Reflections: The Twelve Bar Mystery

A classic mystery plot, in which a cop or a detective solves a crime, follows a time-tested pattern, much as most blues music follows a distinctive 12 bar pattern (“Twelve Bar Mystery”). A “bar” here is a measure of time with a specific number of beats.  For dance music: 4 beats to the bar.

When you read a good mystery novel you have a general notion how the story will evolve, even if you’re uncertain exactly how it will do so. (Good guys win; bad guys lose.) You’re on familiar terrain, but the path forward is unknown.  And so you want to keep reading.

The classic mystery, with its purposeful misdirection and head fakes, can be an effective tool in other literary genres, just as the insertion of what musicians call a blues lick (a short series of notes played in a certain stylized pattern) can make a non-blues tune sound better.

Here’s an example of a plot development in a story that doesn’t fit the classic cop/detective mystery.

Our main character hears a knock on his hotel room door.  He’s been sitting in his underwear on this lumpy unmade bed for hours. Drinking scotch. Waiting. The person or thing he has been expecting and nervously anticipating has arrived.  Finally. Abandoning caution he flings open the door only to find….

That, of course, is where the plot thickens—or twists.  The guy is surprised, or confused, or terrified.  Whichever of these occurs, the reader is there at that open door. If it’s done right, the reader keeps turning pages.

I often use this plot device in my own writing.

In my most recent novel, Big Law, the reader will come across a mystery lick or two designed to keep the reader guessing and hopefully surprised when the truth is revealed.  If I did it right, I will have all those classic mystery writers who have perfected the genre to thank for their direction, which allowed me to engage in some literary misdirection.