Friday, February 20, 2009

The mystery mystery by Chester Campbell

We write about it and talk about it all the time. It's part of the title of this blog. But just what is a "mystery?" My computer dictionary defines it as: "Something that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding."

Does that mean we don't really know what we're writing or talking about? I sometimes think so. But to put a more kindly face on it, I'd say us writers don't expect our readers to understand what's going on until we explain it to them.

The explaining takes a lot of different twists and turns and involves many different people.

So what makes a good mystery? Plot is important, of course. Without it, there would be no mystery. But I think the most memorable mysteries are those featuring truly memorable characters.

Most familiar in the classic hardboiled ranks are guys like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. From a different perspective, there are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, along with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

Coming down to the present, the list could go on and on. Fortunately, there are lots of contemporary authors creating memorable characters.

But the question remains, is plot more important in creating a memorable mystery, or is it character? What do you think?

Chester Campbell
Murder Mania


Jean Henry Mead said...

It takes both a compelling plot and memorable characters that the reader can care about. A great plot with cardboard characters just doesn't make the grade. Conversely, good characters in a less than mysterious plot leaves the reader dissatisfied.

Mark Troy said...

I read to learn more about these characters and the plot is the way I learn.

Morgan Mandel said...

I like character driven mysteries with a bit of plot thrown in. Suspense is my favorite.

Morgan Mandel

Ben Small said...

Chester, I will always choose characters over plot. I've enjoyed some books I thought could have used better plotting, but I don't remember any books I enjoyed that had a good mystery but lousy character development.

Vivian Zabel said...

I agree with Jean that it takes both a good strong plot and excellent, believable characters to create a good book.

Chester Campbell said...

I think we all agree that character is primo, but plot comes in a close second. But we probably remember more about the character than the plot, particularly if it's a series.