Kristen Lamb

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Crime & Punishment: Why We Love a Good Mystery

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Last time, we talked about how important research is for creating stories readers love. Some genres require more research than others, and mystery happens to be one of those genres. The more we read, watch, and learn, the better we can execute twists and turns and surprises readers can’t get enough of.

A great way to add authenticity is to connect with people who are in the profession of solving crimes. Mystery masters, so to speak. Today, we have a real treat.

I’ve been friends with Larry Enmon for over ten years. Larry is a retired special agent from the United States Secret Service. He started out as a police officer in Houston, Texas, so if anyone can appreciate the lure of mystery? Trust me, it’s Larry.

Thanks for being here! Take it away!

Why We Love a Good Mystery

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Just so we start off on the right foot here, I’ve read everything Sir Author Conan Doyle ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes. As a young man, mysteries and mystery writing fascinated me. I read everything I could get. But then I did something foolish. Something that caused me to fall out of love with the genre.

I became a police officer.

For thirty-seven years I lived the dream—more often the nightmare—of solving mysteries. I started as a municipal police officer in Houston working uniform patrol and undercover vice. Eventually, I accepted an appointment as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, where I continued investigating crimes and solving mysteries.

But I stopped reading them. In hindsight? That was probably a mistake.

The Seed of a Great Story

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First of all, every good story contains an element of mystery. It’s in our human DNA to ask why—to solve the puzzle, to discover the secret. It’s what pushes humanity forward. Everyone wants to be the first to figure it out.

Reading a good mystery allows the reader to experience the thrill of the hunt without the inherent dangers involved in hunting. Staying at a safe distance from danger is always better than experiencing it first hand.

Trust me—I’ve been shot at more than once.

What else do we love about mysteries? The crime gets solved, the bad guy is captured, and justice is swiftly meted out. Sadly, this is not always so in the real world. We know this, and it bothers us that good people are hurt or killed and some crimes are never solved. Most humans possess an innate desire for wrongs to be righted. While life rarely offers what we crave, good mysteries do.

Mystery novels feed that psychic longing for closure.

The Evolution of Mystery

Secondly, mystery fulfills intrinsic human needs. This explains why mystery has changed over the decades. The old-style detective and mystery writers weren’t as concerned about characters as the new writers of today. What started out as a plot-driven genre has evolved into a character-driven genre.

In the digital age, we want to know everything about everyone. We’re just as interested in the people as the problem. Perhaps more so. This cultural shift has elevated the characters in mysteries to being as important, if not more important, than the mystery to be solved.

Let me share an example: True Detective – Season One (HBO). Sure we care about the detectives discovering the identity of the serial killer, but what keeps us coming back, desperate for the next episode and the next has much more to do with the relationship between the two detectives, Rust and Marty.

A Funny Thing About Murder…

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Lastly, mystery is all around us every day. It’s in the headlines, on the news, murmured in the scuttle around the office. A fellow writer once asked me how many homicides I saw as a uniform police officer. This started me to thinking about all the different types of death I investigated.

Each had a mystery associated with it that needed solving. I saw death by shooting, stabbing, drowning, electrocution, crushing (yes, that happened), poisoning, blunt force trauma, falling, hanging, and burning.

I was the first unit on the scene, and it was my job to determine what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and round up the witnesses before the homicide detectives arrived.

Old Cop Trick #1: Always ask the witnesses for some identification. Once they present it, drop it in your pocket. If you don’t, in all the confusion, they might just wander away.

I suspect that few police officers read mysteries, probably for the same reasons I stopped. It’s hard enough living with the horrible real images we see as police. Also living with the fictional ones is like taking your work home with you.

But having the experience as an officer gave me the background necessary to write a good mystery. I still love to solve crimes, but only fictional ones, please.

A Real-Life Mystery

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So let me leave you with a real police mystery I witnessed first-hand. My partner and I made the scene of a shooting involving two men. The victim was in his mid-twenties, six foot five, and unarmed. The suspect was in his late teens and five feet tall.

According to a half dozen witnesses, the older man began harassing and threatening the younger one over the affections of a woman. The younger man drew a small caliber pistol and pointed it at the older one. The victim screamed, “Nooooooooooooo!” just as the single shot rang out.

The victim fell to the pavement, dead as a door nail. But there was one problem. The body didn’t have a mark on it. No entry wound of any kind.

Everyone assumed the guy either cracked his skull when he fell or suffered a heart attack out of fear. The only blood was a few drops on the guy’s lower lip, which could be attributed to biting his tongue or lip as he hit the pavement. The homicide detectives were on their way, so I had only a few minutes to figure it out.

As far as everyone was concerned, the suspect had missed the victim when he shot at him. But it was a homicide.

Want to know how?

The short suspect fired the small caliber pistol at the taller victim as he screamed, “Nooooooooooo!” The bullet entered the victim’s mouth and, because of the angle of the shot (five-foot-tall guy shooting at six-foot-five guy), went into his brain, killing him instantly. The small amount of blood on the victim’s lower lip was the only sign of violence. But the bullet in the brain was the cause of death.

Yes, everyone loves a good mystery 😉 .

***

Thanks so much for being here! Larry has been an incredible friend and a priceless resource for me in my own writing. He’s been kind enough for me to pepper him—ok, shotgun blast him—with questions to make sure I get my facts correct while writing my own mysteries.

I encourage y’all to connect with Larry not only because he’s a fantastic resource but he’s also one of the best people I know. You can find him these places:

Twitter: @ LarryEnmon

Instagram: @ Larry Enmon

Facebook: larryenmonbooks

In your shrubs… KIDDING!

Larry Enmon’s debut crime/mystery novel The Burial Place was released by Crooked Lane Books, New York on April 10th. He is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, Ltd, London.

Speaking of Mysteries

MAY 3rd, I have a class to unravel the mystery of how to write a query and a SYNOPSIS *writers scream*. It doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it 😉 .

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming! TONIGHT!

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is April 19th 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job. Recording is included with purchase.

I LOVE Hearing from You!

What are your thoughts? Do you love mysteries? Why? What are some of your favorites? Want to ask Larry any questions? Here is your chance!

Remember comments on guest posts get DOUBLE CREDIT for the contest.

What do you WIN?

For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

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9 thoughts on “Crime & Punishment: Why We Love a Good Mystery”

  1. Kendolyn FisherKendolyn Fisher

    Good article. I like reading mysteries, and the comment that mysteries are everywhere made me realize I may be missing some and to look harder. The cat picture was totally disturbing :o. Good job on that one.

  2. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    I must be an old-fashioned reader, because I get impatient with too much relationship stuff. I started the first book in a detective series I thought I was going to love, and in the first three chapters there was maybe one hint at the mystery and heaps about who the detective was in a relationship with, and who she’d been in a relationship with, and who she hoped to be in a relationship with, and I was like I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR LOVE LIFE, CUT TO THE STORY! Never finished the book, let alone the series.
    The same thing happens with mystery TV series – I love the first few seasons, but then the focus shifts from the mysteries to the interpersonal relationships of the team, and sooner or later you realize you’re just watching a mystery-themed soap opera. And then I stop watching.
    On the whole blood-on-the-lips note, have you ever read the Agatha Christie short story “The Tragedy at Marston Manor”? It’s in the volume Poirot Investigates. I had no idea she was so educational 🙂

    • ChrisChris

      I guess it’s ‘horses for courses’, Deborah, but I’m not so sure that you are an ‘old fashioned’ reader. It seems to be the modern reader, brought up on a diet of TV and comic book drama (often difficult to separate) who demands stories where everything is clear cut and linear, and where plots are virtually single threaded (and characters are often very one dimensional). In short: they like it kept simple, and for many, with no thinking required.

      It seems that it’s only the series dramas (and novels) that can have multiple threads, and most commonly, at least one of those threads, other than the crime/mystery/problem/quest that the story centres around, will involve the regular characters’ private lives.

      You’re right in suggesting they’re like soaps, because effectively there’s a separate private soap running in the background for the ‘series’ readers and viewers to enjoy alongside the main thread of the plot. Many readers do enjoy getting involved with the characters’ personal lives, watching them as relationships develop, habis change, or simply as they get older. Dare I say it, but it’s often what draws them to buy the next book in the series (or watch the next episode).

      In the case of my own crime novels, my eponymous ‘good guy’ character (Lena, of the ‘Lena’s Friends’ crime series – 8 published, so far… No.9 with my editor) is usually a minor player in the main plot thread, if she’s part of it at all, but she serves to tie the various disparate elements together, due to the very varied circles she moves in in her own life as a high end escort/call girl, and biker, with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the law and spread across the social spectrum.

      It’s Lena’s relationships with her partner, her friends, her peers in the sex industry, and of course her wealthy clientèle that bring apparently unconnected crimes and people together. Her friends in the police benefit from it and provide the central investigative thread, but often that underlying ‘soap’ element provides the connections, while the other threads provide the clues.

  3. Kathryn J BainKathryn J Bain

    Loved your old cop tip #1. Maybe have to use that in a book one day. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Ken HughesKen Hughes

    Good thoughts, thanks, Larry!

    It’s interesting how character has taken the lead in mysteries. Like you said, it’s because the sense of restoring normalcy is the greatest draw– so we want to get closer to the investigator who comes through it all, for the safer world that’s left when the criminal’s caught. (At least till the next one.) There’s always a slight paradox in “cozy mystery”– a “nice relaxing murder”? 🙂

    (And I do like that first picture. “Attempted murder” with not enough crows to count as a murder of them…)

    • ChrisChris

      It’s interesting how you interpreted the ‘attempted murder’ picture, Ken.

      I saw it as a male crow making ‘romantic’ advances to a female… a mating attempt… or the precursor to an eventual murder of crows once eggs have hatched and nature has continued on its course.

      Maybe it’s me… perhaps I’ve just got sex on the brain.

  5. Cathy CadeCathy Cade

    I daren’t attempt a crime story – much as I love to read them – because I just know I’d get some detail wrong. I could consult my husband – a long-retired London copper – but his experience is so far back, and things have moved on so far since, it would have to be a period piece… which opens up a whole new can of research worms. Unfortunately the decades have blurred in my memory 🙁

  6. John AdamsJohn Adams

    Mysterious Means More Excitement to know what will be the next…..
    That’s why we love it…….

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