It is the quandary of mystery writing. Which is more important to readers–and writers–of mysteries? The Character-driven story or the Plot-driven one?
This is not to say that character-driven stories don’t feature a strong puzzle plot or plot-driven stories can’t have good characterizations. Generally though, most mysteries fall to one side or the other.
Agatha Christie is perhaps best known for strong puzzle plots that challenge the “little grey cells” of readers the world over. However, she’s not known for portraying fully realized characters that are considered de rigueur in today’s mysteries. Yet her phenomenal success–the best selling author after the Bible and Shakespeare–is perhaps a testament to the appeal that a puzzle oriented plot offers.
On the other end of the pendulum, recently reviewed novels on this site, like Death at La Fenice and An Expert in Murder, were far more focues on the characters. These, and novels like them, delve far more into the psyche of the people populating their stories. As a result, the murder plot generally develops at a slower pace, and in many cases, it isn’t as much about the how as much as it is about the why. These character-driven stories tend not to have much mystery in them. This makes them either easy to solve because the whodunit needs to flow believably through the characters or impossible to solve because there just aren’t enough clues–and many times they prove circumstantial at best–provided.
Granted this is all a bit of an over-simplification. Many mysteries tend to include both aspects, though most recent fare tends to lean toward the character side of things. But I think it raises an interesting question. Which is preferred? Which suits the genre best?
I like well-written characters, but I really enjoy a challenging puzzle. Perhaps I’m reading the wrong books, but in most recent reads–books published in the last two decades–the mystery almost seems to take a back seat to the antics or angst of the characters involved.
So in a first here on The Poisoned Martini, give voice to your opinions and vote! Choose your preference in the poll at right.