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Archive for the category “Mystery”

Novel Aspirations

In 2008 I decided I wanted to write a novel. I was running low on unread Agatha Christie books and thought Welp! better write my own! I love me some crime fiction, and yet it’s so hard for me to find a crime novel I actually enjoy. I’m in love with those cozy mysteries from the Golden Age of detective fiction, where there was a limited pool of suspects, an assortment of clues and red herrings and someone to wrap it all up beautifully at the end. What I don’t love is the more modern ‘thriller’ angle of an alcoholic, divorced, world-weary cop with a strained relationship with his daughter. Almost every crime novel blurb I read in bookstores advertises ‘the most gruesome murder of Detective Sad-Sack’s career’. And you can bet the murderer’s next target is about to be Detective Sad-Sack!

Anyway, I’ve been side-tracked. I wanted to write the type of novel I liked to read. That makes sense. I came up with (what I thought to be) a rather ingenious plot with a clever murder and enjoyable characters. I was so pleased with myself. The only thing left was to write the bloody thing.

I meandered and procrastinated and did little actual writing. I thought up a bunch of plots for other mysteries until I finally sat myself down and said ‘listen boy-o, why don’t we actually finish this one before we start the next twenty?’

‘It’s too hard’, I replied, and I sent myself to my room without any supper.

I’ve side-tracked myself again. What I’m trying to say is I found out that the writing process is actually quite tricky. It takes a lot of dedication and persistence. And writing. I got about half-way through the novel and hit a slump. I had meticulously planned everything up until then and didn’t know what to write now that I was in unfamiliar territory. I left it.

After sulking around crying about how ‘I don’t know what happens next!’ I decided to bite the bullet and actually WRITE what happens next. That worked surprisingly well. I stuck to a writing plan. I wrote every morning for at least an hour. Two if I had time. In that time I had to get at least four A4 pages of writing. And it worked.

I wish I’d kept a better diary of the process but while the idea for my novel was fleshed out in late 2008, I think I didn’t really start writing until 2010. Then I got stuck. I wrote the second half in 2011/2012. Now the first draft is done. I’ve read through it and admitted it needs serious rewriting. (That’s what second drafts are for!) But I’m excited. I’m determined that I’ll have the second draft done by the end of the year. And it will be good. And I will love it. And I’m going to be such a wonderful and successful author. (Perhaps)

To Solve or not to Solve?

The main game with a murder mystery novel is to discover the solution before the detective can reveal it. It’s a race against time, a battle of wits between author and reader. But what happens if the reader is able to emerge triumphant? Has the author failed in their task to deceive? Should the reader be disappointed if they solve the ending or commend the author for playing fair?

If the reader can solve the crime then the author is definitely doing their job of creating a puzzle to test the reader. I’m happy to be wowed by an author’s clever trick but I want it to be more than just a trick. If I fail to reach the solution I want it to be because of the author’s superior intellect at hiding the clues or my failure to find them, not because the author simply decided against planting any useful clues in the first place. I would be much happier prematurely solving the crime than having had no chance at ever solving it. If you can’t solve it because the author is withholding information then they have failed to play fair and that is when you should feel cheated.

But does the author actually grant the reader the chance to solve the crime before the detective or do they merely grant the illusion of having this chance? I read a how-to book for writing murder mysteries and in it, the author suggested that the solution should only be obvious once it has been revealed. Certainly, as an author you want the reader to go ‘Of course!’ when you reveal the solution, but they elaborated on this by saying that the clues should only reveal the solution once the clues’ true meaning has been revealed. Basically, they were saying that the clues would only be of use once you had the solution and worked backwards from there.

To me, that doesn’t seem fair. What’s the point of having the clues if you can’t even use them? Wouldn’t you feel more cheated as a reader if you had no chance of solving the crime than if you solved it prematurely? On the seldom occasion that I have deciphered a clue or discovered the solution before it was revealed, I was pleased as punch. If you’ve used some intellect to work out the ending then I think that you would be proud of yourself. Most probably, you would boast about how clever you are to have solved such a difficult puzzle (I know I would). You certainly wouldn’t want to diminish that by complaining about how obvious it was.

Sometimes, however, they are much too obvious. Badly placed clues or far too obvious hinting do make the reader feel cheated. If you are just handed the solution then you’re robbed of the fun of trying to work it out.

So I feel that the author has a very fine line to tread. They must certainly make the crime solvable. But they must also make the reader work in order to solve it. There’s no fun if you never had a chance at solving it and there’s no fun if there was no chance of you not solving it.

Jeez, it must be hard being an author.

Agatha Christie: 5 Novels that were Almost Perfect

I love Agatha Christie. I may have made that clear from my numerous mentions of her work throughout my postings. She wrote a great number of mystery novels throughout her career and there exists a list of staple classics that people associate with her.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Murder on the Orient Express

And then There Were None

Death on The Nile

Five Little Pigs

Evil under the Sun

These are almost unanimously voted as her greatest novels: works of pure ingenuity. But I have my own list: a list of works almost as brilliant but fail to be deemed ‘classic’ due to one or two small failings. Below I’ve compiled my list of what could have been Christie’s best works, and what’s stopping them from being so.

Three Act Tragedy

How to fix it: Make the motive solvable.

This is one of the most original of Christie’s works. It features not one but two unique motives for murder, a very clever plot, a cast of interesting characters, and yet this is all let down by the ridiculous reveal of the murderer’s motive. There is simply no reason for suspecting the murderer because there is no way of discovering the motive. The motive itself isn’t awful (it’s certainly not one of the best) but it relies on the existence of a character that wasn’t mentioned until the reveal of the murderer. Even worse is that Poirot withheld this information from the reader: a big no-no in detective fiction. If Christie had given even the tiniest clue as to the motive, this could easily have found itself on the above list of works. But instead it finds itself here.

An extra point for those who know the ending: (Warning! SPOILERS! If you don’t want details revealed skip to the next title.)

With Mrs De Rushbridger (the third victim) being in a sanatorium, it would have made much more sense for her to be Sir Charles’ wife. It could then have been written to include some possible detail that would link her to Sir Charles, rather than the never-before-mentioned Gladys Mugg.

Dead Man’s Folly

How to fix it: Cut the conversation.

Christie wrote this novel in 1956, when her knack for plotting had not yet begun to slip but perhaps her writing had. The plotting is quite brilliant, quite original and quite-well executed, except that it is totally lost amongst the banality of the investigation. Poirot becomes bogged down in lengthy interrogation with the characters, of who provide scant important details and many unnecessary ones. There is also too much focus on unsavoury and unlikely motives for the murder. Due to the young age of the victim (unusual in Christie’s work) the investigators involved continually push the angle of the murder being sexually motivated, which is far too tawdry for a Christie. No reader actually believes it was a sex-crazed lunatic so stop bringing it up. (The same goes for Evil Under the Sun, where Poirot proposes for the entire novel that two of the only four possibilities for the murder was that it was either perpetrated by a gang of smugglers or a ‘religious lunatic’. Murders in detective novels are never committed by outsiders!)

The Hollow

How to fix it: Remove Poirot.

As shocking as it sounds, this novel would have worked far better without her famous Belgian detective. Indeed, her play adaptation removed him and was far better from it. His inclusion is unbelievable. Poirot, the fastidious man who hates dirt and uncleanliness has moved to the country next door to where a murder is to take place. He also has little to do. The book focuses much less on the mystery element than the majority of books written at the same type and subsequently has little detective work for Poirot to do. As a detective novel it is fairly weak but as a novel in its own right it is one of Christie’s best. The novel would work far better as a psychological analysis of people affected by murder than as a whodunit.

(Warning! Possible Spoiler!)

Also, the murderer is one of the most sympathetic Christie has ever written and Poirot effectively killing them at the end is quite jarring and very out-of-character.

Murder in Mesopotamia

How to fix it: Change the motive

This book is technically flawless. It works brilliantly as a plot but as a novel it begins to fall apart. The problem lies in the reveal of the murderer’s true identity. It is just totally unbelievable for the character to have gone unnoticed for so long. A simple change of motive would have made the fake identity unnecessary and thus credible.

The second problem is how the murder is conducted. Again, as a bare plot it is genius, but totally unrealistic. There are too many possibilities for error and it unbelievable that a person would ever plan to commit murder in this way.

(Warning! SPOILERS!)

The murderer relies on the victim holding their head out a window to be bludgeoned to death. The victim then seems to defy physics by being knocked back through the window and into their room rather than slumping over the window. It is then vital to the murderer’s alibi that no one discovers the body for over an hour. And there is apparently no blood spatter anywhere near the window. Why would a person ever plan a murder like this? Egad!

Elephants Can Remember

How to fix it: Write it 30 years earlier.

Elephants Can Remember is one of the last books Christie wrote, and while her grip began to slacken towards the end of her career, Elephants Can Remember is uncharacteristically clever and original. In it, she makes a final and original reworking of the love triangle theme that she used for some of her greatest novels. It is also well-clued and solvable: a rare feat amongst her later works. The problem lies with the writing. Christie was 82 at the time of writing and the writing is rather slack. Similar to Dead Man’s Folly, characters waffle on about irrelevancies for much of the book. Details are hazy and often confused. The death being investigated is sometimes said to have happened ten years ago, other times it is fifteen or twenty.

It is also irritatingly unbelievable that all along there was one character who knew exactly what happened. They are brought in at the end to confirm Poirot’s theory but after the reader has had to sit through so much unnecessary questioning of people who knew nothing why was this the last person they asked?

How to Solve a Murder Mystery Without the Clues

‘It was you,’ Inspector Flimsy said dramatically, ‘Lady Melchett!’

‘No it wasn’t!’

‘Damn it!’

I love a good murder mystery. Not only do you get an engaging story but you get a fun intellectual puzzle thrown in as well. What a bargain! In saying that, I don’t often solve the mystery. But that’s the point. The author doesn’t want you to actually solve it, only have the illusion that you could have if you’d been a little less dunder-headed. But never fear! My years of research have given me a great insight. Sure, the clues they provide are far too cryptic for anyone to actually decipher, but we don’t need them. Because in providing clues, the author is really providing you the answer. Not in the clues themselves but in how they are placed. I am going to show you how to solve a murder mystery novel without using any of the clues, only by using the novel itself.

The Characters

Just looking at the characters that might have done it, we already start to formulate an idea. Of course there’s the ‘least likely suspect’ trope but now that everyone’s aware of that, what constitutes the least likely suspect? If everyone suspects the least likely suspect doesn’t that make them the most likely? On the other hand, no one really suspects the most likely suspect (too obvious!) so do they actually become the least likely suspect? Then does that mean they’re again the most likely suspect? Never mind all that, let’s move on to my character clues’.

One-off suspicions will never apply to the actual murderer

This is a way of sharing the suspicion around. Authors don’t want you to actually suspect the murderer so they’ll never explicitly state a clue that helped the detective solve it in the end.

If the detective finds somebody’s glasses at the scene of the crime then that person didn’t do it. It’s just too obvious and way too disappointing if what led you to the murderer was simply the fact that they left something of theirs at the crime scene.

The same usually applies with motives. If somebody has an obvious motive for killing someone, it’s unlikely this will be the actual motive, even if that person does end up being the murderer. Focus on those who have seemingly no motive or those whose motive is very stock-standard. If somebody’s motive is that they’re the sole beneficiary of the dead person’s will, that’s not likely to be the reason why. It may be realistic in real life but in a novel, the reader expects more ingenuity than that.

Of course, the murderer may be suspected by the detective at one point. Pay attention to anyone who becomes too obvious. Disregard the explicit clues that point to them though. The author isn’t going to serve you up the murderer and the clues halfway through the novel. Look for other clues or other interpretations of the given clues to see if it still fits with the person. If all the evidence is stacked up against one person early on, usually that person will have been ‘framed’ and be cleared later on. Don’t stop suspecting them just because the detective does. Could the suspect have planted obvious clues that would be proved false so that the real evidence pointing to them would also be considered false?

Just How Suspicious?

A good author won’t concern themselves with the ‘least likely/most likely’. They’ll focus on trying to stop you ever suspecting the murderer. So rather than ‘least suspected’ it’s ‘never suspected’. Sometimes the ‘never suspected’ trope can backfire on the author. If they spend a lot of effort convincing you that one person could definitively not have committed the crime, then double your suspicions on that character. If a character was observed somewhere else at the time of the crime, incapacitated so that they couldn’t physically have done it, or somehow have some unimpeachable alibi, then they’ve done it.

If your detective doesn’t consider them a possible suspect or remarks that they couldn’t have done it, that person did it. Look for characters that are above suspicion: The investigators, the person who asked the detective to investigate, the person who insisted what everyone thought was an accident was really murder, the person someone’s trying to kill, the helpful but bumbling sidekick. If someone is above suspicion not based on evidence but simply because of their character or suspicion then it’s most likely them.

The Clues

You’ll never be given clues – at least not in their proper form

Of course you’re given clues, but not in their meaningful form. You’ve got to do some of the work yourself! Therefore, never judge a clue on face value. You need to think creatively as to how else the clue could be interpreted. When Poirot emphasises the importance of the calendar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, it is not the calendar that’s important at all. Whilst the reader is considering the implications of whether the calendar had the wrong date or a particular date circled, its real importance is that the butler has to look at it up-close. The calendar establishes the butler’s poor eyesight, and then we can start to question whether he has mistaken one of the characters for someone else or an object for something else. Also consider Sherlock Holmes’s interest in ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. You may be confused because the dog seemingly did nothing curious. Then you begin to consider all the curious things that the dog may have done and what they mean. Of course, the dog didn’t do anything, and that’s important because usually the dog would do something, which points to who the perpetrator was.

The Narrative

This is more about the book itself then the actual plot. If you can solve what sort of book it is (what’s special about it) you can probably solve the murder.

Its reputation

Have critics lauded it as one of the most shocking endings of all time? Well what kind of ending would it have to be to constitute that? It’s obviously not going to be a plain-cut solution. Look at which characters would prove a shocking murderer. The detective’s assistant? The detective? Is the victim really dead?

Does it remind you of other books by the same author?

If an author uses a successful trick in one book, it’s easier to try to reuse that trick than come up with a new one. I’m not saying mystery writers are unoriginal hacks but they may look for ways to reinvent or remodel a past solution to provide a new one. When reading a book by an author you’re familiar with, look for variations on a theme. Agatha Christie often used the theme of the love triangle. This is when three people are involved in a complicated love affair. A loves B but B is in love with C. A and B were in love but now B and C are together. A and B are in love but C is capturing the attention of B. When you start to notice a recurring theme or similar plot, consider how you could fit the old plot or theme into the new novel. Two of Agatha Christie’s novels, Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun, have the same relationship at the heart of the novel. A happy couple’s relationship is threatened by an interloper. In Death on the Nile, the interloper is an ex-lover, In Evil under the Sun, it is a shameless ‘man-eater’. Without trying to spoil either plot, the relationships revolve around the similar idea of not being the relationship that is suggested, although executed differently.

So these are some of the ways that you can get a kick-start in finding that pesky murderer without having to do any difficult clue-finding and interpreting. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to apply these rules to a book once you’ve already finished it and know who did it. But perhaps that’s for the better. Because sometimes it’s fun to just go along for the ride and let yourself be fooled.

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