If you looked at my bookcase, or the search history and blog links on my computer, you would quickly realize that I need rules, guidelines and how-to manuals. My bookcase would tell you as well that I read primarily crime fiction.

I also write crime fiction, but the hard-cover evidence is not yet in my bookcase.  Rule-needer that I am, I often read books and blogs about writing mysteries. The other day I read a post by Elizabeth Craig – 15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery – on the Writers in the Storm blog.

If you click the link, you’ll see her tips, all good ones and written with the interests of a mystery reader in mind.  Her tips prompted me to think about what elements put a mystery or crime novel onto my “great” list.

As a reader, four things are vital to me (and each of them appears on Elizabeth Craig’s list): empathetic characters; likely suspects; believability; and fair play.

Characters are probably the most important item on my list. If I don’t care about the protagonist, or the characters who may be in danger in the story, I won’t turn the pages – the plot won’t matter. I won’t have that tight sensation just above my stomach when the tension builds (in fact, the tension probably won’t build for me at all).  My favourite characters have qualities that make them real people (humour, flaws, goals, idiosyncrasies). They are as baffled about life as the rest of us are now and then, but they keep trying, struggling to make sense of it all. Elizabeth Craig sums it up nicely – give the readers a reason to care, and give the sleuth some depth.

Suspects – Elizabeth Craig recommends a manageable number of suspects, a sufficient number to hide the culprit effectively, but not so many as to make it difficult to keep track of them. In mysteries I find I’m most intrigued when the story reaches the point that there are very few suspects, each of whom could be the villain of the piece. When the sleuth has eliminated the also-rans and the remaining two or three suspects are very likely – and the evidence pointing to each is very strong – I start to worry whether the sleuth will solve the case. That’s a good thing. When it comes to legal dramas (especially where a lawyer struggles to defend his very empathetic client) I am most engaged when there appear to be no other suspects.

Believability – for me as a reader, this relates to both the crime and the motives of the suspects. If the crime, or the manner it occurs, is plausible, the reader is able to suspend disbelief and will be drawn into the story. But where the crime is implausible, the reader may spend more time silently arguing with the book than turning pages. A writer needs to do her research to add authenticity to the fiction. The same applies to motive — the villain’s motive should be realistic and plausible.

Fair play – several of Elizabeth Craig’s tips relate to this point. She is absolutely right when she says the reader needs to know the clues, as and when the sleuth does. I hate it when the clues pointing to the culprit are ones the sleuth knew but the readers did not. No, no, no. Unfair. As a reader, I’m the sleuth’s partner in the case. So how is it that he knows something I don’t?

And tying up loose ends will endear me to the author for a long time. It drives me crazy if there are several threads running through the novel, or red herrings flopping about, none of which are resolved at the end.

Last, it helps as well if the villain, the real culprit, comes on stage fairly early in the novel. My annoyance at villains who show up late to the game is right up there with undisclosed clues.

Now I’m off to have a look at some recent writing, to see if I’ve run afoul of any of Elizabeth Craig’s tips.