Friday, October 2, 2009

The Hook

Well-written mystery novels and series have a way of “hooking” readers, so that it’s impossible to put the book down or resist getting the next book in a series. The best novels and series, of course, get readers addicted because the mysteries themselves are intriguing. Without a solid and engaging mystery, the rest of a mystery novel can sometimes fall apart. That said, though, there are other things that have made some mystery novels and series especially addictive.

In some cases, it’s exceptionally well-written and authentic dialogue. Dame Ngaio Marsh had a particularly good ear for dialogue; her skill with dialogue can be seen in novels such as Colour Scheme and Opening Night. Peter Temple’s dialogue, too, is well-tuned. It’s almost lyrical, and its flow has won his Jack Irish series a host of fans. Janet Evanovich and Laurien Berenson both have won readers over through their use of snappy, very authentic dialogue. It may not be poetic, but it’s very realistic and keeps the reader interested.

Other authors “hook” readers through fast-paced action. By this I don’t necessarily mean car chases or gunfights. I mean that events in those novels happen quickly and get the reader so involved in the story that it’s impossible to put the book down. For instance, John Alexander Graham’s mysteries (The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler is one example) move at a very exciting pace, but not so breathtakingly fast that the reader loses track of the plot.

Sometimes, readers find that they like the sleuth so much that they find a mystery or series irresistible. I must admit that that’s one reason I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. His Precious Ramotswe is witty, bright, thoughtful, determined and wise, among many other things. Her character is very well-written. Inspector Tom Barnaby, Caroline Graham’s sleuth, is also a well-written sleuth character. He’s compassionate, devoted to his family and has a strong sense of justice. He’s also very bright and skilled at putting the pieces of a mystery together in a logical way. There are lots of other sleuths, of course, who’ve also captured readers’ hearts.

Mystery authors sometimes create characters that are so real and believable that readers identify with them. That, too, makes a good mystery or series addictive. Agatha Christie was a genius at creating real characters who have believable reactions to what happens to them. That’s what first got me “hooked” on Christie. Of course, her work is remarkable for many other reasons, but the characters in novels such as The Mirror Crack’d, Hickory, Dickory Death (AKA, Hickory, Dickory, Dock), and Ordeal by Innocence are so real that readers care about them and want to know what happens to them. That’s the “hook” in novels with well-written characters.

Many readers get addicted to a mystery novel or series because of the author’s skill at presenting intellectual puzzles that readers can’t resist wanting to solve. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series is like that. So are many Ellery Queen novels. Agatha Christie was a genius at that, too. In those series, the reader matches wits with the author to try to figure out what the clues mean, and the real beauty of such mysteries is that they’re “food for the brain.” In my own Joel Williams series, I try to offer the reader an intellectual puzzle. I want the reader to think about the victim and suspects and try to figure out which of the suspects is the best “fit” for the kind of murder that’s taken place. Then, as Williams and the police find the different clues and make sense of them, I hope the reader follows along and enjoys trying to solve the puzzle.

Sometimes, the “hook” is something as simple as the location of the novel. That’s what’s gotten me interested in reading Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari (Thank you, Cathy from Kittling: Books for the review!). I’m really intrigued by the South African game preserve setting. The striking Southwest U.S. setting for Margaret Coel’s Wind River mysteries and Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series have also gotten many readers (myself included) “hooked.”

Finally, a special thank-you is in order to reviewers who read and write about books and get readers “hooked” because of their reviews. Many reviewers are asked to read books that might not otherwise have interested them. Thoughtful, informed reviews can get readers interested in a novel or series, even if the reviewer doesn’t end up recommending a novel.

What’s your “hook?” What was it about your favorite novel or series that got you addicted?


  1. It was the descriptions of delicious food that got me hooked on Andrea Camilleri, the social commentary on Sjowall and Wahloo, and the history and hard boiled Gunther/Marlowe character on Philip Kerr. The brilliant character of Harry Hole and the wonderful plots on Jo Nesbo, the cleverness of Commissiare Adamsberg on Fred Vargas..................and my wife who hates flying was prepared to go to Phoenix so that we could explore Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn territory and the Navajo and Hopi lands.

  2. Uriah - I agree completely about Commissaire Adamsberg! He really is clever, and it was actually his astuteness that got me reading Vargas, too. If my diet can handle it ; ), I'll have to take a closer look at Camilleri; thanks for reminding me of her. And as far as Hillerman's work goes, I agree that his descriptions of the landscape in Four Corners are absolutely seductive. Thanks for your comment.

  3. The hook for me is either one of the main characters, or the setting. In Martha Grimes "Richard Jury" series I got hooked by her character of Melrose Plant. I adored him. That said, I always love reading (and rereading) any Poirot mystery. Settings? My WIP takes place in England in 1935, so anything that takes place before or during WWII has my immediate attention.


  4. Elspeth -
    Thanks for the reminder of Melrose Plant; I'm tempted to go reread Martha Grimes, now :). It's funny you would mention that particular time period. I happen to like it very much, too, so when your WIP is out, I'll be eager to read it for that reason (among many others, of course : ) ). That's one one of the many things I like about a lot of Ngaio Marsh's work - the era.

  5. Can I copy Elspeth's? I love Melrose. I even liked his wicked aunt.

    It seems now that a lot of cozy publishers are equating 'hook' with 'gimmick.' And I don't mean that in a pejorative way. But if you've got a scrapbooking mystery, a knitting mystery, a food mystery (guilty), or a philately mystery, that's your 'hook.' But I just think they're separate things! Thoughts?

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth,
    What an interesting question! Is food (a la the Hannah Swenson series) a "hook?" Are Standard Poodles (the Melanie Travis series)? I agree with you that they *are* separate. To me, knitting, food, Poodles, etc. are part of the settiing and the context, not the "Hook." Of course, I know people who love cats who've originally read Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... series because they like cats. But that aspect, to me, is just part of the context.

  7. I think it's often the characters that end up hooking me, although the mystery itself has to be very good, too. I really enjoy Penny's Gamache, and Grabenstein's Ceepak, and his narrator, Boyle.

    It's the reason why I continue to read Janet Evanovich, even though her books really aren't real mysteries any more. They're just pure fun, when you already know the characters.