Mystery Writers of America How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook

by Christina Lane
Scribner, April 2021, $27

MWA has published three previous manuals for mystery writers: The Mystery Writer’s Handbook (1956), edited by Herbert Brean; its revised edition with much new material (1976), edited by Lawrence Treat; and Writing Mysteries: A Handbook (1992), edited by Sue Grafton. All had value, both as basic writing advice and as snapshots of the genre at the times they were written. This new version is up to the high standard. All the essays are readable and genuinely meant to help; few are more self-promotion than technique related.

The first section is on Rules and Genres. Neil Nyren’s opening essay, “The Rules— and When to Break Them” references the 1920s lists of S.S. Van Dine and Ronald A. Knox without ever spelling out the concept of fair play that was most basic to Golden Age detective fiction: that the reader should be provided enough clues to arrive at the correct solution before the author or detective reveals it. Some especially good pieces on genres include Jacqueline Winspear on the historical mystery, Tess Gerritsen on the medical thriller, and Gayle Lynds on the spy thriller.

Other Mysteries is a catchall category that includes three different pieces on juvenile mysteries, plus one each on graphic novels, short stories, and true crime. On the latter, Daniel Stashower very entertainingly and humorously answers “Ten Stupid Questions About True Crime.” Only number ten is really stupid.

The Writing gets more into the nuts and bolts of the process, including articles on style, rewriting, and plotting; characters (diversity of, protagonist, villain, supporting); dialogue; and setting. Catriona McPherson’s especially good piece on humor has the added benefit of being very funny. The team of Caroline and Charles Todd are informative on the process of collaboration, as is Max Allan Collins on Tie-Ins and Continuing a Character (“Playing in somebody else’s sandbox”).

Two dueling essays are paired back-toback: Jeffery Deaver’s “Always Outline” and Lee Child’s “Never Outline.” Of course, both are perfectly right.

The final section, After the Writing, covers reviews and reviewers, self-publishing, online presence, creating a community of readers, and legal considerations.

Jon L. Breen
Teri Duerr
April 2021