Earlier this month I had a delightful classroom visit with third grade readers who were studying mysteries. I was about to go into a segment on the ingredients of a mystery when I realized these eight- and nine-year-old readers knew exactly what went into a satisfying mystery. Not only had they read a few mysteries as a class (including one of mine in the Hannah West series), they were prepared with questions about plot, setting, character motivation, red herrings, and tracking clues.
We talked about how there’s an element of mystery in almost any story. Getting to what makes a novel a true mystery is a bit harder. “Every good book should be suspenseful and should have a question to be answered, but suspense and questions alone don’t make a mystery,” says Dori Hillestad Butler, author of the Edgar Award-winning Buddy Files mystery series. To be classified mystery, she continues, “… the main character needs to follow clues, confront red herrings, and use some basic reasoning skills to solve the mystery. A lot of books that are labeled ‘mystery’ are lacking that. The author just sort of moves the character from one place to the next … the mystery doesn’t flow organically from the character’s actions.”
Not only is Dori an accomplished mystery writer, she also chaired this year’s selection committee for the Edgar Awards’ Best Juvenile Novel. That meant reading and evaluating about 70 middle grade mysteries. Not surprising, what she looks for in a good mystery is exactly what young readers have told me they want in a page-turning story. They want to see a detective they can identify with who is deciphering clues and following leads; they want to be inside the detective’s head and get a feeling for how to analyze what people are saying, what is true — and what they might be hiding.
When considering mysteries for the Edgars, Dori says, “I wanted to see a main character taking action, following leads, sifting through clues. I wanted to see red herrings. I wanted to see a main character considering the evidence, forming a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and actively solving the mystery on his own rather than simply being led to the solution by the author.” Precisely what most of us desire in reading mysteries – and good reminders for those of us writing detective novels.
Scholastic’s Ingredients for a Mystery lesson plan for third- to fifth-graders has been handy for me when talking to young readers. It’s also a useful reminder when drafting and revising to be sure that the recipe’s ingredients are all included, with the proper pacing, mixing, and timing added.
This recipe may seem a bit simple when plotting a novel, but it still proves to keep me on my toes. Do I have the right number of suspects? Who are the witnesses, and what might they know that’s not immediately evident? How is the pacing and timing? Is 90 percent of the action taking place over two days, but the story takes much longer?
If you’re looking for middle grades that include the essential ingredients of a mystery, be sure to keep an eye on the Edgars. Here’s a list of the past 10 years’ winners (and be sure to look at recent finalists, too):
Edgar Award Winners for Best Juvenile Mystery
- One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (2014)
- The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo (2013)
- Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (2012)
- The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler (2011)
- Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn (2010)
- The Postcard by Tony Abbott (2009)
- The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh (2008)
- Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements (2007)
- The Boys of San Joaquin by D. James Smith (2006)
- Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (2005)
I’d love to hear recommendations for mysteries to add to my summer reading list!