3 Characteristics of a Great Murder Mystery

For me, every season is the perfect time for a murder mystery. But autumn is a particularly nice time to engage in a great murder story! It has to be said, though, that some murder mysteries are better than others—even when they’re written by one of the greats. So, what are the characteristics of a great murder mystery?

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Popular writers of a great murder mystery

There is no shortage of murder mysteries available on the bookshelves—it can be a little overwhelming! I recently browsed the mystery section of a fun bookstore and found myself inundated with authors and titles. It reminded me a little bit of the romance section!

But, there are some authors you can rely on to serve up an intriguing riddle. They’re classics for a reason, and these are just a few!

  1. Agatha Christie
  2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. Mary Stewart
  4. GK Chesterton
  5. Sue Grafton

Starting with any one of these authors is sure to bring you a few hours of enjoyment, but I would point out one caveat: with the exception of Grafton, these authors wrote from the perspective of a word that is very different than our own. I’ve raised my eyebrows more than a few times at some observation or statement Dame Christie made through her characters!

Still, these authors helped to build the genre, so I find it more than worth it to dig through some archaic language and ideas in an effort to try to crack the case (spoiler: I rarely do!)

Rotten to the Core by TE Kinsey—a great murder mystery

great murder mysteries for children

Can children enjoy a great murder mystery? Sure then can! You’ll just need to pick and choose based on the age and maturity of the child.

If you’re looking for a mystery to read with your child, your class, or just suggest to the young adult in your life, you might like:

  1. The Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon*
  2. Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene*
  3. Trixie Belden series by Julie Campbell Tatham and Kathryn Kenny
  4. Theodore Boone by John Grisham*
  5. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart*
  6. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson*

*affiliate links

Features of every great murder mystery

Before we dive in to the characteristics of a great murder mystery, let’s talk about what makes a murder mystery a murder mystery, shall we?

Like all genres, there are certain literary features and narrative structures that feature in nearly all mystery books. These commonalities and structures are great for establishing the purpose of your read and helping you settle in. Context always matters when communicating, and a book is communication between an author and their reader! By adhering to the guidelines of their genre, the author can communicate their story more clearly to the reader.

There are also sub-genres of the murder mystery, which might inject a spot of romance or a dash of police procedure into the mix. But regardless of the sub-genre, nearly all murder mysteries follow the same structure (MasterClass):

  1. The crime is introduced.
  2. The detective (not always a professional!) conducts an investigation.
  3. Something surprises the detective and the reader, throwing a kink into the investigation.
  4. The detective has a breakthrough moment.
  5. The culprit is caught, and the detective explains the solution.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman—a great murder mystery

3 Characteristics of a great murder mystery

Okay, I’ve built up the suspense. We’ve chatted about great murder mystery options for adults and children, and we’ve looked at what makes a murder mystery what it is.

But in a sea of mystery novels, what makes one stand out from the rest? Everyone will certainly have their own opinions, but there are certain characteristics that ensure some mysteries will remain with me a little longer than others.

A Distinct Setting That’s Either Purposefully Mysterious or Surprisingly Chilling

A great murder mystery creates a mood.

Sometimes, that mood is immediately and purposefully mysterious. You know from the off that something is about to happen, because how could it not? Whether it’s at a creepy old manor house with a grim butler or in a small, inescapable space with too many people for comfort, you’re immediately uncomfortable with your surroundings and not at all shocked when something terrible happens.

At other times, the mood is created at complete odds with the physical surroundings. It leaves you surprised—and perhaps a little ill at ease—that murder could happen in such idyllic surroundings. Knitting by the sea in the charming West Indies? Heading home from a bustling day of Christmas shopping for your grandkids? Nothing could seem more innocuous until disaster strikes.

Whichever route the author chooses, an intriguing setting creates an intriguing story.

The Subversion of a Trope or Archetype

Nothing ruins the ending of a so-far engaging mystery like it playing out in an altogether expected way.

While I suppose there are only so many potential murder motives—and, admittedly, many of them tend to be tied to very common aspects of human nature—a memorable murder mystery takes care to turn the familiar on its head a bit. Even if the motive itself is a common one, like a mother taking revenge for the murder of her child or a husband killing a wife so he can remarry a rich woman, a great murder mystery throws a wrench in that idea.

How exactly the author does so does (and should!) vary, but at the end of the story, you should be left with some amount of surprise (“Oh! I didn’t expect that from them!”) rather than expectation (“Well, of course, it was him all along.”).

One interesting way to accomplish this is by placing the expected archetype on an unexpected character. Another is by making the trope your red herring. But without fail, you’ll better remember the conclusion that toppled your expectations.

Enough Clues to Give the Reader a Good Guess

Reading a great murder mystery should provide readers with ample opportunities to feel engaged and intelligent, while still keeping them on their toes and surprised.

Admittedly, I’ve only once (maybe twice) “solved” the mystery I was reading. And I say “solved” because I was only hazarding a guess without actually having the clues logically lined up! But it’s the mysteries that led to an inkling that was more than just a guess that are the most satisfying to complete.

Some mysteries end with the detective whipping out a piece of evidence the reader was never privy to in order to wrap the whole thing up nicely with a bow on top—and nothing is more annoying than that! While a great murder mystery may rarely lead to a reader who cracks the case, it should give them enough clues (mixed with some red herrings, of course) to make them feel like they could have done if only they had the little grey cells of Poirot.

a great murder mystery for your reading list

I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, particularly a lot of Agatha Christie novels. And while I’ve enjoyed nearly all of them immensely, there are a few that stand out as favorites (and now you’ll have an idea of why!). If you’re looking for a murder mystery to read, I welcome you to check out one of my favorites. You can see a full list on Bookshop* and check out the books I read over the summer for my thoughts on several mystery novels!

*affiliate link if you buy any of the books from Bookshop, but you can also just check out the list and buy from your favorite retailer

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