Behind the Scenes of Mystery Fiction Writing

A Live Chat with Professor David Schmid, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo

On November 10, 2016, Professor David Schmid sat down for a live Q&A session about mystery fiction with his fans from across the globe.  The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

photo of Professor David Schmid
Professor David Schmid

Professor Schmid: Hello everyone! I’m very much looking forward to answering your questions.  And just in case you were wondering… I’m completely innocent!  It was the butler that did it!

H0RR0R: I love psychological thrillers.  What is the greatest horror movie in recent times?

Professor Schmid: I would say The Babadook which was directed by Jennifer Kent and came out in 2014.  That is the one I enjoy the most because it explores the psychology of the mother and her relationship with her son.

WHODUNIT: What mystery or suspense book most influenced or changed the genre?

Professor Schmid: I would have to go with Edgar Allan Poe’s three foundational tales: The Murders in the Rouge Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter.  Although Poe didn’t realize it at the time, he was creating the genre of mystery fiction when he was publishing those three stories.  In those three stories there are many elements that went on to become foundational aspects of the genre which makes the aspects of the story so influential.

video graphic on Edgar Allan Poe.

THERESE L BRODERICK: How do authors manage the challenge of writing mystery and suspense fiction nowadays, plots set in contemporary society, when almost NO mystery exists anymore, given the ubiquity of security cameras, cell phones, citizen journalism, etc.?

Professor Schmid: I think the first thing I would say is mystery genre has just as much variety in it today, if not more so. So this means that you have mysteries with historical settings, you can travel back in time, but in contemporary mysteries, even though we live in a society where mystery seems not to exist, writers have even more creativity and ability to expand on current themes.


DAVE: Hi, Dr. Schmid and thanks for doing this. I bought your course and am looking forward to watching it. You cover mysteries and suspense stories, but I wonder if you talk about thrillers as well.

Professor Schmid: We do talk about thrillers in the course, but we focus on the classical types of mystery fiction.  They are a crucial part of the genre and we do touch on them.

LANNY: What are some of your favorite mystery novels?

Professor Schmid: “Sherlock Holmes” stories, the works of Jim Thompson because they’re twisted, wonderful and he teaches well.  My third choice is Meg Abbot who is making fascinating choices on scenery.

graphic of audience poll asking question "Who would win in a detective throw down?"

ASPIRING ACADEMIC: How did you get into this area of study? Was it a slow evolution or did one book/movie drag you into the genre?

Professor Schmid: I’ve always read mysteries ever since I was a kid. But I didn’t think I would get to teach them or write about them as an academic.  Many years ago I started teaching classes on mystery fiction, and they turned out to be really popular with students so I kept teaching them.  I got more and more involved with the genre and it took off from there.

LIZ BROWN: Do you think Stieg Larsson was a misogynist?

Professor Schmid: Personally, no.  I think part of the evidence for that is the original title for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was “Men Who Hate Women.”  I believe he wanted to focus on misogyny and by making the main character’s enemy a misogynist, he could really explore the topic.  I believe the idea gets a bit lost in translation.

JFSJ: When did the idea of a “red herring” start in mysteries?

Professor Schmid: Very early.  I think you can find it even in Edgar Alan Poe, though it wasn’t called a red herring at the time.  I’m not sure where the phrase came from, but the idea that the mystery writer puts in false clues and tries to trick the writer has been there since the beginning of the genre.  It’s a competition between the author and the reader.  The red herring is part of the author’s bag of tricks and the author uses it to try to throw off the reader.  The master of this technique is still undoubtedly Agatha Christie.

video graphic about Agatha Christie

 G7R2: What’s your opinion on “choose your own adventure” books?

Professor Schmid: Personally, I’m not a fan of them, but I think it’s a really interesting concept because in mystery/suspense genre, the author is trying to make the reader part of the action.  Those books are just a natural extension of that.

1LLUM1NAT1: I used to love Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen, Trixie Beldon, and Nancy Drew.  What are some modern versions of kid-friendly mysteries to introduce my children to this genre?

Professor Schmid: That’s a great question.  I’m going to have to plead the 5th on that one. T hat is one area that we do not cover in the course.  I think that the titles you mentioned are exceptional, and they really haven’t gone out of style. I would recommend them to kids today.

MISS FISCHER: Why do mystery writers give detectives such profound flaws?  They are often addicts of some sort or simply have deplorable personalities.

Professor Schmid: I think it’s because these flaws make them more interesting characters and make it easier to be relatable.  Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine use and other quirks allow readers to become affectionate to his character.  The eccentricities are absolutely necessary to connect with these authors.

photo of Professor Schmid on set during filming.
Professor Schmid on the set of his new course The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction.

WHODUNIT: What’s the difference between mystery and suspense?  Can you have one and not the other?

Professor Schmid:  Yes, you can.  I think the main difference is that the mystery revolves around some kind of puzzle that the reader wants to see solved and ordinarily the mystery finishes with the resolution of that puzzle. Suspense narratives by contrast can be more open and more inconclusive and do not necessarily depend on the presence of a puzzle.

JFSJ: How do true-crime authors get such intimate details and full conversations?

Professor Schmid: Very often true crime writers have a connection to law enforcement, or they have some kind of relationship with people in the business.  As for conversations, a lot of conversations come from case files or interviews.  Other than that, many conversations are merely made up!  It’s key to keep in mind that fiction is a big part of true crime stories.

SAULT: After reading lots of mystery and suspense, I’ve gotten good at figuring out the endings.  Can you share a few books that deliver really good, unexpected endings?

Professor Schmid: I would say in general the novels of Jim Thompson.  One of the things I like about his work is that the resolution is so unexpected.  And the other person I would recommend is Patricia Highsmith.  Many people would not regard her novels as conventional mysteries, and they are not, but her conclusions are so thought provoking.

graphic of audience poll asking "what kind of mystery do you prefer?"

JTR??: Will Jack the Ripper ever be discovered?

Professor Schmid: My feeling is no, and that’s a good thing.  I say that because, the whole reason why people are interested in this even today, is because the perp has never been identified.  If we reach a point where we can say conclusively that “this person is Jack the Ripper,” it will become just like any other case.  But I don’t believe that will happen.  There’s no way to know with 100% certainty who committed these murders.

Kirsten: Can you recommend some lesser-known series or authors for someone who reads mysteries extensively?

Yes, I can.  The one author I’d recommend very highly is a female author who published mostly in the 50s and 60s by the name of Margaret Millar.  She wrote a wonderful series of novels, and they mostly feature a female protagonist.  And the other person I’d recommend is a writer by the name of Derek Raymond.  But I must warn you that his work is quite dark and extremely violent.

ASPIRING ACADEMIC: What makes for a compelling story that lasts the ages? It seems that once you solve the mystery, the thrill is over.  Why can some books/characters be reread and still remain fresh?

Professor Schmid: The key is the characters!  Even if you’re reading a narrative where the solution is obvious, you keep coming back to it because the characters and setting are vivid and memorable.  Take Sherlock: you may know the solution, but the writing takes you deep into Edwardian England.  The great Raymond Chandler once said, “the definition of a good mystery is a book that you would still read even if the last 10 pages were missing.

video graphic comparing detective and criminal

 BIG RED HERRING: If mystery genre were a cake, what kind would it be?

Professor Schmid: Layered cake, or maybe one of those cakes where something bursts out before you cut it.  The genre has so many forms that we can select any of them for our individual tastes.

1LLUM1NAT1: What is the difference between a “thriller” and a “suspense” or even a “mystery”?  For example, is John Grisham considered to be a writer in the mystery and suspense genre?  What about Dan Brown?

Professor Schmid: Absolutely.  Dan Browns finds a way to combine suspense with mystery.  And it comes down to asking, “is there a puzzle that needs to be solved?”  And if there is, usually you are looking at a mystery.  If there is no puzzle but instead a race against time, or a chase, or a conspiracy, then it’s more likely you are looking at thriller or suspense mystery.  Like I said there can be overlap between the genres.

BIGLY: Where’s the creepiest place you’ve gotten to research?

Professor Schmid: Hmmm… I once went to the suburban Chicago neighborhood where John Wayne Gacey used to live.  The creepiest thing was that the neighborhood looked so “normal.”  I believe mystery fiction understands the fact that evil can be staring us in the face, but we don’t recognize it because it looks so ordinary.

TACOTRUCKS4EVA: Would you consider HH Holmes as America’s first serial killer?

Professor Schmid: Yes and no.  What I mean is that yes, there’s a good case that you can describe him in     that way, but I also want to add technically speaking that term ‘serial killer’ doesn’t come into use until the 1960s.  It’s important to understand that people of the time did not have that category at their disposal so they would have thought about that person and their crime in different ways.

graphic of audience poll asking "what character would you be in a mystery?"

CURIOUS: What makes an ideal villain?

Professor Schmid:  Someone who’s complicated.  I believe the worst villains are like cardboard cut-outs; they’re defined only by their evil and their acts.  The best villains remind us of ourselves, of people we know, and even of the hero.  The best mystery novels play with this and something about the character both attracts and repels us.

SOFIA PATRILLO: Are there any cartoon or animated mysteries that you enjoy?

Professor Schmid: I must admit, none come to mind immediately.  I am quite fond of graphic novel mystery and crime narratives especially if they are true crime related.  But I find what appeals to me about mystery narratives is being able to imagine what is happening.  And when that is laid out before me, I find it less interesting.  I like to envision the mystery in my own mind.

THERESE L BRODERICK: What are some examples of new labels recently assigned to sub-categories or sub-genres of innovative mystery and suspense novels? For example, do “Twitter mysteries” exist?

Professor Schmid: We certainly can make “twitter mysteries” a thing!  Just like “flash fiction,” where you have a very small space to create a story, could be applied to mystery and suspense fiction.  My favorite example is knitting mysteries.  Within that niche, it sells really well and the genre can go whichever way the fans want it to go.

video still of Professor Schmid on set.
Professor Schmid on the set of his new course, The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

 MISTER MYSTERY: What was the worst mystery story you ever read?

Professor Schmid: I’m going out on a limb to say the worst mystery suspense work I ever read was by Dan Brown.  I can’t stand Dan Brown and the reason I can’t stand him is because he’s boring and predictable, but the main reason he’s the worst is because he has an incredibly low opinion of his readers.  What I mean is that I can’t think of any other writer who has a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.  It’s as if he can’t trust his readers to keep reading unless he they have that motivation.

GEORGE LIGHT: For me James Patterson and his 120+ 2 page chapter books.

TACOTRUCKS4EVA: Do you ever get nightmares from these books?  Or are you immune by now?

Professor Schmid:  NEVER!  I never had a nightmare from anything I’ve read or watched.  Not sure what that says about me, but I’m able to compartmentalize.  I notice dialog, how the book uses the convention of the genre, and the characters.  For example, the first time I saw Silence of the Lambs, I was the guy in the front row taking notes.  I got a lot of strange looks that day.

Professor Schmid: Thanks so much for your great questions everyone!  It’s been a real pleasure and as Sam Spade once said, “Success to crime!”

Posted below is a link to download a list of all (or nearly all!) of the books that Professor Schmid mentions in his course The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction. Happy reading and stay tuned for future recommendations!

David Schmid is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY).  His lecture series The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction is now available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.