Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

What Constitutes “Fairness” in the Mystery Genre?

One of my favorite genres is mystery – in particular, historical mystery. I enjoy a good mind game set in a small community. Bonus points if the mystery examines social norms or political events. In fact, I would love to write a historical mystery set in 16th century France.

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Yet, despite having read countless mysteries, it seems that I don’t really understand the genre expectations. I have been assuming all along that the reader should be given enough information to identify the killer, but so many mysteries that I have been reading recently withhold key information until the final chapters of the novel. After some research, I’ve learned that this is typical of the genre. I should not expect to be given all of the necessary clues by the 50% mark so that I might figure out the mystery myself.

I just finished a Brother Cadfael mystery (Monk’s Hood) by Ellis Peters and The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, a recent release by Elsa Hart. Peters’ Cadfael novels take place in a 12th century English monastery, while Hart’s book explores the eccentricities of 18th century collectors in London. Both are relatively quiet despite being murder mysteries. I didn’t mind the characters or the setting, especially since I love history. However, I wish that I had been given all of the clues early on. I was frustrated by the big reveals because I could never have guessed the motivations of the murders since the authors deliberately withheld key information.

I always thought that a mystery was a puzzle that the reader had to unravel. However, that doesn’t seem to be the norm. Have I been missing something? I have read a few articles about the Fair Play Whodunnit subgenre that gives the reader all the clues that she needs to solve the mystery, however most mysteries seem not to qualify. I’ve had the same experience watching the “Father Brown” television series ; the viewer cannot possibly unravel the mysteries with the clues that are given. Father Brown always knows something that we are not privy to. If I rightly identify the killer, I’m just lucky.

If the reader is kept in the dark for so long, what constitutes “fairness” in the mystery genre?

Have you read any mysteries recently that you would consider “fair”? Do you expect to be given all the clues well before the final three chapters of a mystery? Perhaps, I need to shift my expectations.

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