A Lesson in Writing a Mystery

The Woman in Cabin 10

By Ruth Ware

First how does a mystery as nonsensical as this get published, and when it is, how does it attract so many readers, many of whom go on to encourage others to read it? Therein lies the true mystery of The Woman in Cabin 10, a bestseller. In short, if you are looking for a good, or even mediocre cozy (the sub genre of this, wherein even the author gives a nod to Agatha Christie in the narrative), you are not looking for this book.

However, if you aspire yourself to writing a mystery, naturally you’ll want to read the best, such as Ms. Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and many others. Reading a less than stellar mystery, next to these best of breed, though, will show you what to do right and what to avoid.

You might want to create a somewhat likable protagonist with at least a modicum of intelligence instead of a wildly neurotic wreck. Sure you want to establish character, in this case of a woman traumatized by the break-in of her apartment and a confrontation with the burglar. Not a bad idea, if it had been kept short and had character Lo Blacklock’s insecurity and self-doubt not been waved in the reader’s face time and again ad nauseam.

You also might want to get the mystery going soon, very soon into the telling, unlike here where it takes more than ten percent of the total narrative just to get Lo and readers to the boat where the mystery starts, and then more pages of self-loathing before the body appears, or in this case, disappears.

As to the number of characters in a cozy, you do need several so you can lead readers down a number of dead ends before the big reveal at the end. Each, though, has to have distinctiveness so the reader can keep them straight and it seems like they might have a motive for murder. Problem here is that nobody seems a prime candidate, except for the obvious. Part of the fun of this type of mystery in the reader’s befuddlement over who done it, the kind that at the conclusion, upon reflection, you ask yourself, “How did I miss that when it was plain as day?”

Finally, plot twists when done well offer up welcome surprise. When done poorly, or are poorly conceived, or are wildly improbable by the fact of their convolution, well the reader reaction may be one you, the writer, were not striving for.

So, meager stars for being something of a primer on how not to write a cozy mystery. w/c


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