Wednesday, November 18, 2015

by E.E. Kennedy

I describe myself as a “Christian Mystery Writer.” (Indeed, all the members of Suspense Sisters identify themselves as Christian.) I put the word in every one of my bios, because it’s of primary importance to me. But to some, “Christian” and “murder mystery” seem to be a contradiction in terms. Even a pastor at our church said jokingly the other day, “Don’t write about too much blood and gore!” He was kidding,  of course, but since I know he hasn’t had the time to read my books, I think he half meant it.
The covers and titles of my books don’t help to correct the impression, either: Irregardless of Murder’s cover features a tastefully-dressed, but presumably dead young woman and there’s a definite corpse on the cover of Murder in the Past Tense. While Death Dangles a Participle’s cover merely shows a mysterious lunchbox and a battered VW, the title isn’t one that you would often find in our church library and I’m not even going to get into a description of the bloodstained scene on the cover of Incomplete Sentence!

So what is meant by Christian mystery? What does that look like? How is the work different from other mysteries? Of course, I can’t speak for every member of the Suspense Sisters, but I believe there are a few identifiable threads running through our work. (Some of these traits are found in secular mysteries, too.)

1)    Dignity. Though characters must have plenty of faults and weaknesses to become three-dimensional in the reader’s mind, each one should also be afforded dignity; there should never be total disdain. For instance, the school nurse Judith Dee in Irregardless of Murder is an incorrigible gossip, but this trait expresses itself in a strong sense of compassion. Judith does more than talk about people; she actually offers concrete help. Despite her oddly outdated beehive hairdo, she is still a woman to be respected.

2)    Imperfection. As mentioned above, characters are imperfect, in keeping with the Bible assertion that everyone sins and is need of redemption. Even my main character Amelia is obviously judgmental, with a condescending attitude, though she usually keeps her thoughts to herself. Her friend Lily is vain, stubborn, and overly critical. Amelia’s husband Gil has a weak side when it comes to his waning career. In many cases, Scripture and prayer help the characters overcome their weaknesses, but it doesn’t always come easily—for the sake of a good story!

3)    Mercy. To me, though evil is very real, each person—even a villain--is loved by God. I think it’s important to try to understand what motivates someone to turn to evil and to even show mercy at some point, though it’s not always possible to make a villain’s motives clear. In Incomplete Sentence, Amelia is confronted by an overwhelmingly evil villain, but has the opportunity to show compassion at a pivotal moment, because of her strong Christian beliefs. Even I, as the author, was surprised by this turn of events. I had originally pictured a very violent scene.

4)    Language. I can’t speak for everyone, but since I identify as Christian, I feel an obligation to avoid blatantly vulgar and blasphemous language wherever possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t allude to it indirectly, however. (“The voice growled an oath and the pressure on my neck tightened.”) Some may look on even referring to such language as a cop-out, but since it is something we encounter in real life, I ask for the reader’s indulgence in this case.

5)    Violence. Here’s where some people have a problem with mystery writers. “But why murder?” they might ask, “Why not write about a jewel theft instead?” It’s a valid point, but here’s my explanation: to take someone else’s life is the most unabashed defiance of God’s creation. It’s the destruction of what He loves most, and it demands justice.  A murder in a mystery story lends urgency to the solving of the puzzle as nothing else does.

Christianity is based on justice. In taking our punishment, Christ bridged the deep gap between God and sinner. This is the ultimate resolution. Devising plots for a whodunit and bringing the "who" to justice is, for me, a tiny resolution of my own and gives me great satisfaction. However, as a writer of what is termed “cozy” mysteries, I make sure that the violence takes place primarily off-stage, out of the reader’s view. This classic method was used by Agatha Christie and remains popular today.

6)    Sacrifice. Among the characters and red herrings (falsely-accused suspects), self-sacrifice is found in the most unusual places: a nurse is willing to literally give up part of herself; a broken-down actor risks his health to save a woman in labor; a teacher who is deathly afraid of heights goes out on a ledge to save a student. There are potential heroes all around us in real life. Why not in fiction?

7)  Faith without apology. Amelia has no problem with prayer or Scripture. Indeed, it saturates her life and she never soft-pedals or dilutes it.
I advise people who want to become authors to write in a genre that they themselves enjoy. For me, it’s cozy mystery. For others, it might be science fiction or spy thrillers. But beware! Whatever you write about is--if you pour yourself into it--bound to reveal a great deal about what you believe and where your heart is. I know the Suspense Sisters (and our esteemed “Suspense Mister,” Dr. Richard Mabry) evidence their overarching faith in every book.
Is there another trait you look for in Christian mystery writing? Let us know at the comment section below. Thanks!
Ellen, left, also writes scripts and performs with the
Christian Car Guy Theater, Saturdays on the Truth Radio Network
E.E. Kennedy (Ellen Kennedy) is the author of the Miss Prentice cozy mystery series about a high school English teacher living in the Adirondacks of NYS. The fourth book in the series, Incomplete Sentence, is scheduled to be released by Sheaf House Books February 1. For sample chapters and lots of other fun goodies, check out her website:



1 comment:

  1. Ellen, You've listed some excellent traits of a Christian mystery. When asked to define it even more simply, I said I write novels I wouldn't mind my wife, mother, or daughter reading. Thanks for the post.