Recently, I was preparing for a trip and was in the mood for a mystery. With nothing new out from my favorite authors, I searched on-line. I ended up downloading two books, one set in North Wales, one of my favorite places in the world, and the other in Belfast.
Both of these books are the first in a series, but I’m not sure I’ll buy the next ones. As I read them, the writer part of me kept analyzing. I could easily tick off the various character/plot conventions: Beleaguered and frustrated hero, a police detective in both cases. Check. Personal quirks to make them unique. Check. Traumatic past histories to make them sympathetic. Check. Female sidekick (also a detective) to add a feminine viewpoint. Check. Complex mystery plot with a devious and diabolical killer. Check. An attempt to create atmosphere and a feeling of place and time (one was set a few years in the past). Check.
Everything was there for me to love these books. But I didn’t. I never quite engaged with the main characters. Nor could I turn off the writer/analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the story. They weren't bad books, but they were great ones either.
When I got home I found a book from one of my favorite mystery writers (Ann Cleeves) waiting for me on the library hold shelf. It's the first book in a series that has been out in the UK for years. This time, instead of being simply an entertaining way to spend my time, the book gripped me from the beginning. I stayed up way too late the first night I started reading, and then couldn't wait to get back to it at work on my breaks and my lunch hour.
So what's the difference between this book and the other two moderately entertaining ones? There's a number of things I could focus on, including the quality of the writing. But one aspect I immediately noticed is the difference between the expected and the unexpected. This book starts very slow. Although there's a death--a suicide--early on, neither the real mystery nor the police detective character are introduced until over halfway through the book. The whole first half is backstory and slow build-up and is told from the different perspectives of the main characters.
It's a very subtle and compelling way to craft a mystery. And totally unexpected. The characters are also atypical. They definitely aren't types, nor do they fit standard mystery characterizations. Not even the police detective. There is no checking off boxes with this book. There are subtle, tiny revelations and intriguing details on nearly every page, and the freshness and surprise in way the story unfolds makes it feels like life and makes the characters startlingly real.
This author didn't craft this story based on familiar mystery tropes or character prototypes. She ignored all that and came up with something original, something unexpected.
Ann Cleeves is obviously a brilliant writer. But I think there is a lesson here for us more ordinary genre novelists. Too often we lean on the rules and techniques we've been taught and don't even consider doing the unexpected. We may try to make our plots twisty and suspenseful, but most of the time we settle for the expected in everything else.
That's not everything it takes to write a great book, but maybe the idea of doing the unexpected will help all of us write a less ordinary one.