Solving the Puzzle

by Rob Gregory Browne

As you might guess, when I have time to read, I generally read crime fiction. It’s a broad genre, of course. Mysteries, thrillers, noir, caper, spy — I love them all.

I also read other things. YA novels. Some literary stuff. The works of James Kirkwood, who was a brilliant novelist.

But crime novels are what I naturally lean toward.

I was recently leafing through a mystery magazine, and in one of the articles, the author made a comment that mysteries of late seem less interested in creating solvable puzzles than they once did. Which, he thought, was unfortunate.

We all know the kind of book he was yearning for.  Traditional mysteries.  The kind that feature locked rooms, clues planted everywhere, a challenge to the reader to figure out who the killer is before the hero does.

I can understand why he and many other people like these kinds of mysteries, but they don't really interest me all that much. The formal "mystery" of the story rarely does.

I could spend several minutes telling you about Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his pain and his loves and his demons and his enemies, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the plot of a single mystery he has solved.

The same goes for T. Jefferson Parker’s Merci Rayborn. I can tell you all about her life, her troubles in the police department, her failure to get the respect she deserves, but I can't for the life of me tell you what crimes she has solved. I can't lay out the clues and show you how she — or Bosch — figured out who the killer was.

These writers' plots are generally wonderful, but, for me, the underlying crimes usually don’t stick. They aren’t what I walk away from the books thinking about.

Because, frankly, it doesn't much matter. Not to me, at least.

My book, WHISPER IN THE DARK, comes out in the U.S. in early February, and it's quite a bit different from my previous book. It’s still a thriller, but this time there’s a mystery involved. A dead body. A detective.

That dead body, however, is merely there to get the story rolling. While who killed the victim will be very important to the people surrounding him, and will, hopefully, have the readers guessing — the mystery itself is not all that important to me.

What matters are the characters themselves. How it all affects them. The characters become the mystery and as you read, you begin to realize that these people may not be who you thought they were. And who killed whom is less important than why.

That’s true of the Bosch books, it’s true of the Rayborn books, it’s true of most literate, well-written mysteries these days. The puzzle has taken a back seat to the characters and their motivations.

John Sandford — another favorite crime writer — doesn’t even bother with a mystery in the traditional sense. We already know who the killer is.
And it doesn’t matter. The books are still great — because we LOVE Lucas Davenport.

One of my favorite Davenport stories involves a murder, yes, but the thing I most remember is Davenport’s touching relationship with a young girl whose mother has been killed.

We all have different tastes and we all read for different reasons. I prefer character puzzles over plot puzzles any day of the week.

What about you?

23 thoughts on “Solving the Puzzle

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Who was it said it’s not so much about cops working on cases, as cases working on cops?

    For me, the plot IS important, because when I’m faced with an unknown (to me) author, I pick up the book and read the jacket copy, and if the idea of the plot and the general set-up doesn’t grab me, it’s that much harder to go to the next stage.

    If it does intrigue me, though, I open it up and read the first page. If the author’s voice appeals, then I’ll read on. But it’s only by the time I’ve reached the end of the book that I’ll find out if the characters are ones I really want to come back to.

    The plot is something I agonise over in advance of sitting down to write, but I prefer to let the characters develop in a more organic way as I go.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I read suspense for whatever an author I like or am discovering does well. If it’s character, then I’m reading for character. If it’s a perfect puzzle mystery, then I’m reading for the perfect puzzle mystery. For me it’s not the type of mystery or thriller or suspense, it’s the skill and passion with which it’s written (although it takes a lot to get me to pick up an action or spy thriller).

    What I don’t like is when an author tries to pull off a mystery reveal that totally contradicts all the psychological evidence of the story. I just read a VERY well written thriller with a mystery plot, and I knew who the killer would turn out to be because structurally it was the only person who made sense – but psychologically it made NO SENSE AT ALL.

    At the end of an otherwise wonderful book, the author went through pages of painful exposition to try to justify his killer’s motivation. It was embarrassingly bad. I would rather there have been no mystery at all.

  3. Jacqueline Carney

    Hello Rob,

    Great post that hit home with me because my WIP began as a slam bang who done it sort of crime novel with a catchy, slick voice. I started it for this year’s NaNoWriMo. But half way through it I realized the voice wasn’t working for me and I kept getting ‘bogged’ down in the characters. I have since determined I was bogged down with the characters because that is what I like to write…and surprise…I like the book much better as well.

    I look forward to reading WHISPER IN THE DARK.

    Jacqui Carney

  4. Kaye Barley

    Characters.I am a sucker for well written, interesting, characters. If there’s a cast of characters who are close and who exchange thoughts, feelings, dialogue, in a believable, realistic manner, I’m hooked. I love tight knit people connections which allows for a bit of easy bantering amongst them; a well-earned trust shown by their interactions rather than told to me. If the characters stay true to themselves, but evolve and grow as the series continues I’m a fan till the end.An added bonus to me is if there’s a sense of place in the book(s) that is SO strong it also becomes a character in its own right.

  5. pari

    Rob,There isn’t a “mutally-exclusive” clause in the traditional mystery contract that stipulates it has to be more about the puzzle than the character.

    Au contraire.

    I think this is one of the serious misconceptions about my chosen genre. Sure, there are novels where the puzzle is the main focus, but if you read many of the contemp traditional mysteries — especially in series — it’s ALL about character. The protags and readers become friends because they are so real, so believeable.

    That’s what’s happened in my series. Many of my readers tell me how much they love Sasha. They like the puzzles, but it’s the person who keeps them coming back.

  6. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Browne,I think I have to go along with Zoe. If it’s a new author, the plot and jacket copy have to grab me, and the voice has to hook me to the point where I buy the book. However, at the end of the story, I’ll know then and only then if I want to come back and hang with these characters more. That’s true of Bosch, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Rhyme and Sachs, Jack Reacher, John Rain, and so on. But in none of these cases do I absolutely have to have the mindboggling mystery, just a good story that keeps me breathless to the last page and won’t allow itself to be put down.

  7. Cornelia Read

    I’m almost at the point where I consider plot in what I’m reading the lagniappe. I want character and voice first and foremost, when I’m reading. But what really matters to me is that the crime matters to the people on the page. Sometimes it’s off-putting to me to read “golden age” traditional mysteries, because it’s seldom that characterization allows you to feel the impact of the violence–it feels too neat, like what matters is the puzzle, and not the lost life.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I think Zoe described how I feel about it–I’ll check the back of a book of a new-to-me author and if the premise doesn’t grab me, I probably won’t read the first page. Then the voice has to work and as I’m reading, the synthesis of character / plot has to work. I have started books with utterly fascinating characters, but there was nothing for them to *do* or else they were busy doing something TSTL and I’d give up, frustrated. Minor logic glitches are fine; minor motivation mistakes, fine. I’ll cut most authors slack if they’re writing interesting characters in a decently interesting scenario, but there’s got to be a balance or at least not stand out as completely implausible for that particular world.

    I think the authors you mention do that synthesis so well, it sharpens the clarity (and our memory) of the characters.

  9. Fran

    I hadn’t realized how blase’ I’d become about the dead body as a device until I read Karin Fossum’s first book, “Don’t Look Back”. Yes, there’s a dead girl in the first few pages, and yes the book’s all about who killed her and why, but what I loved, what startled me into joy, was the fact that as Sejer investigated her death, the girl, Annie, grew and changed, became a three-dimensional person, not just a dead body by a lake.

    I was reminded that the victim had a life and a personality and hopes and dreams that had been brutally cut short. She wasn’t just a device, a cardboard cut-out lying in the dank mud.

    Still, I absolutely agree, I don’t generally remember what happened in the crime, but I do remember what’s going on with the characters.

    Except, of course, for Reacher. 🙂 Then it’s all about what happens!

  10. Louise Ure

    I’ll do a bad job of paraphrasing this, but the importance of character was brought home to me at a panel led by Lee Child at LCC Bristol a couple of years ago. “Plot is a rental car,” he said. “It’s just the vehicle to take the story somewhere. If I told you I was going to spend the weekend in Phoenix with Angelina Jolie, would you care what rental car company I used when I got there?”

  11. Dana

    I agree completely. I credit Elmore Leonard for this realization. I had grown bored with trying to solve puzzles, especially as I determined more authors were either cheating, or dropping clues into such subterranean areas of consciousness you’d need to carry around a white board as you read to keep track of everything. I had a job; reading was for my enjoyment.

    In addition to being hip and funny and ll the other things he justifiably received credit for, Leonard showed me the people on both sides of the crime. Not scheming master criminals, but guys going to work. Not Dick Tracy, but another guy going to work. Sure, this guy robbed banks and maybe killed people, but he also had allergies and needed to find a rest room and was driven crazy by his partner’s nervous twitches. That’s what brought me back, and that’s what brings me back to all the authors I regularly read: I know I’ll be spending several hours with interesting people.

  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    Fran, you’ve made an interesting point about the dead girl becoming a real character. It’s not only important to know how the surviving characters react to the death, but it’s also good to know about the victim herself.

    I watched a movie I really liked recently, called The Dead Girl. It shows several different points of view surrounding the death of a young prostitute and how it affects the characters, but it also shows events from the dead girl’s POV and we come to learn who she was. And knowing she’s about to die makes the movie truly heartbreaking.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm… I’ve seen a couple of Angelina vehicles lately during which I was only concerned about which rental company would get me out of there as soon as possible.

    “Character is plot.” Whoever said that, I agree. But that means if there’s no discernible plot, then there’s not much of a character happening, or much acting, either.

  14. Steven Steinbock

    A book with two-dimensional characters isn’t going to hold my interest. But neither is a novel without a plot. Although almost by definition, a plot is planned – at the very least it’s the knowledge of the destination of where your three-hundred page trip is taking the reader – plot needn’t be contrived.

    Ingenious plotting devices and brilliant twists are great if – as Alex suggested – they are consistent with the psychology of the characters. But a well-plotted mystery doesn’t have to have such devices. It just needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m convinced that it’s this basic structure that distinguishes mystery/detective fiction.

    Just my two cents.

  15. Rob Gregory Browne

    Woah, now. Nobody said anything about no plot. I have no interest in reading such a novel.

    But the plot that’s all about the puzzle is less interesting to me than a plot that weighs toward character. The plots in which the puzzle or “mystery” is more of a McGuffin than anything else are far more to my liking.

  16. J.D. Rhoades

    “Character is plot.’ Whoever said that, I agree.”

    Well, I say it all the time (or, more often ‘character drives plot’), but I don’t think it’s original with me.

    I tend to grow impatient with puzzles. Sudoku holds no charms for me, and those “logic” word problems that begin with something like “Billy lives in a green house. Johnny has a tree in his back yard. Sally has a red wagon. The blue house does not have a tree in the back yard,” and so on ad nauseaum, tend to send me screaming from the room. So it’s no surprise that, if a whodunit doesn’t have somebody who I care about, the book goes back on the shelf.

    Look at the so-called “classic” whodunits that the article writer so pines for. Do people read Dorothy L Sayers for the puzzles or for the Peter/Harriet byplay? How many people read Rex Stout to find out who the killer is as opposed to those who like to chuckle at the curmudgeonly Wolfe and his long-suffering, wisecracking foot soldier Archie?

    I think even the most elegantly designed machine of a mystery plot is just a bunch of gears and cogs till you put characters at the controls who make it purr.

  17. Steven Steinbock

    Rob said: “Woah, now. Nobody said anything about no plot.”

    Sorry if my comment got your hackles up. I agree 100% that a puzzle-plot with no character makes for a lousy book.

    But I’ve read more than a few books in which when you get to page 350, you can almost hear the author saying, “Oh crud, how am I gonna end this.” (You see it all the time in science fiction). Regarding plot, I just figure that if an author gets into a book without knowing where s/he is going, s/he may never get there.

  18. Allison Brennan

    Character is plot, character is story, etc . . . I think everyone here has blogged about it one time or another! LOL. I agree, Rob. I need to care what happens to the characters. I need to want them to succeed (and the villain to fail.) I want high stakes, not necessarily life or death (though that’s my favorite!) but emotional stakes. Risking not just your life, but your heart, your money, your reputation. I can buy into almost any plot or story as long as I want the protagonist to achieve his goals. Motivation is hugely important in character, because characters with trite or selfish motivations are not characters I could root for. Characters who care more for others than self (which is why cop stories, PI stories, etc draw me in) already have a leg up. I can forgive them doing the wrong thing if they do it for the right reasons.

    I need a plausible story for these great characters to shine. But I’m far more forgiving about plot problems if the characters are great than I am about weak characters if the plot is strong.

  19. R.J. Mangahas

    I’m with you Rob. I love the stuff that has interesting characters. They really do lend a lot to the story. I think part of this may come from my theater background. I always liked playing characters who have a multi-layered (is this the word I’m looking for?) personality.

  20. Lisa Alber

    Your post struck a cord with me. Character character character.

    I’m a fledgling crime fictionista (have an agent — good first step!), and I find that I almost don’t care whether the reader can correctly guess whodunit. I’m way more interested in the whydunit question. In this, I hope to keep readers puzzled and interested even when they think they know the whodunit answer.

    Mostly, I care about my protagists’ lives. There may be dead body complicating things, but they still gotta deal with their bad marriages, work issues, and self-doubts along the way to the solution. That’s the fun stuff to write!

  21. Mothrababe

    Plot is a well worn road map, with all of the creases, faded spots, highlighted well-traveled routes, and odd spots of the beaten path that are worth a side trip. Well written and developed characters are the cars that follow the map. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes they get totally lost. 😀

    Character is all important for me, as is a reasonable-to-great ‘voice’ telling the story. I read the blurb, if it’s a premise that captures my imagination (historical, archealogical, adventure, etc) then I read the first page. If I like that, I’ll buy it. There are times where I’ve been put off by a title or too-sounding-twee premise only to be pleasantly surprised by the content. Who knew teddy-bear mysteries could be great police procedurals? 😀 I discovered Susan Kandel and her brilliant writing the same way.

    I love the books whose story and characters take me away from myself and the real world for awhile, that make me cry or laugh accordingly, and admire the way they’re written, a turn of a phrase, or sense of ‘place’. These are the types of books which send me running for my own manuscript and want to write into the wee small hours – bonding with my own characters.

    I’m learning a lot from all of you, your opinions as well as your advice. Thank you so much. 😀



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