The Elements of a Great Mystery
Author of A Tangled Web, A Sgt. Windflower Mystery
For me, the mystery genre has always been a comfortable fit, as a reader and as a writer. I enjoy most crime fiction, but my tastes do run towards the more traditional and the lighter side of mystery. No hard-boiled noir or graphic descriptions of coroner’s steel tables for me. But that’s just a personal preference. Regardless of the sub-genre, I believe that what makes a good mystery is a good story.
Maybe that is the basic element of any book in any genre, even in non-fiction. The story has to get our attention and make us want to read more. For mystery books, there has to be some element of the unknown that we are promised will be revealed if only we hang around long enough. Or even if we figure out ‘whodunit’, how the perpetrators are brought to justice may be enough to hold us fast to our seats and keep us turning the pages.
How the story is told and the definition of the main characters are close behind in terms of factors that make up a good mystery. Style, pace and plot development are keys to ensuring that we are not just entertained, but engaged along the way. The sub-genres of mystery start diverging here, particularly around style which tends to involve detailed and sometimes flowery descriptions in cozies or technically detailed forensic talk in police procedurals. But they all come back together when it comes to the flow of the story. Good mysteries in all forms have a rhythm that somehow just seems right. Great mystery writers have the ‘Goldilocks’ touch: not too fast, not too slow, just right!
Great characters are another key to great mysteries. We all remember the giants like Poirot or Miss Marple or Rebus or any number of great cozy writers. But I find that it is actually the sub-cast of characters that separate the great from the good. And it’s not usually the person or persons who get killed that are the most interesting. It’s the Corporal under the Sergeant, or the old friend who always shows up with advice or a bottle of scotch at exactly the right time.
What really sets the mystery category aside from all other writing is the added characteristic of surprise. Every mystery book has a few twists and turns but a great mystery book has an absolutely brilliant surprise. It may be that the butler didn’t actually do it, but he was certainly involved in helping the less than legitimate heir bury the bodies. Or an unheard-of relative who surfaced just after the will is read or… you get the picture.
Reading a great mystery book is like having a candle to light the way down a dark and unfamiliar hallway. You don’t know what you are going to find down there, but you just have to go and see for yourself.
Life is good for Sgt. Windflower in Grand Bank, Newfoundland.
But something’s missing from the Mountie’s life. Actually, a lot of things go
missing, including a little girl and supplies from the new factory. It’s Windflower’s
job to unravel the tangled web of murder, deceit and an accidental kidnapping
that threatens to engulf this sleepy little town and destroy those closest to
him. But there’s always good food, good friends and the love of a great woman
to make everything better in the end.
doesn’t get much better than this,” said Winston Windflower. The Mountie looked
over at his collie, Lady, who wagged her tail at the sound of his voice. If
dogs could smile, she smiled back. His world was almost perfect. He had the
love of a great woman and a good job as a Sergeant in the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police patrolling one of the lowest crime regions in the country. Plus,
the weather had been mild so far, at least for Newfoundland in early December, and that meant
no snowstorms with forced overnighters at the detachment. Life was very good
He had good
friends, including Lady, who was amongst the best of them. And he had a child
on the way. His wife, Sheila Hillier, was pregnant and at the clinic for her
three-month checkup. He was waiting to hear how both Sheila and the baby were
doing. His Auntie Marie had told him the baby was a girl, and if anyone knew
about these things, it was his Auntie. She was a dream weaver, an interpreter
of not just dreams but of messages from the spirit world. Windflower had
recently spent a week with her and his Uncle Frank, another dream weaver, to
learn more about the dream world.
dreams was part of his family’s tradition. But it was an imperfect tool that
gave information, not always answers. Perhaps the most important thing he
learned was that dreams do not predict the future. Instead, as his Auntie told
him, “Dreams tell us about our past, what has already happened. They also point
to actions we should take if we want to get the right result in the future and
to the signs all around us that we need to follow.”
was contemplating that piece of wisdom when he noticed a very distraught woman
get out of her car outside the RCMP detachment in Grand Bank. She ran towards
the front door. He walked out to meet her, but the administrative assistant,
Betsy Molloy, beat him to it.
there now, Molly. What’s goin’ on?” asked Betsy as she put her arms around the
other woman and guided her to a seat in the reception area.
Sarah, she’s gone,” said the other woman between sobs. “I told her to stay
close by the house where I could see her. I went out back to put the wash on
the line. When I came in, she was gone.”
Quinlan,” said Windflower as he knelt down beside the two women. “How old is
Sarah?” He didn’t really need to know how old the girl was. He wanted to help
the mother calm down so she could give them as much information as possible.
to be six next month,” said Molly Quinlan. “She’s growing up so fast. But she’s
still such a little girl. And now I’ve lost her. Brent is going to kill me.”
She started sobbing again.
she wearing so that we can help find her?” asked Windflower, trying to get
information but also trying to help Molly Quinlan feel useful.
stopped crying and said her daughter was wearing jeans and a favourite t-shirt.
“It was pink and had sparkles. She said it made her feel like she was a
princess. And she had her light blue jacket on with a hood.”
smiled. “I’m sure she’ll show up soon. But let’s go over to where you last saw
her, and we’ll start looking. She can’t have gone far. Leave your car here, and
come with me. I’ll drive you over.” The woman smiled weakly at Windflower
through her tears and allowed him to take her arm and guide her to his Jeep
outside the door.
inside to give directions to Betsy. “Get Constable Smithson in here. I’ll call
Frost and get him to come in from his rounds.”
nodded her agreement, and Windflower went outside to drive Molly Quinlan home.
it turns out, Sarah Quinlan was fine, perfectly fine. She had wandered a little
way from home in the centre of town. She was going to go down to the nearby
brook to feed the ducks. She knew better than to go into the water, but she
couldn’t see any reason why she couldn’t just look. She’d done it before, and
nobody seemed to mind. As long as she didn’t stay away too long, everything was
that great fearless attitude of a child who grew up in a small and very safe
community. She knew most of her neighbours, and they all watched out for her.
She also had the natural curiosity of little children, especially when she saw
something new. The truck parked on the roadway above the brook was new, so
Sarah went to take a closer look. Even better, the back door of the truck was
open, and there was a ramp leading inside. This was certainly worth a closer
Quinlan was having fun exploring the back of the large truck when she heard a
loud, rumbling noise. She didn’t know it, but the driver had started the
engine. It was so loud, and Sarah was so frightened by it, she froze. The next
thing she remembered was everything going almost completely black and the back
door of the truck slamming shut. She cried out, but by then it was too late.
Seconds later she, the truck and the unsuspecting driver were barrelling out of
town and onto the highway.
drove Molly Quinlan to her house and got her to show him where Sarah had been
playing. Together they walked through the house to see if the little girl had
come home and hidden there. But no such luck. While they were searching the
house, they were joined by two of Quinlan’s neighbours who took over Molly’s
care and made her a cup of tea. Soon afterwards Constable Harry Frost arrived
from his highway patrol.
gave him a quick update and directed him to go to one end of town to start the
search. He would begin the house-to-house search through the neighbourhood when
Smithson showed up.
checked out back and looked in the storage shed, a favourite hiding place of
every little kid and probably where Windflower himself would have taken refuge.
But Sarah was not there. As he went to the front of the house, Constable Rick
Smithson showed up.
Boss,” said Smithson. “Any sign of her yet?”
shook his head. “Frost is doing the big circle search. You and I will start the
door-to-door. Ask them if they saw the girl this afternoon. I’ll start from
here. You go down to the brook, and work your way up.”
returned to his cruiser and sped off. Windflower wasn’t worried. Yet. But he
knew that the first few hours were crucial in finding a missing child. If they
didn’t, then it was almost always something more serious. Not time to panic,
but no time to waste. He walked up to the first door and knocked.