8 types of murder mystery plots
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Who robbed the bank? Who killed the pastry chef? Who stole the car? Where did the lady from apartment B go and why can’t anyone find her? These are just a few examples of what a crime mystery is: there is a crime and someone is trying to solve at least one or more components of that crime. The key is that the book should focus on mystery, whether character-driven or plot-driven, comfortable or violent. There are far too many mystery plot types in general, so I focused on murder mystery where, as you correctly assumed, the crime is murder. I’d say it’s probably the most popular kind of mystery. And under the murder mystery umbrella are different types of murder mystery plots that we’re going to look at – spoiler-free, of course, I’m no freak!
Murder Mystery Plots
In a whodunit murder mystery, the focus on the murder is solving who did it. Sometimes the investigator(s) – amateur or professional, including but not limited to: investigators, lawyers, detectives, someone related to the suspect they are determined to prove innocent – will try to figure out why the murder took place to find a suspect, or they use forensic science to get at least one suspect. Other times, they begin by interviewing anyone connected to the victim in some way. Sometimes there’s already a small pool of suspects they’re zeroing in on, weeding out people until they end up with the murderer(s). Given that the story has to fill at least 350 pages of a book for a novel, these things don’t go well, ranging from the investigator(s) finding themselves in danger, to the red herrings where they were (or the audience was) totally focus on the wrong person. The key to all murder mysteries, however, is that there must be a deceased person, at the beginning of the book or even before the beginning of the book, and that must be focused on. We can of course see various details of the characters’ lives related to family, friends, dating, and work, but the bulk of the book must still bring the focus back to the murder. In this case, so that we can determine who did it.
Shari Lapena’s Not a Happy Family is a recent example of how a whodunit murder mystery can unfold. Early on, we learn that Fred and Sheila Merton were murdered in their home, just after having an Easter dinner with their family, including their three adult children. We don’t know who did it, but a lot of people have a motive, including their children. As the detectives seek to solve the case, the family members all begin to suspect each other…
We were just focused on the “who”, but now we’re going to focus on the “why”. A Whydunit Murder Mystery focuses on why the murderer(s) committed the crime, usually giving the reader the suspect early or early in the book. If they have already arrested the suspect, the goal of the investigation is to give a compelling reason as to why. If someone murdered their brother, most people can react by saying, “It doesn’t make sense, it’s their brother”. But tell them they murdered their brother to be the sole heir to $20 million, the exact amount they’re in debt, and people won’t think it’s impossible that the brother was the murderer. Sometimes it’s not to prove that the suspect is in fact guilty, they may have already confessed, but rather we seek to understand why they did so when they won’t tell us the reasoning – whatever who tries to understand – human – behavior thing. And then there is always the intrigue of someone who confesses, but do we believe his confession? When in doubt, the “why” can lead to the real “who”.
An example of Whydunit is James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. We know that Sportcoat, a church deacon who had taught a youth baseball team, shot Deems Clemens, because he did so in front of a lot of people at the Brooklyn Cause Houses housing project. But why? This is a character-driven why unit that shows the breadth of the genre, because in this case we’re not following an investigator so much, but the people of a neighborhood (including Colombian ants – yes , real insects) to watch all the components of the “why” come together.
Mystery in closed room and mystery at a distance
These two types of murder mysteries are slightly different but close enough that most readers of one will also love the other – and they will overlap with the whodunit and/or the Whydunit, while adding a new layer.
In locked room murder mystery plots, the murder happened in a locked room, so not only are we trying to figure out who did it, but also how. It seems like an impossible crime, raising the stakes of solving it. In Christopher Huang’s A Gentleman’s Murder, the locked room is a safe in an exclusive London club in 1924, where a man is found murdered after a “friendly” bet.
Most readers know the mystery plot of the remote murder from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and the film Index. In a remote murder mystery we extend the size of the locked room to a remote area, placing clear and present danger on those in the area as they are trapped there and help is usually at least delayed. This means that the murderer must be someone among them, and if they have just killed, what will prevent them from killing again? Usually the characters must regroup or split into groups to solve the murder. And quite often, people will continue to die until the “who” is resolved. If you’re a fan of distant mysteries and Agatha Christie, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders, translated by Ho-Ling Wong, is a Japanese ode to everyone-is-trapped-on-an-island-and- are-being-picked-off-one-by-one plot.
past and present
In past and present murder mysteries, there is either an unsolved past murder, a present unsolved murder, or a present unsolved murder that opens the door to connect it to a past murder mystery. Either way, the story is told in alternating chapters that place the reader in the past and present. There will be an overlap of related characters, an investigator, or a connection in the crimes and both time periods are required to fully solve or understand the crime. Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl blends a psychological thriller with a present-day murder mystery told in chapters Then and Now. Paloma has found her roommate dead, but when the police arrive her body is missing. We get alternate chapters of her current life (cut off from her wealthy adoptive parents as she tries to figure out what happened to her roommate, who just blackmailed her into a secret) and her childhood (growing up in a Sri Lankan orphanage). Lankan until its adoption). Past and present are linked, but one of the questions is how? And more importantly: who murdered her roommate and where is her body?
Serial killer murder mysteries are usually those with active murders occurring where a professional investigator (sometimes aided by an amateur) must first determine who the murderer is and/or catch him before he can kill again. This opens up many avenues to learn about the investigator(s) and the killer, and why the murderer kills so many people, but it also allows for different setups. If this is a new serial killer, investigators must first prove that the murders are connected. Is it a serial killer who has been silent for years and has just started killing again, creating the question why and where have they been all this time? Or as in Nadine Matheson’s The Jigsaw Man if the serial killer is already in prison, are the new murders a copycat or has the incarcerated serial killer partnered with someone outside of prison? Or did they always have a partner who started killing again? Due to the amount of time between murders, these also fall into the thriller genre due to the intensity.
Is it murder or not?
This kind of murder mystery relies on the presentation of a death at the start where it’s unclear – or there’s at least one person who doubts – if said death is actually (you guessed it) a murder. . Usually, the death is initially considered suicide or death from natural causes. In Wanda M. Morris’ All Her Little Secrets, we begin with attorney Ellice Littlejohn who finds one of the firm’s associates dead in his office with a bullet to the head in what could be a suicide or murder. In Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders, the death of Peggy, a 90-year-old woman with heart disease, does not call murder at all. But Peggy’s carer at home becomes concerned about her death when she finds out the old lady was basically a murder consultant…so, murder? May be. Or maybe not.
Did they do it or not?
A murder has been committed and a suspect has been arrested or is considered guilty by many people. But the whole book reveals information that goes back and forth to make them look incredibly guilty or not guilty at all. Which will it be? In Kimberly McCreight’s A Good Marriage, we get a murder-or-not-murder mystery and a legal thriller in one. Lizzie Kitsakis goes from happily underpaid federal prosecutor to not-so-happy defense attorney at an elite law firm when an old friend from law school calls her from jail, asking her to take his case; he is accused of murdering his wife but swears he didn’t…
Although not exhaustive, there you have eight types of murder mystery plots, and as you’ve probably noticed, the plots can mix and mingle for more fun. I have just finished reading Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray, which manages to mix a murder mystery with a thriller, a Whydunit and a Howdunit, with a past and a present. Please.
Be sure to check out some of our favorite murder mysteries of 2021 and murder mysteries you may have missed from 2020.