Learning to read critically has been an enormous help to me as a writer. I’ve learned more from analyzing published novels than any how-to book could have taught me. An extraordinary book may silence my inner critic at the conscious level, but even when I’m swept up in a story some part of my mind is cataloguing the book’s flaws and virtues and making note of techniques I might use in my own work. Here are the points I have in mind when I read a mystery or suspense novel. If you’re an aspiring mystery writer, I hope they’ll be of some use to you.
If the book has a prologue, is it necessary and effective? Would the book open as effectively without it?
Does the book start with character or mystery? Does it start quickly or slowly? If the book opens with character, how long does it take for the mystery to get underway? What changes, if any, would make the story’s beginning more compelling?
How does the author’s writing style contribute to the mood of the story?
Is the pace well-varied? Or does the pacing begin to seem monotonous after awhile? Does the writer have several similar scenes in a row? Does the pace ever seem too hurried? What techniques does the writer use to achieve a mood or an emotional impact through pace?
Does the writer overuse his or her pet techniques?
What is the ratio of physical action to quieter scenes? The proportion of personal scenes and pure mystery-solving scenes? Would the book benefit from more character exploration and less action, or vice versa? Is the mystery story interrupted at the wrong moments by personal scenes?
Is the setting integral to the story, or could the events take place anywhere? How does the writer use setting to create mood or suspense? Does the writer use too much description or not enough?
Use sticky notes to mark scenes of violence, danger, or other high tension. Are they sparse or plentiful, spaced-out or close together? Do they all move the story forward, or do some seem thrown in just to liven things up?
Does the introduction of the main character immediately give a “feel” for the person? Does the writer provide enough physical description to allow the reader to visualize the character? Are character traits shown through action or simply listed?
Does the protagonist have a strong, clear motivation to investigate? If the main character is a professional, does s/he also have a personal reason to solve the case? Is the character’s involvement believable?
How much background does the writer offer about the main character? How is it presented — woven in or given in an expository chunk? Is the presentation of background effective, or intrusive?
How much does the reader learn about the victim? Does the author try to make the reader care about this person’s fate? If not, what other aspects of the story make up for the lack of a sympathetic victim?
Are the secondary characters well-developed? Does the writer vary the way characters are introduced and described?
Does the protagonist change in any way during the story?
Solving the crime
Do the suspects come across as likely or unlikely murderers? What does the writer do to make the reader suspect or dismiss each person?
Are clues too obvious? Does the lead character seem stupid for overlooking any clues?
Will readers solve the crime before the sleuth does?
Is the ending credible and satisfying? Does it flow from the book’s events, or does it seem to come out of nowhere? Does the writer use a confrontation scene to let the killer explain his/her actions? If so, how well does this work? Does it seem natural or forced? Are any loose ends left dangling?