You may be wondering, as an experienced mystery reader, just what kind of mysteries do I like? Do I have any particular favourites or recommendations to fellow mystery fans? Well, to answer your questions, here are my top 10 mystery plot ideas. These are not strictly in “worst-to-best” order, because they’re all fine ideas—I just get more and more enthusiastic as I approach my #1 selection. So, without further ado, let’s get started…
This can be a story that takes place in a village, but not necessarily—for convenience, though, as I describe the set-up, I’ll pretend this takes place in a village. It involves an anonymous poison-pen letter writer, who writes hurtful, venomous things to the other inhabitants of the village. It spreads like a plague, and just about everyone gets something, and it is slowly tearing the community apart, with everyone too frightened to do anything about it (and too frightened to admit to being frightened). And then, things suddenly get deadly, when one of the villagers is found dead, having apparently committed suicide after receiving an anonymous letter.
Recommendations: Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger is one of my favourite mysteries, and it made its way to my top 5 Christies list. It’s a great read from start to finish, but by no means is it the only “poison pen” mystery out there. John Dickson Carr, writing under the pen name Carter Dickson, wrote one such novel: Night at the Mocking Widow, which is quite a strong book, whose biggest flaw is the dialogue of the uneducated characters in the novel. (It’s an ignorable flaw.) It also manages to throw in a creative locked-room scenario.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night is, for me at least, her masterpiece. Her usual detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is largely absent from the novel, and his love interest, Harriet Vane, is the main character of the proceedings. Instead of taking place in a village, this particular novel takes place at a women’s university college—you’d expect members of the academic community to be mutually supportive of one another, but a poison pen letter writer’s pranks start to get out of control...
9. The Room That Kills
An old, legendary house, with a room sealed off… Years and years ago (possibly centuries, maybe decades), there was a string of bizarre deaths in that room, and legend has it that anyone who spends the night there will die… The room is opened, and on a dare, good old Basil enters the room to spend the night on a dare. Everyone has a good laugh and promise to let him out in the morning. But nobody is laughing when, the following morning, Basil is found lying in the room… dead. Seriously, do I even need to explain why this idea is so awesome?
Recommendation: John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (written as Carter Dickson) is the pinnacle of such stories. It involves a bizarre, impossible, ‘locked-room’ murder of the sort I’ve described, and has a remarkable Baghdad-on-the-Thames atmosphere, with adventure seeming to lurk at every corner.
This is more a solution thing than a general plot idea, but I really love it when a culprit goes out of his way to exploit some chemical’s interesting properties to aid the commission of his or her crimes. It really takes a creative mind to incorporate chemistry and clever detection in the same book. Another fun thing is when the entire book is steeped in a discussion of various poisons, their effects, chemicals, and so on. It is interesting to find out about the unique properties of some chemical. For instance, being able to smell the bitter-almond odour of cyanide is apparently a genetic trait. I have yet to see a mystery author incorporate that into a case.
Recommendations: Obviously, since this has something to do with the solution of the case, generating recommendations is a tricky business. Agatha Christie liked using this trick in her murder-by-poison plots, but I refuse to give hints to some really clever twists by naming specific books. Instead, I direct you to Clayton Rawson’s The Footprints on the Ceiling. While a step down from his masterpiece Death From a Top Hat, it is still an entertaining read, and it’s really interesting to find out just how potentially deadly a hobby photography once was, as there are some lengthy discussions on all the poisons available. There’s also an interesting part of the plot involving some bizarre applications of silver nitrate and sodium chloride.
7. The Dying Message
As the old man lay dying from his stab wound, he grabbed ahold of my sleeve and insistently whispered: “The eagle… the eagle…” I saw some sort of light in his eyes slowly extinguish, and I realized that he was no longer alive. I glanced around the room to see what he had been talking about. If there had been an eagle inside, it was long gone…
Consider that an excerpt from my fictional book. The allure of the “dying message” case is clear. Usually, this involves the last actions of a dying person, or the apparently last actions of a person who was discovered dead.
Recommendations: Ellery Queen had a lot of fun with this kind of story. The Siamese Twin Mystery has a good story of this sort, and manages to find a really cool way to seal the suspects off from the rest of the world. It involves a forest fire that slowly eats its way towards the mountaintop where Ellery, his father Richard, and the suspects try to find out whodunnit… Another notable entry is The Tragedy of X, which has a bit of a lecture on dying messages, and tries to explain why anybody would leave one. It’s an appreciated effort and a very good story. The only huge problem with that book is its detective, Drury Lane, whom I dislike. He seems to be a psycho in the making, and is definitely a little too obsessed with Shakespeare. This is coming from an actor who has done Shakespeare and loves his work.
6. The Comic Mystery
When I bashed George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties as the mean-spirited piece of work it was, I said that mystery and comedy mix surprisingly well. I stand by this statement. While serious mysteries can be plenty of fun, the best comic mysteries are some of the most fun you’ll ever have. This might be even harder to write than a serious mystery, because you have to juggle the elements of a plot, clues, detection, and so on, all while maintaining a layer of comedy. It is just so much damn fun.
Recommendations: Craig Rice’s The Corpse Steps Out is a marvellous book, the second in her John J. Malone series (I have yet to read the first, 8 Faces at 3). This is the kind of book with a detective team that gets a lot more talented after a few drinks, attempts to get married keep going awry, and the mix-ups are hilarious, involving everything from the illegal transportation of dead bodies to arson. It’s the kind of book where everyone has too much to drink, except the corpse. It’s wild fun.
John Dickson Carr wrote some very fun entries in this category as well. One of these is The Punch and Judy Murders, a mad chase that pits its hero against Murphy’s Law, all on the eve of his wedding. It was written under the penname Carter Dickson, and often, the novels written under the name (almost all involving Sir Henry Merrivale) have got some element of comedy or other.
5. The Maniacal Serial Killer
This will sound more like the plot to an action movie. A serial killer is striking the city, seemingly at random. The police have no idea what the connection between the victims is, and the media is having a field day with the story. A sort of mania grips the city, and the body count just keeps getting higher and higher. Is it even possible to write a good, fair play detective story around this premise? You bet! And when it’s done right, it’s one of my very favourite plot ideas.
Recommendations: Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails is a masterpiece in this regard. It has some really tricky clues and an enormous body count, but somehow, Queen keeps it clear which characters you can ignore and which you shouldn’t dismiss. New York City itself becomes a character in these proceedings, as a serial killer known as the Cat strangles his victims to death. And after every new killing, a picture of a cat is printed in the papers, with one tail more than it had last time…
Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders is another example of a successful serial killer story done right. It was done so right, in fact, that many authors started to rip off her solution for the seemingly unrelated deaths. (Ellery Queen came up with a more original solution in Cat of Many Tails.)
I’ve been mostly recommending books from the Golden Age, but let’s throw in a modern author into the mix: Christopher Fowler. His Ten Second Staircase is my favourite book of his, which has a really creative scenario behind it, as a Highwayman is prowling through London, complete with a black horse and tricorne hat, apparently targeting scandalous minor celebrities, turning himself into a celebrity in the process. The story is a good one, but the solution has some elements that are very disappointing. However, this time Fowler took the time to explain all the questions, instead of shrugging and dismissing half with a “hand-wavey” general answer.
Since we’re going to be unconventional here, I will include Case Closed: Volume 19. Case Closed is a manga series by Gosho Aoyama, and Volume 19 involves a serial killer who stabs his victims through the heart after killing them, but making a point of stabbing them through their wallets. Why? (I might as well add that this series is best read in order, from Volume 1 onwards, due to its ongoing storyline, which is incredibly engaging. The first few volumes have very weak mysteries, but the series hits its stride when it gets to the double digits, and comes up with extremely imaginative stories with good solutions. Its characters are so much fun, they elevate everything to a whole new level. Overall, I think it is the best mystery series being written today, and the only one to fully captivate my imagination—and I’m not a fan of manga or anime!)
4. The Little Things That Just Don’t Add Up (a.k.a. “The Paradox”)
This is the type of story with an intriguing premise, in which there are a lot of bizarre facts that just don’t fit together. Why was there a gun by a corpse that was stabbed to death? Why was a body found buried in the snow still warm? Why does someone light their fireplace in the middle of the summer heat? Some of these I’ve made up myself, but you can see what’s so fascinating about this kind of mystery. It’s the allure of that bizarre paradox that you just can’t figure out.
Recommendations: This is a type of story absolutely dominated by G.K. Chesterton. One of my favourites is The Three Tools of Death, which involve a man’s murder, with an absolute arsenal of potential murder weapons by his side. (This was probably the inspiration for John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons, with a similar premise but a very different solution.) Chesterton was a great writer, whose creation, Father Brown, endures to this day. Another thing worth checking out is the short story collection Four Faultless Felons, in which four stories are told of misunderstood men, among them a loyal traitor and an innocent murderer.
Case Closed: Volume 31 has a great story with such a premise, in which a four-year old corpse is found with car keys, but no driver’s license, a pack of cigarettes, but no lighter, and despite having died in the summer, it was wearing a sweater!
3. Murder in a Theatre
Gaston Leroux was on to something when he wrote The Phantom of the Opera. The infamous book is not much good as a mystery- in fact, it explains everything away with the magical phrase “trap doors” and a shrug of the shoulders. But what a set-up! There’s just something incredible about murder in a theatre, stalking its way in the shadows whilst the actors rehearse for a performance. It mixes the world of theatrics with the mystery, and when done right, it can be incredible. When I think of mysteries of this sort, I envision a faceless phantom lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike again… (Naturally, by “faceless phantom”, I refer to the sheer presence of the murderer, not Gerard Butler.)
Recommendations: Let’s return to Christopher Fowler for an instant, whose book Full Dark House is almost one of the best mysteries of this sort. It is a great set-up, involving a bombing case in present-day London and a flashback story to a murderer in a theatre in WWII London (during a production of Orpheus in the Underworld). The set-up is marvellous, and I highly recommend, oh, the first 90% of the book, which manages to throw in some impossible problems as well, including an impossible appearance and disappearance in a locked bathroom, and a disappearance from a rooftop. Its great tragedy, however, is the solution, where the book completely falls apart. Most of the solution is not explained enough (if at all), given extremely vague answers, and overall a disappointing cheat. And yet, the set-up is so marvellous and intriguing, and it introduces Bryant and May, some very fun characters.
Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly involves the seemingly impossible murder of a despised actress, involved in a theatrical production. It introduces Gervase Fen, a very fun (slightly absent-minded) detective, has excellent moments of comedy, and captures the theatrical atmosphere very well.
2. The Supernatural Murder
This is one of those great scenarios which may or may not involve an impossible crime. It certainly involves a ghost story of sorts. Perhaps there’s an atmospheric haunted house, or maybe a mysterious murder from the past (then blamed on witchcraft, werewolves, or what have you) is re-enacted in the present day… When this is done right, it is one of the best possible mystery stories, involving a creepy supernatural atmosphere that makes you question whether, maybe, this time… there might not be a rational explanation behind these events?
Recommendations: John Dickson Carr wrote some genuine masterpieces in this category, which could be placed either in this category or the next one. The Burning Court is a story set in America, involving witchcraft and poisoning, and has some really bizarre scenarios that Carr explains beautifully in the resolution. This, by the way, includes the ghost of a 16th century woman walking through a door that was never meant to open, and then apparently right through the wall behind it. The House at Satan’s Elbow involves the deformed ghost of a judge apparently turned attempted murderer …
But other authors have tried their hand at this type of novel and succeeded. Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse made it to my Top 5 Christies list (for excellent reasons!), for instance. John Sladek’s Black Aura, involving an apparently impossible levitation, followed by impalement on a fence, is one of my favourite books of all time. Edmund Crispin included a scary ghost story in The Case of the Gilded Fly. Robert Van Gulik’s The Chinese Gold Murders involves the ghost of a judge that simply refuses to lay quietly in the grave. I could go on and on and on with this list…
1. The Impossible Crime
This is the stuff of dreams—the impossible crime. It’s one of the most difficult kinds of stories to pull off successfully. By “impossible crime”, many may assume I mean simply a locked-room murder. This is not necessarily the case. John Dickson Carr was a master at this sort of story, coming up with variation after variation on the impossible crime, including a strangled corpse in the middle of a muddy tennis court, a stabbed stiff on top of a tower nobody could’ve entered, and a corpse in a pavilion in a snow-covered field—with no footprints leading to it. The creativity of such stories and the apparent lack of a rational explanation make this one of the most engaging kinds of mysteries, and without a doubt, my favourite kind— when done right.
Recommendations: Obviously John Dickson Carr is the master here. In his best impossible crimes, he involves more than one crime. He Who Whispers is a masterpiece, which involves a mysterious death that occurred years ago, when a man was stabbed to death on top of a tower, with witnesses outside swearing nobody entered the tower. Suddenly, in modern day, a woman is almost frightened to death in her room by something outside her window—but what could it have been? Nobody could have climbed to the window or anything of the sort. This book could be classified as a supernatural murder, because it includes ominous hints that a vampire could have been the culprit. It is one of the great books of detective fiction, right up there with Carr’s The Three Coffins, which involves death in a traditionally locked room—and then, just minutes later, the main suspect is shot to death in front of witnesses in a snow-covered street with only his footprints around the body—and a powder burn indicating he was shot from inches away. The book is marvellous, with excellent supernatural elements, and an infamous “Locked Room Lecture” that should guarantee it a place of honour on all mystery lovers’ shelves. Other memorable titles include The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window—the latter being written as Carter Dickson, and also being a tour-de-force courtroom drama/locked-room mystery.
Clayton Rawson’s Death From a Top Hat is a masterpiece, involving all sorts of apparently impossible occurrences— from disappearances to deaths. It throws complication after complication in the reader’s face, and is Rawson’s first and greatest book—it was downhill after that, for understandable reasons.
Case Closed regularly includes locked-room or impossible deaths. One of my favourite tricks is a diabolically ingenious way to seal a room in Volume 19.
The television show Jonathan Creek often deals with this sort of crime: impossible deaths, disappearances of heavily guarded paintings, a mysterious man who walks through the snow without leaving footprints… I particularly recommend Jack in the Box (the complete 60 minute version, not the edited one) and Danse Macabre as a starting point for anyone who wants to get acquainted with the series.
Again, I could list so many books in this section it isn’t even funny. But I think I’ve recommended more than enough titles.
Well, thanks a lot for reading this blog. Feel free to comment, whether you agree or disagree with my choices or recommendations. Now if you’ll excuse me, this is a crime scene…