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What Makes a Mystery GOOD (guest post by Jennifer Rummel)

Get a Clue!

What Makes a Mystery GOOD? I’m a sucker for mysteries. I like the murder mysteries best and I’m always on the lookout for more teen mysteries. The bulk of mysteries I read are adult cozies, often from a series.  Here’s what I like about mysteries.

The Top 10 Clues to a Mystery

A Great Cover

The cover (and the title) draws the reader in initially. With so many books, the few teen mysteries might lose out to other genres. Having a great cover will draw readers to the book, even if they aren’t necessarily mystery readers.  One of my favorite teen mystery covers and titles is Death by Bikini.
       A Believable Plot
The mystery has to be something significant. For me, a murder is ideal; however a kidnapping or theft can be entertaining as well. I don’t like to be tricked, so I feel let down if the mystery turns out to be not a mystery at all. There also has to be a plausible reason the main character is looking into the mystery and not leaving it for the police, as most people would do. Those reasons might include: feel responsible, friend or family in trouble (either the accused or the victim).  In Clarity, Clare can see memories by touching objects. When a murder disrupts her sleepy touristy town, she’s asked to help solve the mystery. As an added incentive, her brother becomes the lead suspect.
            A Side Story
Many mysteries are the main aspect of the story, but there’s more to it: family drama, work drama, relationship drama. Something else has to be happening.  In The Night She Disappeared Gabie’s co-worker goes missing during her shift.  Gabie feels responsible for her disappearance and attempts to uncover her whereabouts. Parts of the book occur at school and at the pizza point where both girls work.
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      Fun Main Character
Many main characters have to poke around, sometimes making a nuisance of themselves when asking questions. I like the ones who aren’t too forward or too pushy. There has to be a reason the suspects would be talking to this person rather than the police, otherwise there’s no point to the mystery.
      Side Kicks
Three-dimensional characters make for a more rounded story and thus a better reading experience. Sick-kicks often provide comic relief from an otherwise tense story.  A great sick kick example is Seth from The Liar Society. He’s nerdy, amusing, and helps the story along.

Multiple Perspectives

These aren’t necessary, but they give the book a different feel than just seeing the story events from the main character. Plus, if the culprit is one of the perspectives, it heightens the tension in the book.
Fast paced mysteries make me turn the pages without setting the book down. I prefer the body to turn up in the first 30 pages of the book. I don’t mind a little back story, but I draw the line at being half the way through the book without any action. After the murder (or kidnapping/theft) occurs, significant clues are needed to keep me entertained.


I want to be scared, for at least a few moments. There has to be danger: danger from being caught snooping, danger for asking one too many questions, or danger from uncovering the truth behind the mystery. There must be a few heart-stopping moments.
      Red Herrings
I want to go on a reading adventure, guessing and second guessing the culprit.  With a cast of characters, the murderer (or culprit) should be well hidden.  The rest of the characters will need to look guilty to throw off suspicion. Harlan Coben’s two books for teens, Shelter, and Seconds Away both leave me guessing right up until the end. Plus, they both raise questions that will be answered further along in the series, making me long for the next installment immediately.

Unexpected Ending

      I don’t want to figure out the ending until the very last pages. I don’t want to see the massive plot twist coming. Plus, I also want the mystery wrapped up nicely. I want to know why the culprit thought s/he might get away with it. I want to know what happens to the other characters as part of the aftermath.  I like reading series, which sometimes end on a cliff hanger relating to the characters, not the mystery. 

Tell us your favorite mysteries in the comments.  What makes them GOOD?
      Jennifer Rummel is a YA Librarian at Otis Library in Norwich, CT.  She blogs at YA Book Nerd: http://yabooknerd.blogspot.com/


  1. Great post! I think your point about multiple perspectives is interesting. I worked in a library where that was one of the elements that would distinguish a mystery from a suspense book (mysteries were in M, suspense in F) on the premise that if you know what the culprit is doing, the reader is then waiting for the conclusion to a series of events rather than the solution to a puzzle. I do think it gives the reader a very different experience, but is it different enough to make it not a mystery any more? Hmmm…. I'll be thinking about this!

  2. Thanks for the Mystery! I loved your points on what makes a good read.

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