Grading Mystery Plots
Over the past year, due to multiple factors, I’ve been able to read way more contemporary crime novels than normal. In the last twelve months, I’ve read about two hundred mystery novels that were published in 2020. Some of them have been great, while others were… not so much. After reading this massive collection of contemporary contributions to the genre, I was struck by just how wide-ranging the quality of the plotting and cluing was. This goes beyond the level of the prose craftsmanship or the characterization. When reading a fair play mystery, one should be able to work alongside the detective, and before the solution is revealed, the intelligent and observant reader ought to have figured out the identity of the villain based upon some carefully placed clues scattered throughout the book.
In a review of the BBC series Father Brown that I wrote for Gilbert! Magazine a few years back, I wrote:
“I think that most deductive mystery plots can be assigned a letter grade. An “A” plot is clever, twisty, and unexpected, but there are still enough fair play clues for the intelligent and observant viewer to figure out whodunit. Most Agatha Christie mysteries can be categorized as “A” plots. A “B” plot still contains some elements of originality, but may include clichéd or overused elements, and the answer may be more obvious than in an “A” plot. A “C” plot has an obvious killer, often through using feints that point right in the killer’s direction, or because common tropes point in one direction, or the knowledge that the personal preferences of the writers will compel them to make certain plot choices (the fondness of some Law & Order writers to make the chief villain a rich white guy under any circumstances is an example). In a “C” plot, the killer can sometimes be determined through the process of elimination, since the first person arrested for the crime can be ruled out, the two young lovers are probably innocent, and the show is trying so hard to make the fourth suspect look guilty that you know it just has to be the fifth and last suspect. A “D” plot is a mystery that pulls a solution out of thin air, without sufficient clues to point in the killer’s direction. If the observant viewer can’t deduce the solution through logic, the writer has failed. A “F” plot is a mess– confusing, trite, and produces plot threads that go nowhere, with clues that point in a direction different from the official answer, and clues that are never properly explained.”
I was amazed by how many books published today qualify as a “C” or a “D” plot. All too often, there simply wasn’t any detection being done. Yeah, there were suspicions aplenty, but not enough clues pointed in the direction of a single person for the reader to make an informed accusation. Indeed, as Xavier Lechard, a Facebook friend of mine in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group noted, more and more, “detectives” in crime novels don’t do that much detecting. I agreed, saying that in so many books, the detectives just wander around, asking suspects questions, checking out a few locations, but the evidence they find applies to several suspects. The detectives don’t draw logical conclusions from the evidence, they simply stumble into a solution. Sometimes they walk in on the killer doing something incriminating, and other times there’s a spontaneous confession, often with little provocation. It’s as if the author was merrily writing along, and suddenly declared “Whoops! I’m on page three hundred! Better wrap this up– I’ll just pick a killer at random.”
And of course, when authors make their political views obvious throughout the book, it’s a pretty safe bet that the killer is The Sort Of Person The Author Does Not Like.
Even worse are the books that never explain the extraneous clues. These novels have enough red herrings to keep a seafood restaurant fully stocked for two years. Yet at the end, the evidence could be used to build a strong case against multiple characters. The only reason one person gets identified is the killer is because the “detective” looked at the bad guy wrong, and the fool spontaneously confessed.
Has anybody read a book recently that’s so poorly constructed it rates as a “D” or and “F?” Alternatively, has anybody found a book so cleverly clued that it’s earned an “A?”
Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27th from MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there). It is also available in a Kindle edition.