Friday, July 30, 2010

Casting A Wide Net: Scott Begs for Help

My writing project for this fall is a detective novella. I have no idea how it happened, but an eccentric detective character appeared almost full-blown in my imagination, and a few days later I had a setting, some characters including the victim and the murderer, and some other bits and bobs and now I've got a mystery sort of banging around in my head demanding to be written. But here's the thing: I've never written a mystery, and while I have read all the Holmes stories (when I was a kid) and I have also read a few (a very few) other mysteries, I really don't have much of a clue (sorry) about how to put one of these stories together.

In the last couple of months I've read four Agatha Christie "Poirot" books. I've read all of Iain Pears' "Jonathan Argyll" mysteries. And I'm sure I've read one or two other detective stories over the years, but I mostly don't remember who or what or when. Poe's "Rue Morgue" and "Purloined Letter," of course. "The Gold Bug," and that sort of thing.

The Christies are enjoyable enough, but I don't think I want to use her as my model for the story structure. I like her beginnings and I like her characters and some of her digressions are really very nice (the four or so pages about gardens in "Halloween Party" are gorgeous prose that any writer would be proud to have written), but the middles of her books are an inchoate hash of evidence and interviews and they bore me because there's no real story and no movement until Poirot is ready to confront the murderer. Also, you know, I'm not pleased as punch with the way Christie gets her detective to the solution to the mystery.

The Pears books are interesting and a bit more linear in their construction, but even though they have a good set of main characters (who doesn't love Flavia?), they seem a bit fluff. And I really hated the final book in the series, Mr. Pears. Hate is a strong word best used infrequently, and I use it here about your last art mystery book. Yes, I do.

Anyway, dear reader, I am a bit stuck. I don't know my genre well enough to go a-trolling for new ideas elsewhere, so I turn to you who are smarter and more widely-read than I am and ask for some recommendations. I'm looking at cosies, if I understand the term correctly, and not action-packed spy stories or serial killers or paranormal mysteries. More like modern classic detective novels, if you know what I mean. Maybe historical stuff (Dorothy Dunnett has been waved about in front of me while I dithered pointlessly) is it's a real detective-looks-at-evidence-and-human-nature stuff, new or old but probably I'm interested in what's going on now in the genre. I just don't know. Point me in a direction, I beg you.


  1. The Miss Marple stories by Christie are better--less sensational, by far, but better-reasoned.

  2. Sadly I can't help you. I'm not a big mystery reader. My mom is, though. I'll ask her if she's got any recommendations and get back to you.

    By the way, to hear you talk about your novella excites me. I've got my new novella idea running around in my head now.

  3. Pure mysteries aren't really my thing, but I do think you might find interesting Raymond Chandler's 1950 essay "The Simple Art of Murder," which is a criticism of the classic English-style detective story. It's available for free on the University of Texas's american literature website (a link is avaible in Wikipedia's Simple Art of Murder entry).

  4. Two I've enjoyed are Motherless Brooklyn and The Rain. Both stand well in the hardboiled mystery tradition and were liked by both critics and readers.

  5. Try Sue Grafton's Alphabet series. I started with 'A' is for Alibi but you can pick up any of them and have a go.

    Some people love them, some hate them. i find them to be enjoyable cozy reads. In any case, she has sold 20+ books and made bestsellers and world-wide fame, so obviously she's doing something right.

  6. Harlan Coben's TELL NO ONE and GONE FOR GOOD are both good mystery/suspense novels. They are more suspense than mystery, but he throws interesting twists in at the end, much more plausible than many of James Patterson's layered twists, which can run amok on the WTF meter.

  7. I was going to suggest the alphabet series too. Not because I've read them, but because I know they exist. If you get something like that going, you automatically have a contract for 26 books! OR, if you based a series on the digits of pi, you could even have 27!

  8. Dashiell Hammett's classic "The Maltese Falcon." Sam Spade is one of my absolutely favorites when it comes to hard-boiled detectives.

    If you need a different sort of inspiration, check out the video game "Heavy Rain."

    Of course, there's always Scooby-Doo!

  9. First - you're starting to think like me, and that's never (trust me on that one), never a good thing. How are you thinking like me? Well, I just finished the rough draft of . . . a mystery. I don't why I decided to write a mystery. It just sort of happened. Modern day - here/now (okay, a bit more generalized to take place at any here/now). I had a ball writing this.

    My normal mystery writers are: Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Goodman, though I am reading Conan Doyle right now.

    Higgins Clark - fast paced, modern day, keeps you guessing.

    Goodman - she normally does a story within a story, which is very intriguing. Her best, at least in my opion, is "The Ghost Orchid", but she hasn't written a bad book . . . yet.

    Have fun with your new idea.


  10. I love mysteries! They're so intriguing and intense. I love how the entire book your suspended over the answer but you can't see it until the end.


  11. A lot of the newer cozies are along the lines of the Agatha Raisin series by MC Beaton and the Mary Minor Harry Haristeen series by Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown. They have an often casual tone, characters that are off-beat, and stories that integrate the personal lives of the main characters to a high degree.

    For detective mysteries with a touch more suspense and a little bit more literary flavor, you might want to look at the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters

  12. ROFL@Davin and Vincent Kale: Scooby Doo, indeed!

    If my kid plays one more Nancy Drew video game I'm going to go insane...

    I also would suggest the ABC thingie not that I've read them but because my mother in law loves them and this is her favorite genre...

    I don't read mysteries (not since Encyclopedia Brown, anyway) so I'm afraid that the only thing I think of now when I think detective is Humphrey Bogart, Captain Picard as Dixon Hill (hello, fellow trekkies...) or Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently.

    So yeah...not my genre. I do like Bogie though.

    I love the idea of writing a detective story...I think I watched way too much Remington Steele as a kid.

    Good luck in your search...


  13. februaryfour: Maybe I'll give a Miss Marple a look, then. The more of Christie's books I read, the more highly I think of her as a writer (which, to be honest, surprises me).

    Michelle: Yes, ask around for me! If I figure out how to write this novella, it's going to be way cool. My detective is a Woman of Mystery. With a cigarette and a loaded pistol.

    Jabez: Yeah, I think Chandler would be a good place to look. I'll see about that essay. Thanks.

    Loren: I don't know if I want hardboiled, but then again, maybe I do. I hadn't so much thought of it but I've been meaning to read some Letham anyway. Thanks for the rec.

    Mesmerix: Thanks! I think that might be the sort of thing I'm after. I'm aware of this series, but I've never read any of them.

    Rick: I've heard of those books. Are they classic "whodunits" or are they more of the chase/escape school of suspense, if you know what I mean?

    Malasarn: The number line is infinite! Where's my contract?

    Vincent: I love Hammett! Thanks for reminding me; that's likely the sort of stuff I'm looking for.

    Scott: I will say this once, slowly and clearly: We Are Both Brilliant. Yes, we are.

    The Goodman sounds intriguing.

    How many margaritas per chapter did you consume while writing your mystery? I have to equal your progress, you know.

    xoxo: I love mysteries, too. It's only recently that I've let myself start reading more of them, because I had a certain image to maintain.

    Nevets: I'll see about your recommendations. But Cadfael! I love Cadfael, though I've only seen the PBS series with Derek Jacobi. Mighty Reader has told me that the books are better, and though I'm not looking at historicals, the stories seem to have the kind of more linear structure I'm seeking. Thanks!

    Drew: Oddly enough, Dirk Gently is sort of part of the mix in my head of what an entertaining detective should be. But I won't have aliens or time travel in my story, alas.

  14. You're talking my genre of choice. What's happening currently in the "cozy" subgenre is a whole lot of "hobby" type series featuring quirky characters in charming locales with a specific interest -- I've seen ones featuring knitting, quilting, bookbinding, gardening, dog-sitting, cooking, housecleaning, shopping (yes, shopping), chocolate, birds, blacksmithing, etc etc. These things are HUGE in the field. Another big trend of late are mysteries featuring a paranormal angle.

    The vast majority of current cozies feature an amateur woman sleuth with a specialized skill, set in a very specific region with colorful side characters/family members, who encounters a romantic interest along the way.

    One I recently read and enjoyed was "Homicide in Hardcover" by Kate Carlisle (ironically released solely in pb), featuring bookbinding. A little silly at times but gives you a good idea what the contemporary cozy is all about. Even better would be "Murder with Peacocks" by Donna Andrews which has many sequels but the first two (second is "Murder with Puffins") are the best.

    You could borrow Mighty Reader's ancient Rome series by Lindsey Davis -- while historical, the style is really more contemporary and it's a nice half-way point between cozy and hard-boiled.

    You could also read Mighty Reader's Sarah Caudwell series for a British flavor. Early Martha Grimes are also good.

    The structure is fairly standardized -- first third establishes heroine, side characters, setting, and victim. Murder happens early on. Middle portion is all about suspects, witnesses, interviews, clues, and the heroine getting into deeper trouble. There is often a second murder midway to 2/3 along. Final third is for the revelation of the killer, explanation of clues, and romantic resolution.

    Have fun!

  15. Mizmak: Apparently I should look on my own shelves at home! Mighty Reader has indeed already pointed me at some of these. I don't think I would enjoy reading or writing the "hobby" type stories. I felt my skin crawling when I read your descriptions of them.

    I get the overall structure of a mystery. It's mostly those middles that bother me. They're usually disorganized messes and I really have to work hard to push through them to the end. I'm hoping to find some structure that lets the evidence-gathering be less tedious and flailing. I know that subplots and romance are usually used to divert the reader's attention from the deluge of mostly unimportant clues, but I don't know if that's what I want to do. It's a puzzlement.

  16. A mystery novel with a detective at the center is hard to define as a "cozy," which really features an amateur crime solver as the main character (a detective being a professional crime solver).

    I've been on a big kick of reading recent award-nominated mysteries, and of those, I'd recommend Louise Penny's The Cruelest Month and Jo Nesbø's Nemesis. (Both are books in the middle of series, and the other books may be great as well. Nesbø's are originally in Norwegian and not all of them have been translated yet.)

    They both feature detectives as main characters.

    Good luck!

  17. Oh, and on the structural/middle side, I liked James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Mystery when I read it a few years ago. It's been a while, so I'm not sure if it addresses the sagging/twisting middle directly.

    Still, when I'm writing a mystery, I have a hard time coming up with clues/red herrings and parceling them out, too.

  18. Jordan: Then I guess I'm not really looking for a "cozy" recommendation, because I don't so much care for the amateur detective stories. The mystery genre is far more complicated than I thought it was. My book is going to be a "detective on vacation in a foreign country" story, so while she is a law enforcement professional, she will have no jurisdiction. Also, I'm using the device where you put all the characters into an isolated location, cut off from the rest of the world. Which, now that I think about it, is something I do in all of my novels. Huh. Never quite noticed that before now.

  19. The middle passage funk is I think why there has become the trope of the two-thirds-through second murder.

    But honestly the real key is that the gathering of the clues must be interesting in and of itself, because that's what mires down the middle.

    A lot of authors are good at introducing interesting characters, creating excitement around a murder, building up drama at the solution, and wrapping up the human narrative.

    But it's a lot more difficult for many authors to make the gathering of clues and interviewing of witness (etc.) actually interesting.

  20. Learning more about mysteries is something I've always meant to do. Not because I am contemplating writing one, but because I think a book of any genre can be strengthened if it has a mysteries/puzzles/suspense thrown in.

    Since I know less of the genre than you, I'll give a recommendation of a different kind.

    "Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel," by Lisa Zunshine. I've been meaning to blog about this book forever, it changed my life. It finally made me appreciate the genius of Woolf and Nabokov. It discusses the difference between history and fiction, autism and schizophrenia.

    And there is a whole section on detective novels.

    Granted, I don't know if having a theory of mind about detective novels will help you write them. But it will answer burning questions like, "how is reading a mystery like lifting weights?" and "how many liars is the best number of liars to have in a detective story?"

  21. Check out Dorothy Sayers. Erudite, witty, literate, tightly plotted, with incredibly three-dimensional characters and digressions to die for (including incunabula and ringing the changes).

  22. Tony Hillerman's books are really enjoyable. Down-to-earth detective/hero, real, believable stories. And a great sense of place and character.

  23. I'm not a good person to ask. I've not read much in the mystery genre. Good luck finding someone to emulate.

  24. Tara: Zunshine's book is in my "to be read" stack already! After I read her essay on O'Connor, I knew I had to read the whole book!

    delphipsmith: Sayers has also been recommended to me. I'll check her out; I think we have some at home already!

    Stephanie: I've heard good things about Hillerman, too. Gosh, now I have quite a long list of authors.

    Lois: You should join me in this expansion of taste exercise! Everyone: read outside of your favorite/usual genres during August! It's my Birthday Month; you must do as I command!

    Thanks to everyone who recommended something! There's nothing like asking 452 smart people for advice.

  25. Hi Scott,

    This is an exciting project - I LOVE murder mysteries (although televised more than in novel form), but the thought of getting through all that mush-mash of evidence in the middle is daunting, I agree!

    Have you thought about watching a few different murder mystery series, as a way of getting through some different styles quickly? If so, there are many I can recommend!

    You should look out some Midsomer Murders if you can - when I searched 'cosies' (as I'd not heard of the term), Google brought this back, but it is a proper detective rather than an amateur. And for detectives who don't wander aimlessly through the middle, try Waking the Dead. This is cold case specific, but for the most part the team really follow a trail of evidence rather than bumbling about. These are both English series - think you're in the US? Have you seen them over there?

    Alternatively, we've just started seeing a series called Sherlock, which is modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and looks very promising.

    If I think of any more (and if you want TV series recommendations) I'll let you know!

    Good luck :-)

  26. "You should join me in this expansion of taste exercise! Everyone: read outside of your favorite/usual genres during August! It's my Birthday Month; you must do as I command!"

    This might give me the gumption to go back to that YA novel that's sitting on my Kindle that I've wanted to read for awhile...after all, you commanded! :D


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