I promised my answer to the question of which element is most important. Even though I admitted it was an impossible question, I asked for your best answer. Now here's mine.

In mystery, I argue that plot is most important. The whole premise of mystery is a story in which the reader must follow the plot and solve the crime before or along with the protag. If follows then that without a good plot, we don't have a mystery at all. As Dana pointed out, there are lots of successful writers who care less about plot than other elements, but I'd say that they lean into other realms and aren't purely mystery writers. Some of them are great and I love them, but for me, if the plot doesn't measure up, I'm disappointed. The murderer who has a pathetically weak motive, the contrived means/motive, or the key fact that the reader could not have known spoil everything. Like my old pal E.A. Poe, I want the plot in a mystery to move inexorably to an end, sweeping me along with it, which is where character and all the rest become important. But without a compelling plot, it's just good writing.

Today's challenge, then: name three books where the plot was so cunningly created that you HAD to know what happened next, not just at the hook, but all the way through. (I don't care if they're mysteries or something else.) I found that with Wren's BEAU GESTE when I was about 16 years old, and more recently with WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman, and Barbara Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. That's to name just a few, of course, but they all kept me reading, pushing everything else back while I found out what happened in the end.

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Comment by Bob on February 21, 2009 at 8:13am
Sean Chercover quote "I think my inability to outline may be a blessing in disguise. " Without an outline, the plot evolves as Ray Dudgeon drives the story. I agree "Big City, Bad Blood" and "Trigger City" are excellent reads, but they oppose the premise that plot is the most important.

Comment by I. J. Parker on February 10, 2009 at 8:05am
Don't care about the charming person. Care about the book. For that matter Barry Eisler is very cute also.
Comment by Peg Herring on February 10, 2009 at 7:04am
And Mark Billingham is such a charmer in person, too!
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 10, 2009 at 4:29am
I know Chercover is very good. Will have a look at the others.
Comment by Dana King on February 10, 2009 at 12:52am
I was lucky enough to read four books that fit your description within six weeks last year. TRIGGER CITY by Sean Chercover, IN THE DARK by Mark Billingham, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE by John McFetridge, and THE BIG O by Declan Burke. The best part is that none of these books were what I would call plot driven; they're full of characters who drive the story, even when it's being driven in strange directions.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 10, 2009 at 12:21am
There are lots of different types of mysteries. I dislike plot-driven ones, especially if I'm challenged to solve some puzzle that appears impossible. (Just tossed a book by Baantyer that started with a murderer announcing his plan to kill someone and then setting up a meeting with the detective at the precise time when the murder happens. This is just not the sort of thing that happens in real life. It's a game.)

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