For mystery writers, paranormal elements--used wisely--can be very effective storytelling tools.
When you crack open a romance novel, you know the main characters are going to fall in love and live happily ever after. It may take them a while to figure it out as, bickering, they get led astray by villains and hurl themselves over deep chasms to get back on course. But as a reader, you pretty much know how it's all going to turn out. Even in romantic suspense there's a fair level of security in reading the book as, although there is a bad guy throwing wrenches in the mix, you know who the bad guy is. (Otherwise you'd be reading a mystery novel.)
And that's why paranormal romances are so fun. Add a vampire, witch, seer or shape-shifter and you add a level of uncertainty to the proceedings. The reader has no idea how these characters are going to act in a given situation (hint: not normally) or how their world is going to collide with ours (badly, is a good guess) because they’re not quite like us. The stakes are raised, the hurdles are higher. And as millions of readers have discovered, this added element of mystery in a romance novel can really keep you flipping pages in to the wee hours of the morning.
Adding paranormal elements to a mystery novel is different though--isn’t it? Unlike a romance novel, the point of a mystery is that there’s already a lot of uncertainty. You don't know who the bad guy is. Or, apart from the unwritten guarantee that the murder will be solved, quite how it’s going to turn out. (Mystery novelists have a nasty habit of killing off characters just when you get attached to them.) Surely the mystery itself is exciting enough without having to add to the mysteriousness. But paranormal elements can be used for much more than simply adding to the unknown. For example:
Hiding clues. One of the hard parts of writing a mystery novel is hiding clues. We've all buried them in the middle of lists (“I knelt to the ground and helped Joan gather up the scattered contents of her purse: a comb, breath mints, lipstick, A GIANT GUN, hairspray and about three dollars all in pennies.”) But how much more devious to, say, literally hide them with a kleptomaniac dwarf who pops in and out of our dimension with a snap of his fingers? By the time he's snatched the heroine's favorite little black dress on page eight, her left dress shoe on page fifty and her diamond ring on page hundred and ten, you’ve forgotten he took that deceptively unimportant piece of paper on page 39. Or that there even was a deceptively unimportant piece of paper on page 39.
Revealing clues. Finding believable ways to have your sleuth discover key bits of information can be tricky, particularly if your sleuth isn’t a police detective or a PI. Oftentimes, this leads to making one's characters take absurd risks. (“So I shimmied up the fire escape and, ignoring the sound of the car pulling into the driveway, broke into Mr. Scary’s house.”) Or—and this is a pet peeve of many mystery readers I know--being unforgivably pushy. (“Hi, Mrs. Neighbor, so nice of you to invite me in for tea. I wonder… did your late husband like to dress in women's clothing?”) When you have a paranormal novel, you've opened the door to an infinite supply of ways for your sleuth to find stuff out. If, for example, your protagonist is a practicing witch, she could conjure up the dead person’s ghost to answer questions -- even better, the ghost can send your protagonist on all sorts of wild goose chases where she uncovers more clues.
Obfuscate the villains and good guys. A paranormal character is going to be different from everyone else. He or she (or it) is going to have different values, different goals…and unpredictable responses. Nonetheless, most readers will tend to assign human values to those characters, often in a predictable way the author can exploit for his or her own devious plotting needs. For instance, when a thousand gold bars disappear from the US Mint, a reader might assume that the (obviously power-hungry—look at the way he flounces around in dark robes!) warlock conjured them away. But perhaps this warlock doesn't intervene in petty human thievery. It is the author's job, of course, to play fair by making the warlock's true nature just clear enough at the time of the theft to make his eventual clearing unobjectionable. But making use of a reader’s mistaken assumptions is fair game.
Character development. A mystery novel is primarily about solving a murder. Oftentimes solving a murder requires delving into characters’ psyches, but you don't really need well-rounded characters to solve a mystery, and frankly, an author who spends too much time focusing on character development is going to lose sight of the main plot. On the other hand, without solid character development, your novel will be about as exciting as a phone book. (Fortunately for the reader, it would also be only about 50 pages long.) The trick is to develop your characters quickly. One of the ways to do this is by putting them in unusual situations and seeing how they react. For a cloistered nun, stopping for directions at a biker bar and getting embroiled in a knife fight would be an unusual situation. But you can't have all your characters be extreme examples of narrow segments of society. Here, adding paranormal elements can certainly be an advantage -- exposing your characters to otherworldly things and showing how they react is an efficient way to get a read on someone's character. And as a nice benefit, you can make your protagonist “normal” and still have him be interesting without having to make him a one-legged, gay misanthrope who raises goldfish.
Subplot. What’s a good mystery without a subplot to tweak the tension? Having paranormal elements in your novel can be a good opportunity for comic relief. When you pit a paranormal world against the real one, odd, inexplicable things are going to happen and you can have lots of fun with it. How do you explain to your mother that the detective you're dating is a werewolf? On the flipside, if the novel is hitting a slow spot, the paranormal aspect of your mystery can enhance the pathos, boost moral dilemmas and raise the stakes. What if what is seen as a gruesome murder in your world is seen as a beautiful ascension into the good life in another world? Is it still bad? Or what if a simple kiss were to bind you to someone for life in another world? Would you still do it?
Having said all this, a well-crafted book in any genre has no problem keeping a reader fully engaged. There's certainly no need to add vampires, ghosts or a shape shifting wolf-space alien from planet Xetwon in the fifth dimension to make a book exciting. But as a mystery writer, I like the way paranormal elements give me an unpredictable element to work with. It’s like having another tool in the toolbox.
And as a reader, let me just remind everyone that it’s tax time and I, for one, could use a shape shifting wolf-space alien from planet Xetwon in the fifth dimension to take me away from the gruesome specter of the IRS.
Liz Jasper is the author of the award-winning humorous paranormal mystery, UNDERDEAD. Her next novel, UNDERDEAD IN DENIAL is coming soon. For more information about Liz Jasper or her books, visit her website at www.lizjasper.com.