a master at the modern mystery with intricately crafted plots often with wonderful twists at the end. Lehane teaches university writing courses and often lectures about the craft and his knowledge of the craft shows in his writing.
Lehane’s multi-layered characterization makes him stand out in such novels as Mystic River and Shutter Island. My favorites are his private detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. The Kenzie and Gennaro series released in the 1990’s includes Gone Baby Gone. Fortunately for us, he brought them back in his 2010 novel, Moonlit Mile.
Heroic, flawed, motivated, conflicted. These adjectives describe memorable characters. Read modern mysteries for delightful and expertly crafted plots, but I suspect long after, you’ll remember these novels due to their well-rounded heroes and villains.
Who are some of your favorite modern-day mystery writers?