I’ve had some interesting conversations over the last couple weeks with various writer/reader friends. Essentially, what is it that really puts your (my) back up with regards to mysteries?
To a certain extent, mysteries are the same. There will be a crime. There will be a sleuth. Sometimes, this sleuth will be a professional (a police officer or PI), and sometimes it will be an amateur. In the end, there will be resolution and order will be restored (unless you’re reading noir, but that’s a topic for another day).
For me, it’s the characters that really make these stories come alive. How to they relate, how do they grow, how do they change. This is important, because when you invest 8-10 hours (or more, depending on how fast you read) in spending time with people, fictional or otherwise, they better make it worth your while, right?
That said, every reader has her pet peeves – things that no matter how great the characters or the plot just make it impossible to get into a story. I’m not talking about flat dialog, or a predictable plot, or even one-dimensional characters. Those are mechanics problems and any good writer, or decent writer with a good editor, can fix things. No, these are the things that make me roll my eyes and say, “really?”.
The list, in no particular order:
- Police non-procedural. Writing about cops is tricky. But I’ve had feedback on projects that have boiled down to basically, “It’s a police investigation and things are happening exactly as I’d expect them to happen.” Except, what if they didn’t? Everybody loves a rebel, right? Not really. Procedure matters when it comes to public officials. If your police officer protagonist allows random people to trample his scene, or bullies his way into an apartment under false pretences, some readers might like it. But for a lot, it’s going to backfire. A topic of lively conversation recently was the infamous “don’t leave town” instruction, made popular by TV. The police can’t make you stay put. They can ask, but really, if you want to leave to visit Aunt Martha for the weekend, they can’t stop you. It’s sloppy writing.
- Brilliant amateurs, bumbling cops. How often do you really think an amateur detective can show up the police? And how often are law enforcement officials really that clueless? I’ve talked to a lot of police officers. They’re pretty smart guys and gals. Sure, they probably miss things occasionally. Who doesn’t? But when I pick up a novel where the police are the Keystone Kops, and the amateur has to come in to “save the day,” I stop reading. Again, lazy. There are better ways to do civilian-cop conflict.
- “What was that noise? I guess I’ll go look.” I call this the “bad horror flick” trope. You know, power goes out in a creepy, isolated house with a serial killer on the loose and what’s the first thing everybody does? They split up. A young woman lives alone in a house, and hears a noise in the basement. So she goes to investigate, in her nightgown, without calling anyone or taking so much as a flashlight along. Unless she’s got mad ninja skills, no. Again, people are not this stupid. Such writing, unless you’ve crafted a character to deliberately have these traits (and done it for a very good reason) is lazy. There are better ways of crafting suspense.
- “Hi, my name is James, and..aagghhh!” It is certainly possible to write a mystery that doesn’t have anything to do with murder. But fiction is all about high stakes, and what higher stakes are there than death? However, as a reader, I need to understand why the death of this character is so important to the rest of the cast. In essence, why should I give a damn? So while some people insist that you have to have a dead body in the first three chapters, I’m not so sure. Make me care first, let me get to know this guy and hate him – or love him, so I feel badly that he’s dead.
- The unlikable protagonist. Now this one is tricky. I don’t necessarily believe your protagonist has to be someone I want to have over for dinner. However, I do have to be interested. I have to care. I have to be invested in her journey. Again, why spend time with her? Sure, maybe you’re writing noir. Maybe this isn’t supposed to be a noble person. The Jackal, in Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal, was not a good person. But by golly I was invested in his journey. So if an author writes an “unlikable” protagonist, there better be something there to keep me reading.
I could go on. But I’ll stop at there. The five hot-button issues that will make me put down a book – or at least make me wish I had those 8-10 hours back.
So readers, what about you? What are your mystery pet peeves?