When Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont held its debut Festival of Mystery, there were five writers and 22 fans in attendance.
Last year, the 13th edition of the event featured 41 writers and more than 350 readers.
"It's like opening up a new bookstore and closing it within 24 hours," says Mary Alice Gorman, the owner of the bookshop who will host the festival Monday at the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont.
The passion mystery fans have for writers has made the festival a regional event, according to Gorman. This year, she's heard from a man from the state of Indiana who is bringing his wife to the festival as a birthday gift.
What is it about mystery fiction that incites such devotion among fans? Several writers attending this year's festival have different thoughts on the subject.
"I think every good mystery, whether light or dark, is a combination of page-turning plot, vivid and real characters and a setting that transports the reader to another time or place," says Rhys Bowen, the San Francisco-based, English-born author of the Constable Evans and Molly Murphy mystery series, and an Edgar Award winner.
So that's the appeal of mystery: the trifecta of plot, character and setting.
But what is most important?
Marcia Talley, an Agatha and Anthony award-winning mystery writer from Annapolis, Md., thinks a good mystery novel starts with a strong detective, sleuth or private eye.
"If a character is three-dimensional, someone I truly care about, I'll stick with that character all the way 'til the end of the book," Talley says. "Will she/he solve the crime? Will she/he elude the killer? I have to know! If one doesn't care about the characters, not even the strongest plot is going to save a book. And I'm not just talking about the heroes and heroines here. Even the bad guys have to have some redeeming qualities, otherwise who cares what happens to them? I think that's why I stopped watching 'The Sopranos' after the first several brilliant seasons. Tony Soprano became inexplicably mean, so I stopped inviting him into my living room."
Elaine Viets, the South Florida-based author of the "Dead-End Job" mystery series, agrees that character comes first. Because her stories dovetail into the tradition of Agatha Christie's cozies (so called because of the bloodless crimes and lack of sex and violence) readers need to invest themselves in the characters she creates or "they are not going to slog through a book for some 300 pages," Viets says.
"Readers have to want my heroine (Helen Hawthorne, who works a variety of dead-end jobs) to solve the mystery. They need to root for her and see that justice is done for the victim, even a dislikeable victim."
Plot has become almost an afterthought for many contemporary mystery novels in favor of strong characters, …