Let’s start building the foundation. Your protagonist – your main sleuth. Once you have a feel for them, you’ll understand how they uncover information, the lens through which they look at the mystery (we’ll just assume murder for now), and you can develop your story around them.
The choice of sleuth will often set the tone for the entire story. Your protagonist will also define what mystery genre your book belongs to. It will help you write a story that meets readers’ expectations. Now you don’t have to write to market, but it helps.
Mystery readers are a loyal bunch, but they also know their stuff. They have certain expectations. For instance, if you have an amateur sleuth who is a baker, your story shouldn’t also have graphic violence – it’s going to turn off readers who consumer cozies faster than your baker can whip up some cupcakes.
Let’s explore some options.
Amateur sleuth – Your sleuth can be anyone – baker, knitter, librarian, florist, wedding planner, professor, television host, psychic or even witch. The list could go on. What they have in common is a willingness to right a wrong and a hard nose for digging for the truth. These mysteries are normally classified as cozies and center around your amateur sleuth being drawn into the mystery – whether they want to or not. They look for clues, generally at the annoyance of police, but they come out relatively unharmed having solved the mystery. Outright violence and sex are rare in these books.
Private investigator/ detective – You can go old school Raymond Chandler (PI Philip Marlowe) or update the feel of your investigator. It can be a woman or a man. They generally have a little world-weary edge to them. They are experienced with investigations. They have been around the block a time or two and know the ropes. Your hero PI is tough, capable and willing to get down and dirty. They know the talk and walk the walk. These stories have a realistic portrayal of crime, and your hero has knowledge of criminal methods and investigative techniques. Sometimes they might even be willing to skirt the law for justice. These are generally called hard-boiled mysteries.
Spies – Who doesn’t love a good rogue spy? These are your current and former CIA, British MI6, and military intelligence sleuths. These stories are often gritty espionage type mysteries that also cross into the suspense and thriller genres. Sometimes the mystery is critical in the spy’s work and others they must solve the mystery because they are being accused or hunted down. There is a lot of thrill of the case in these stories, and generally, they have an international element to them. Lots of shoot ’em up action, too.
Medical & Forensic Experts – These are your technical expert sleuths – your doctors, forensic crime scene techs, and medical examiners. Your Kay Scarpettas of mystery. If you’re unfamiliar, Kay Scarpetta is a character in a series from Patricia Cornwell. She’s a medical examiner/ forensic pathologist. These sleuths use their technical skills and intelligence to solve the crime. There is a heavy focus on the science behind the evidence. While they can carry a gun, more realistically they are working within the confines of their employment and technical expertise to solve the case.
Legal Professionals – These sleuths are your prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys. They are bringing someone to justice or trying to help an innocent person go free. These mysteries focus heavily on criminal court proceedings and procedures. Sometimes politics plays a role, but sometimes not. Author John Grisham comes to mind most often when thinking about these legal mysteries – also classified as thrillers.
Police Detectives – These are similar to your private investigator/ detective stories, but bring in more of the police department or precinct. You sleuth be a lone cop, too, but if they are still employed and not rogue, realistically your story will pull in their colleagues. There is a heavy focus on police tactics, psychology behind catching the bad guys, some forensics, politics in the department, and even tensions between the cops, media, and citizens.
As you can see, you have a lot of options. What sleuth and genre speak to you the most? Check out the next post where we continue talking about the victim and setting.
Stacy M. Jones was born and raised in Troy, New York, and currently lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is a full-time writer and holds masters’ degrees in journalism and in forensic psychology. Stacy is an avid reader of the mystery genre. Whether a reader likes their mysteries more hard-boiled or prefers a cozy, Stacy offers two series – the more hard-boiled Riley Sullivan Mystery Series and the cozy Harper & Hattie Magical Mystery Series. Both series are predominantly set in Little Rock. More info can be found on Amazon and at StacyM.Jones.com.