How to Write the Perfect Mystery Novel

As a public service, I offer these suggestions to aspiring murder mystery writers who want to improve their work.

1. If at all possible, have the murder occur on Halloween. Halloween is the best day of the year to dispose of a body — you can walk around in blood-stained clothes, carrying as many severed body parts as you want, and people will just think you have a really cool costume. Of course, there’s always the possibility that, once people hear the news that a murder has occurred, they’ll have second thoughts about the costume they saw — but that’s okay, because they won’t know that you were the person wearing it. Remember, on Halloween, you can wear a mask.

I realize you can’t have all your murders occur on Halloween. Some are time-sensitive (for example, the traditional killing off of witnesses and blackmailers following the initial murder), but if your killer’s motive is revenge or greed, there’s really no excuse for scheduling the murder for any other day.

2. Decide whether your novel is serious or light and fluffy. If you’re writing a light and fluffy novel, include some light and fluffy elements, like recipes or crime-solving cats.

If you’re writing a serious mystery, be sure to use the word “atavistic” at least once. This signals to your readers that one of the characters is a) experiencing extremely powerful emotions and b) well-educated and introspective enough to use words like “atavistic”, which I had to look up the first time I saw it in a mystery novel. Here’s an example from one of my favorite authors:

And then there came a moment of atavistic horror. The house had shuddered at his entrance. He stood transfixed, holding his breath.

This guideline is so important that, even though I have no intention of ever writing a mystery novel, I’ve written my own “atavistic” passage, just in case I ever need one:

Nigel stood motionless, paralyzed by a combination of rage, fear, and envy. The stakes were high, and time was running out. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. He took a breath and stepped forward. “Atavistic,” he said. “A-T-A-V-I-S-T-I-C. Atavistic”.

Whatever you do, don’t combine the two approaches. Your novel can have the word “atavistic” or a crime-solving cat, but not both. Do not, under any circumstances, write this:

Sharon relaxed on the couch, basking in the glory of last night’s Scrabble victory and planning the menu for tomorrow’s dinner party, while her cat, Fluffy, pawed at the items on the coffee table. She was sure of one thing — she’d start tomorrow’s dinner with her famous Curried Pumpkin Bisque (see recipe p.56). Suddenly, she looked up, and what she saw flooded her with shock, horror, and an atavistic feeling of betrayal: Fluffy had rearranged the Scrabble tiles to spell out “THE KILLER IS EMMA JOHNSON AND NO ONE LIKES YOUR CURRIED PUMPKIN BISQUE”.

3. I understand that in the real world, sometimes you need to do product placement to pay the bills. But please be subtle about it, like this:

Emma took another sip of tea and gazed out at her garden, basking in its peaceful beauty. It hadn’t always been like this: a few years ago, her beautiful, delicate flowers had been under attack by teeming rodent hordes, and for weeks, every attempt she made to get rid of them just seemed to make them more determined. But that all changed the day she brought home her first box of Acme Brand Rat Poison — within 48 hours the rodents were gone, and the garden became an oasis that she could retreat to when her life seemed unbearable. She found herself retreating there more and more often these days; Nigel had, inexplicably, become increasingly abusive ever since his spelling bee victory. “I wish there were a way to solve my current problems as effectively as Acme Brand Rat Poison solved my rat problem”, she thought. And then she looked at her tea. And she had an idea.

You can also work product placement into dialogue, but again, it’s important to do it subtly:

“I’ve just completed the autopsy. The car accident didn’t kill him — he was poisoned. With Acme Brand Rat Poison”.

“How do you know what brand it was? Aren’t all rat poisons the same?”

“No, that’s a common misconception. Most rat poisons won’t even kill a rat. And those that are effective generally kill them right away, leaving unsightly rat carcasses strewn about your home or garden. Acme Brand Rat Poison is different — its time-release formula ensures that the rat will die in its nest instead of in your garden.”

“Or in this case, in his car instead of in his killer’s kitchen.”

4. Include a plot and some characters. Critics love that stuff.

11 thoughts on “How to Write the Perfect Mystery Novel

    1. As always, the key is to be subtle:

      Mrs. Rhodes watched the audience. No one was fidgeting, coughing, or discreetly checking the time — they were all enraptured by the actual performance. Her controversial decision to have all the piano students perform at once on the Acme Brand Giant Piano was vindicated.

      Suddenly, the unthinkable happened — an anvil fell from the sky (or, as they later realized, the rafters) and smashed the Acme Brand Giant Piano. “Wow,” said Melody, “it’s a good thing you decided right before the recital to move the piano six inches to the left. Otherwise, that anvil would have landed on Suzy.” Mrs. Rhodes was shaken, but she knew that everything would be all right in the end — the Acme Brand Giant Extended Warranty would take care of the damages.

      Detective Garcia walked slowly around the rubble. “There isn’t a single dent on this anvil, even though it was dropped from a great height. It must be an Acme Brand Anvil,” he said. “One thing’s for sure — whoever did this knew enough to use a quality anvil. The person who did this is wily.”

  1. Hello for the first time! I’ve just stumbled across your blog and enjoy your writing. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve added you to my new ‘Recommendations’ page on my blog! I can remove it if you so wish, but please let me know.

    I don’t get that many visitors at present (but I’m expecting the numbers to increase exponentially very soon…!) so you may not see a vast change to your visitors to start off with…

    Thanks, Tom.

  2. Hi! I hope you don’t mind, found your site via a recommendation from aquatom1968.

    Thank you for this wonderful public service – excellent entry and awesome advice. I especially liked your advice about having murders on Halloween – this is exactly the reason I stay at home on Halloween. I mean, not like I think people are likely to murder me…Same goes for avoiding the Zombie Walk – perfect opportunity for zombies to attack.
    Loved the writing examples, especially Fluffy: crime solving cat, Scrabble-lover and food critic.

  3. Great job Laura. I am so glad I woke up with your post today. No, I don’t sleep till mid day -usually, I am in Australia. I look forward to reading your old posts, bet they are just what I need.. cheers. :)

  4. Please give us more of Fluffy :-). (Yes, she needs her own a TV series. And she can also be the heroine of a book series, you know, sort of like Nancy Drew…)

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