Here's today's question: in a mystery, which element is most important?

I know, I know: it's impossible to choose one. But just for fun, consider which element an author should work on most carefully. Plot? Character? Setting? Irony? Tone? Something else?

I actually have a pretty strong opinion on this one, and I'll express it on Monday, but (being a fair, open-minded sort) I'm willing to hear what everyone else thinks first. But be prepared for an argument!

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Comment by Dana King on February 8, 2009 at 4:52am
I'm the opposite. I read all of DVC, hated every minute of it. (Partly due to masochistic tendencies, and partly because someone asked if I'd read it because they wanted to know what I thought of it.) The writing, characters, and dialog were so amateurish, the plot couldn't save it, though I give him high marks for creativity in that regard.

On the other hand, I read ROSE by Martin Cruz Smith several years ago and loved it, all the way to the end, which I thought was very weak and killed the experience for me. Up to the final reveal, though, it was great.
Comment by Peg Herring on February 7, 2009 at 7:05am
I wasn't happy with the last MCSmith I read, something about Stalin's ghost, but the first few I read, especially Gorky Park & Polar Star, were wonderful. And I agree about Dan Brown--the ideas in DVCode are so much fun I didn't care if the characters were pancakes.
Comment by Eric Christopherson on February 7, 2009 at 6:00am
The truth of the matter is you can't perfectly separate any of these categories (but you left out theme and pace IMO). How do you separate voice from character, for example, in a first person novel?

I think honestly that the correct answer is that at least one of these elements of the novel has to dazzle to make a book a worthy read. You can even suck at everything else and I won't mind if at least one aspect dazzles. If every last element is workmanlike then I rarely if ever truly enjoy the read.

A guy like Dan Brown, whose characterization and descriptive skills make me barf, is always worth a read IMO because his plotting and pacing is indeed dazzling. A guy like Martin Cruz Smith, maybe my favorite living mystery/suspense writer, is good at virtually everything (although plot is his relative weakness, but that's like saying Willie Mays's weakest skill was base running, he could outrun most everyone). With Chandler it's all about the voice; I'm not sure he dazzled at anything else, surely not plot. I could go on. What I can't do is answer this question in the manner posed. Glad you asked it though.
Comment by Dana King on February 7, 2009 at 4:17am
Tone (or voice) is probably most important to me. A lot of things play into that--it's hard for me to imagine a book with the tone I like that doesn't place me in the setting with believable characters who soeak the way real people speak--but if I like how the story slides through my brain, I can forgive a lot of things.

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