Monday, June 28, 2010

Twenty Laws for Writing “Unbelievable” Mysteries

By Lori L. Lake

I’ve been reading adult mysteries since the age of nine, when I first tackled the Perry Mason series. (Encyclopedia Brown probably doesn’t count.) Over the years, I’ve read more than 3,000 mysteries and thrillers, some of them fabulous and some disappointing duds. Over that time, I’ve developed a list of conventions that sometimes work – but that also often spell trouble. 

Here are my thoughts on various conventions in some of the most “unbelievable” mysteries – and you can take that “unbelievable” as a plus or a minus.

1.  Don’t bother to go into the real world and research how cops, investigators, lawyers, and detectives actually do their jobs. This kind of information will only confuse and upset your audiences who already have preconceived notions from TV and the movies which must not be dispelled. Feel free to use terms like “Book ’im, Dano” and LUDS (for phone records), and of course every suspect is, indeed, called a “perp.”

2.  Don’t worry about forensics or technology. Everyone knows that all fluids and substances can be dabbed or placed on a slide, popped into a machine, and spun around by centrifugal force like in the “CSI” TV show, resulting in the emergence of a ticker tape of information that reveals all the chemicals and toxins. In addition, footprints, chips of paint, and tire impressions can be tracked with ease; DNA results from body fluids are obtainable overnight; retinal scans are common; and a fingerprint can be lifted from any surface: Velcro, felt, onion skin paper, etc.

3.  Criminals in league with each other typically spend a lot of time explaining their crimes to one another so the reader will understand what they mean to do. In addition, one of the conspirators is almost always a hot-head who cannot be relied upon to follow the plan. In fact, he is easily distracted, and in a fit of rage, usually kills the key person he and his cronies will need to escape. Example: “Haufsnau! You know we meant to just rob the place, not shoot anyone. You were only supposed to hold the blindfolded guard hostage. He was our ticket out. Now we’re stuck with a dead body and an alarm that will go off when we leave. Idiot!”

4.  Criminals, especially bank robbers, NEVER give themselves up, preferring instead to have major shootouts that are guaranteed to leave them riddled with holes. If, by some strange chance, they manage to be captured alive, they can also be counted upon to brag to those with whom they are incarcerated ensuring their ultimate conviction.

5.  A gun is a gun is a gun. Really classy detectives carry Glocks—with or without safeties—and most criminals (especially drug dealers) carry sawed off shotguns or automatic rifles. Cops sometimes still have to carry those old-fashioned, single-action revolvers. Every shot smells like cordite, and nobody ever has trouble hearing even after firing a weapon within an enclosed space.

6.  Even though danger and possible death is patently obvious to the reader, sleuths or detectives will always take off on their own without telling anyone, usually because they think they won’t be believed or they are positive they are the only ones who can handle the situation. They will open doors they shouldn’t, enter huge complexes where it is easy to get lost, and often become trapped and have to fight themselves out of warehouses, meat-packing plants, or machinery such as presses or crushers.

7.  The majority of supervisors of the non-amateur protagonists are nitwits, personally motivated by greed and desire for wealth and power, or they are political animals who will eat up the detective and spit him or her out. This causes the sleuth to have to hide everything, including legally required reports and evidence. Luckily, such illegal activity rarely gets them fired (Lucas Davenport excepted).

8.  Police experts, the FBI, the Secret Service, and various private detectives and lawyers have studied almost every facet of law enforcement and generally know all there is to know—or they always know who to find it out from—and that person usually works just one office or one street away. Nobody is a specialist in their own little world…except the medical examiner who always looks like s/he’s been up all night drinking, crying, and not sleeping because of the horrid job s/he has to do. If, by chance, the detective does not know some small piece of information about forensics, technology, procedure, etc., s/he will not be given that information until it is too late for it to: 1) make sense, 2) save lives, or 3) keep him or her out of big trouble with the boss. If the detective has to get the information from an expert, usually s/he will have to travel by plane to Quantico or Miami or New York or Hollywood or some other sexy hotspot where people s/he meets there will coincidentally have something nefarious to do with the case.

9.   In order to obfuscate and in an attempt to mislead the reader, make sure to have the protagonist puzzle internally and obsessively over bizarre or weighty red herrings hoping that the reader will lose track of the real clues. Or if that doesn’t work, give the detective some sort of major dysfunction or impossible-to-bear pain (dead spouse, murdered kid, lost sanity, physical deformity, etc.) and focus on that repeatedly whenever possible as a diversionary tactic.

10.  All head wounds render the detective only temporarily out, or, at the very least, groggy, but still retaining most faculties. In addition, despite cranial fracture or concussion, s/he is still able to wrestle the evil villain off the edges of roofs, over small cliffs, in the rain or cesspools of mud, and through fire, explosions, or gunshots.

11. Most gunshot wounds hit the detective in the shoulder or in the “bullet-proof” vest, requiring only a short time in the hospital – if the detective actually allows him or herself to be taken to the hospital. When under medical care, usually protagonists refuse treatment, or they accept treatment and wait until no one is looking, then manage all by themselves to disconnect the oxygen, morphine drip, feeding line, and heart monitors so they can put on their bloody clothes and sneak out of the hospital.

12.  Many sleuths worth their salt have at least one of the following: 1) a shadowy protector good with a gun and his or her fists (ie. Bubba in Dennis LeHane’s books or Ranger in the Stephanie Plum series); or 2) an investigative partner with whom they are supposed to share everything, but from whom they keep key data and information (see most police books); or 3) a spry, elderly man or woman who watches out for them (ie. Sue Grafton’s or Sara Paretsky’s books); or 4) someone at home from whom they keep all their worries, instead choosing to carry the weight of all the pain, anguish, responsibility, etc. right up to the point where their spouse/lover/child/parent is threatened or harmed. The exception to this rule is Robert B. Parker whose girlfriend is a great listener and actually a psychiatrist with whom he shares a lot…however, he DOES have Hawk as a protector.

13. A perky, impetuous, smart, and/or exceedingly clever female sleuth manages throughout the course of an entire novel to unearth clues the men don’t find, put the pieces together, and solve the crime – only to be captured by the Bad Guys before she can arrange their capture. She is very nearly killed. She may also be tortured. Instead of her managing to get herself out of the situation in a death-defying show of pluck, brains, and skill, her sidekick or a cop or a passing homeless guy or some other meaningless bystander pops into the picture and saves her bacon. Instead of being mad as hell, she falls in love with him and lives happily ever after.

14.  It is possible for the average citizen to stumble upon as many as 20 or 30 dead bodies in the course of one series of novels. This even happens with sleuths who are technically criminals (Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, for instance).

15.  All drug dealers are badly shaven, take drugs themselves, and are ready to kill at the drop of a hat—except the king of the drug cartel who lives in Beverly Hills or some rich part of NYC next door to the mayor or Clint Eastwood or someone else famous, and he is able to order others to kill on command.  Unfortunately, the hired killers are usually inept in some way, leaving vital clues and/or living witnesses which lead right back to the kingpin.

16.  It is almost always necessary for hired killers to use automatic weapons, drive-by shootings, and intentional sprays of gunfire to kill their victims rather than quieter, sneaky, well-planned, and cleverly executed assassinations. The exception to this rule is when the killer is hired by the Mob, in which case, all Mob killings are “execution-style,” a/k/a “double-tap,” i.e. two shots to the head while kneeling. As soon as such a pattern of murder is found, it is always attributed to the Mob and never to anyone else.

17.  A disproportionate number of villains are represented by minorities, especially Middle Easterners, German scientists, Asians, Colombians, and Russians. Most of these villains are intent on taking over the world. Nobody ever explains why they would WANT to take over the world.

18.   Serial killers and psychopathic murderers usually got that way because of poor mothering. Their fathers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Serial killers usually seem perfectly normal to everyone around them, holding down regular jobs, keeping up their yards, and apparently just enjoying murder and mayhem for recreational purposes…except for when they are caught, in which case they turn to bizarre, frothing-at-the-mouth behavior that is liable to throw everyone into a complete panic. They also become supernaturally strong and can carry dead bodies or passed-out detectives twice their weight right over their shoulders.

19. Sociopaths have problems with their consciences. Psychopaths are clever but crazy and bloodthirsty. Both of the terms are obsolete synonyms for “anti-social personality disorder. Whatever they’re called, in fiction both have a tendency to lurk around in the darkness, just out of the sight or hearing of their victims, thinking bizarre, discombobulated thoughts that show them to be bonkers. But somehow they still manage to carry off their murders without leaving much in the way of clues, and it usually takes 300 pages or more for the intrepid sleuth(s) to catch them. When they get caught, they’re usually either bonkers - or fully aware and laughing maniacally. Or both.

20.  Once the villains have captured the detective or sleuth, they are never in any hurry to dispose of them. Instead, the villains spend considerable time explaining how and why and when they committed their crimes, often exulting in their cleverness. They also often say things like, “I’m real sorry I have to do this, but you just happen to know too much. You should never have seen/done (fill in the blank).”  Even when it is clear that reinforcements are on the way, the arrogant criminal just has to get those last bits of explanation in so he or she can chortle at the sleuth, which inevitably gives our hero just enough time to get free and safe the day.

And those are my “laws” so far. Anybody have others to add?

© 2010 Lori L. Lake,
Lori L. Lake is the award-winning author of Snow Moon Rising and the “Gun” series. She’s published six novels, two collections of short stories, and had her short stories included in The Silence of the Loons and Once Upon A Crime. Now relocated from Minnesota to Portland, Oregon, Lori is putting the finishing touches on the first book in a mainstream mystery series.  Visit her web site at:


Barbara said...

This is priceless.

Darcia Helle said...

I laughed all the way through this!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

SO perfect! Thank you!

justin smith said...


One literary agent called my first novel "too original" and suggested some of the above as a way to improve it!

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the "why take over the world?" question. Seems like the paperwork alone would make it not worthwhile.


Vicki Lane said...

Wonderful post, Lori! A few of your rules kinda made me wince...

Lynn Barker Steinmayer said...

That is absolutely great, oh and by the way, when I am Queen of the universe -- there will be no paperwork!

Susan Schreyer said...

Psst! Lori! You forgot "Spoiler Alert" in your title!

(seriously--Loved it! Well done!)

Victor J. Banis said...

Ha ha, you had me going there for a bit, girlfriend. Very funny. I now know exactly how to plot my next mystery.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Lori!

J D Webb said...

Guffawed a lot, Lori. My favorite is that no matter the weapon used the "good guy" only gets a flesh wound and the bullet has miraculously traveled through the chest cavity missing every vein, artery, or blood vessel.

P.A.Brown said...

How about the sleuth or cop who beats the crap out of someone and takes a few good hits him or herself with fists or steel toed boots, yet in the next scene are unmarred by bruises, missing teeth, torn flesh or busted spleens. No one ever has damaged knuckles even after punching someone several times in the face.

Download Tv Show said...

Lorraine every law is great keep posting...

Nancy said...

Great! This describes about the last two dozen mysteries I've read! I was starting to wonder if we were running out of stories.

Sheila Connolly said...


Now, the next step is, create a database using all of these, and then a random generator that will select one element from each column. Presto! Instant mystery, bound to be a best-seller.

AliasMo said...

Love your list, Lori!

Here's one to add: Who wants to read about your sleuth making endless phone calls, checking public records or talking to sources who are not colorful and kookie? Especially when everything a sleuth could want to know can be hacked from a database by the socially-challenged character of your choice in less than three paragraphs!

Anonymous said...

Great List!
I had fun going through it, Im also a lifelong reader and the mystery-crime genre appeals the most to me.

There was an underlying message here, something sarcastic perhaps, that mysteries are predictable and formulaic? Can't deny that, I think once Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle did their series, the whodunnit was born and is still with us today. Perhaps you are tired of them...
I would add that every other genre is just as predictable, romance especially.
I used to love watching Perry Mason during the early 60s, and I knew the show would always end with the guilty caught and Perry smiling.

Esri Rose said...

Chiming in late, bu this was both excellent and hilarious.

Justin, your comment made me groan.

Lori L. Lake said...

Thanks for all the good comments and encouragement. I feel that I must note that I don't think well-written mysteries are all that predictable or formulaic. (Responding to your comment, Donna Q.) I think all good mysteries have a FORM, and how that's dealt with is what makes the book unputdownable - or not. When Form is ignored and Formula is what's used, most mystery novels suffer in a big way.

Obviously we have crime, sleuths, detecting, and some sort of resolution, but there is a LOT of room for variety, excitement, and interesting characters within that framework. And by that definition, many "literary" and classic works can be classified as mysteries.

I think we all have to use our very best writing skills to get around the problems with Form and Formula. Same goes for the "laws" I mentioned. I've seen every one of them actually work to some degree - - - and all of them fail miserably as well.

Happy Writing to Everyone!

Anonymous said...

It seemed as I was pondering your long 'unbelievable' list that Sue Grafton's style and 'form' if you wish was referred to many times.

I happen to love her books, she has chosen a difficult approach, with a protagonist who is a loner, POV in first person, and using this heroine for a long series of small mystery novels.

I would not read 5 Grafton books in a row, because some plot twists are similar, but every time I finish one, I am sad to leave Kinsey Millhone. I think that's author magic, something we all strive for as writers.

Clea Simon said...

I'm coming to this late, but this is a wonderful list. I feel like I should tape it to my wall as I revise! I;d add one more though: Every sleuth should have a quirky but brilliant computer hacker buddy (even Walter Mosley has been guilty of this lately), who just happens to be able to pull valuable info out of the ether...

On the other hand, in one of my books, I had a cop laugh when my heroine suggested they check the scene of a hit and run for glass fragments. "Why don't you go down to a busy corner and see for yourself how much glass and other junk is in the gutter," he says. Just like a real Cambridge cop told me. Of course, some people said this was "unrealistic."