Solving the Middle-Grade Mystery

Greg Hunter, Associate Editorial Director
A couple of weeks ago, C.M. Surrisi, author of this spring’s hilarious, suspenseful middle-grade whodunit Vampires on the Run: A Quinnie Boyd Mystery, asked me what I thought made the middle-grade mystery novel unique. I probably responded with more verbiage than needed, but here’s a crack at the answer:
Much of what we think of as the mystery genre is scaffolding. And that’s no bad thing—where would we be without scaffolding? On the ground, many of us, after falling from some high place because there weren’t enough foot planks or supportive rails in our area.
In the case of a mystery, I’m talking about what readers want and expect from a mystery, the things that make a story recognizable as part of a larger tradition. The setup, the emergence of suspects, the red herring, the dramatic final reveal. Part of the pleasure in reading these stories is proceeding along a track we recognize.
Then, of course, there’s the other part. The characters, the color, and the details of a crime that make a story feel novel, new, even generous—and that speak to a particular audience. Roses and tomatoes both grow along a trellis, but only one says romance. And scaffolding matters, but it doesn’t determine what you grow.
The middle-grade mystery distinguishes itself here, in the other part. While a hard-boiled detective might be set in his or her whiskey-soaked ways after years of disillusion, the lead character in a middle-grade mystery comes to us in a transitional state—old enough to bristle at being dismissed as a kid, but not old enough to even drive, much less open an agency or be haunted by unsolved cases from years gone by. The mystery can be, among other things, a glimpse of (or an early entrée into) adulthood. And a middle-grade mystery puts meaningful limitations on its crime-solver. The Continental Op tends to go where he wants. Hercule Poirot even gets invited most of the time. But although the middle-grade sleuth may not like it, he or she often still has a curfew.
The careful writer of middle-grade mysteries observes these limitations and recognizes them for what they are: opportunities. Additional ways for a character to show his or her resourcefulness, and for a story to lend readers insight into a particular stage of life. In a way, the age of the middle-grade mystery’s characters and audience makes for scaffolding within scaffolding, a narrower-than-usual set of parameters for the storyteller, but again, that’s no bad thing. It all depends on how you want your garden to grow.
Any other thoughts on what makes middle-grade mysteries stand out? Share them with us in the comments! And be sure to check out Vampires on the Run for an example of the MG mystery at its finest.

2 thoughts on “Solving the Middle-Grade Mystery

  1. Judy Roberts

    Middle-grade detectives also tend break a few rules and get themselves into trouble, making their stories less believable to parents, teachers and otherwise helpful adults! Thanks for a great article.

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