The detective must solve the crime. Well, yes and no. Mystery is one of my favorite genres, a huge influence on my own writing, and is a wonderful genre to tell any number of stories. But one of the biggest misconceptions about mystery is the fact that the murder-mystery, a predominant sub-genre that often overshadows other mystery sub-genres, is what the mystery genre is about.
At the core, the mystery genre is about the detective solving something. That something is the object/crux of the story. It can be a murder, a missing person case, the location of a cache of jewels, the lost city of Atlantis, a character’s soul, their memories, the truth behind why half a nation became a closed off ghost land. But the core conceit of mysteries is something is solved.
The plot-driven mystery is all about the who, the what, the how, and the art behind the crime/the incident. The characters all have their roles to play, and the detective is usually a genius or a professional.
The character-driven mystery is all about the character, their relationships, how they relate to the crime/the incident, and the why. It’s the difference between And Then There Were None vs The Big Sleep.
How does this relate to fantasy? Simple. Many popular fantasy stories encompass a mystery storyline within a greater story. We’ll focus on two today: Game of Thrones and The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
What is Ned Stark trying to do throughout the main plot? Solve Jon Arryn’s murder. Throughout this mystery, Ned’s own past is revealed, his relationships with the power players, while he dwells deep through the grimy streets of King’s Landing, uncovers dark secrets, deals with shady individuals, and ultimately solves the mystery. And true to his character, he suffers the consequences. But looking at Ned’s plot, it has all the hallmarks of a hard boiled noir. There’s shady locals, criminals, crooked politicians, secret bloodlines, but the detective is Dudley Do-Right. Most of Ned’s plot is running around the seedy underbelly of King’s Landing, chasing down leads, researching old books, doing detective work. It’s hilarious in hindsight but Ned is a medieval sleuth.
On the opposite end, Baru Cormorant only uses mystery as its Act I plot. And it does it in a similar way to Ned Stark’s plotline. Baru is tasked with uncovering a seditious conspiracy against the Imperial Republic. Again, she visits shady individuals, pours through audits, financial records, connecting the pieces to the players, while avoiding spies, creepy minders, and her own hidden agenda. While more a thriller than a straight forward mystery, The Traitor’s first 120 pages fits a classic mystery.
And once again, the detective is a role. The detective does not need to be a literal PI, detective, or specialized occupation. Sometimes they are, but often times they’re accidental sleuths, or the Hardy Boys.
Something to consider if you ever wish to write a mystery. You don’t always need a dead body.