Every mystery-writer's blog party needs a post with general How-To's, right? Or at the very least, guidelines from the best on what comprises an excellent mystery. Sorry to break it to you (and me) but usually our entirely wonderful idea for a mystery is not near as complicated, baffling, and intricate as it needs to be. We're looking for more Poirot, less Nancy Drew.
Earlier this fall I was in the library and stumbled across P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction. Yes, that's a title of a book - I didn't actually stumble across her inside my podunk library literally talking about detective fiction. If I had, that would have come into a blog post far earlier than this! Anyway, it was through reading that little book that my love for mysteries was rekindled, and I got the bug to write one of my own. It's less a How-To and more of a sweeping view of the history of detective fiction, and what makes a mystery good. I copied 7 1/2 pages of quotes into my writing journal just because they were so wonderful and if the copy had been mine, you can be sure it'd be criss-crossed with underlinings and notes. (Much to the horror of some of my comrades who NEVER write in books, I am an avid underliner. Neatly, though.) I sat down to write a post about the essential components of a mystery novel and then I realized that P.D. James is a much better authority on the subject, so I am pilfering quotes from her book and presenting them to you with comment by yours truly.
"One function of the setting is to add credibility to the story...if we believe in the place we can believe in the characters. In addition, the setting can from the first chapter establish the mood of the novel, whether of suspense, terror, apprehension, menace, or mystery. We have only to think of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, of that dark and sinister mansion set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be to the establishment of atmosphere. The Hound of Wimbledon Common would hardly provide such a frisson of terror." -P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction
"The detective, whether professional or amateur, needs a domestic setting if the reader is to fully enter fully into his life, and most writers provide for their detective a known and familiar place in which he can be at home." -Ibid.I have to admit that I love to know about the characters' home-life. Which reader, having read Sherlock Holmes would be content to visit London without trying to find 221B Baker Street? Or, having read Miss Marple would fail to look up St. Mary Mead, only to discover Agatha Christie had invented the place? And yet, she wrote the village so realistically that many have been fooled, I'm sure. In creating Whistlecreig Manor and its "feudal" village, I hope to create a vivid, familiar society for Vivi and Farnham that my readers will grow to love. In keeping with the theme of atmosphere, I love James's advice as to writing the scene of finding the body:
"When an author describe a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found, the description can tel the perceptive reader a great deal about the victim's character and interest...for this reason the place in which the body is found is particularly revealing, and I regard the description of the finding of the body as one of the most important chapters of a detective novel."In another bit of P.D. James's book, I cracked up at her recital of Ronald Knox's mantra for detective fiction:
"...the criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used or, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation. No Chinamen must figure in the Story. No accident must help the detective, no is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader, and his thoughts should not be concealed. And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been duly prepared for them."This passage is generally a good example of avoiding cliches. I think the reference to Chinamen referred to hard feelings toward Asians in the 20's-30's (during the golden era of detective fiction) rather than any reason why including an Asian antagonist would be poor mystery-writing nowadays. She continues with general guidelines for writing a plausible mystery that I have already found most helpful:-Ibid
"The suspects should, I feel, be sufficient in number to provide the puzzle, and more than five is difficult if each is to be a credible living and breathing human being with motives that the reader will find convincing."-and-
"What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually a murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motives, means, and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.""...deceptive cunning but essential fairness." I love that line because on it hangs the whole of detective fiction. Writers of mysteries have the responsibility of presenting all the clues (I feel like Conan Doyle broke this rule frequently) and yet disguising them in such a way that their readers seldom guess the solution. My brother was always the one to figure out the mystery; I preferred watching the clues arise and then come into one big, baffling, beautiful solution at the very end.
I have no idea why I thought I ought to be the one to create a big, baffling, beautiful solution. And yet, I'm extremely anxious to see what comes of Vivi & Farnham and I love the power behind deciding a Who What When Where Why and then complicating it on purpose to baffle your dear little brains. I'm going to have such fun with this and I'm not going to tell my brother (Daniel) or my sister (Sarah) the answer to the mystery...if I can keep them guessing, I'll have met my goal.
Deceptive cunning, essential fairness.
Thanks, P.D. James. You're an inspiration and I do wish I could literally stumble into you in my library and ask your opinion on Vivi & Farnham. To the rest of you, you really ought to read this book. And to the REST of you, if you feel generous and want to buy me Bloody Murder by Julian Symons, I won't complain.