So You Want To/Write a Detective Novel
It was a cold, dark night, and a roaring fire was merrily crackling to itself in the grate as I turned to my friend, the brilliant Algernon Seeker, in our rooms at 132 Poirot Street, and asked "Seeker, why do you suppose it is that people read detective stories?"
Seeker looked at me with those piercing, brilliant eyes and leaned back into his chair, inhaling thoughtfully on his pipe. It was a moment before he replied: "I would have thought you would know already, my dear Foyle, given your eagerness to chronicle those curious little mysteries that come our way from time to time."
"Well, yes, of course, I know people buy them. But why read them?"
"Because we're fascinated by them, Foyle. They're complex mysteries that make the reader work, think about what's happening rather than just let it wash over them. The characters are equally complicated and interesting, and certainly in my case -- if I do say so myself -- rather brilliant. They let the reader go into all parts of society and all walks of life, from the supposedly law-abiding domains of the rich to the squalid dens of sin that our poorer brothers and sisters reside in, all in pursuit of that elusive thing called truth."
Seeker narrowed his eyes; it was a sign that he was getting to grips with a mystery that interested him. "Well, of course, they need to follow those basic rules that apply to all stories, but beyond that, there are certain elements that reoccur throughout the genre that give it strength and life. Shall I elaborate?"
I readied my pen, certain as ever that Seeker's thoughts would be well worth preserving. "Please do," I replied.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Costume Designer
- 8 Extra Credit
"Well, first of all, it goes without saying that you require a detective character of some nature, so as to investigate the matter at hand. This implies certain character traits; a keen sense of observation, a logical, deductive insight, and a wide body of knowledge that they can build upon and apply to the matter at hand -- or, at least, a willingness to explore new avenues of information. As this detective is at the centre of the mystery -- the key to unlocking it, if you will -- they should ideally be interesting, complex and charismatic; the reader will have to follow them throughout the entire work, after all. This can often be done by giving them a peculiar quirk or Achilles Heel; some eccentricity that stands them apart from ordinary people. Whilst hardly uniform, some manner of drug addiction, musical talent and / or similar is quite common."
"Such as your snuff habit and fondness for the ukulele?" I suggested.
"Precisely so. The detective will need a colleague or companion, of course," Seeker finished languidly.
"Good heavens! Whatever for?"
"Why, to give the reader someone to identify with, of course! If we were to follow the case entirely from the detective's point of view, then there would scarcely be a mystery; we would be able to identify exactly what had happened along with the detective, and thus the reader would have no chance to attempt to solve it as well. No, as well as the detective we require a companion. Someone who, shall we say, lacks the insight of the detective to a certain degree; not necessarily a fool by any means, but someone who may convincingly need to have certain details of the plot or the mystery explained to them, so as to allow the author to reveal the solution of the mystery. This, of course, has the added bonus of making the detective look terribly clever at the same time," Seeker continued modestly. "Naturally, the companion will often take on the role of the narrator or chronicler."
"You make it sound so simple, Seeker. Is there anything else that is required?"
"A mystery, my dear Foyle. Some devious crime has been committed, or an unthinkable act has occurred to which there is no obvious solution. Something that will tax the intellect and deductive powers of the detective -- and his audience -- to the very limit."
Seeker waved a hand casually. "The nature of this mystery can vary, of course; a heinous crime or a macabre plunge into what appears to be the supernatural, or even what appears to be some mere trifling matter of triviality... although, of course, the detective and the audience both know that there are no trivialities in this particular genre. It need not even be a crime, so to speak; medical mysteries are quite popular to name one, so I hear. Each, of course, provides further requirements; for example, mysteries involving a crime will require the presence of the police at some point. Often, if he's not a member of the police, the detective will be saddled with an official representative of the law who will be... shall we say, less competent?"
"Is there anything else which can vary?"
"But of course, my dear Foyle! The nature of the detective, for a start! Is he or she a officer of the law or some unofficial investigator into the crime? If unofficial, then are they a Private Detective such as myself or an amateur, some observant member of the public unaffiliated with the official bodies? Indeed, considering works intended for children, and the sleuth might just as well be a precocious child! Of course, depending on the choice, this creates further possibilities or limitations."
"Of course; how does the detective enter the mystery? We expect to see a police officer investigate a murder, but it's much less common to find a little old granny doing the same in Real Life. If the Sleuth is an Amateur, then there needs to be a convincing reason that they be permitted to investigate the affair in the first place. Even a semi-official Private Detective such as myself tends to be frowned upon by the detectives at Scotland Yard if they try to muscle in on what is usually a matter for the police. More importantly, the reader will refuse to believe or accept the premise of the story if it is too absurd. You simply must consider how the detective is engaged in the mystery to begin with."
"That makes sense, I suppose. Anything else?"
Seeker frowned. "The mystery may be made too simple, or too trivial. Why read a mystery if you know who did it from the very first page? A few Red Herrings -- clues that appear important, but lead away from the actual solution -- are necessary in order to keep the reader guessing. Of course, you don't want to make this too complicated or they'll never follow.
"Also, the solution to the mystery must evolve organically out of the story as a whole; it's no good simply plucking something or someone out of thin air at the very end and saying that they did it -- why, the audience will feel nothing less than cheated, and rightly so! You must make it possible for the reader to be able to solve the mystery given the clues they're presented with throughout the narrative, whilst at the same time making it difficult enough to sustain their attention."
"A difficult task," I observed.
"Indeed so. One other potential pitfall concerns the characters; the detective may be made too brilliant or presented in too idealistic a fashion; few want to read about a paragon, even if it is a paragon such as myself," Seeker remarked humbly. "On the other hand, there is an unfortunate tendency to present the companion as little more than a blundering fool. Hardly a tactful approach, given that the companion is supposed to represent the reader. You're essentially telling the reader that they're useless and pathetic."
"But surely, Seeker, we companions can hardly measure up to the brilliance of you detective types?"
Seeker smiled warmly, one of the rare times an expression other than intense concentration crossed his face. "You do yourself too little credit, Foyle. The point of the companion is not that he's stupider than the detective; it's that he's not as observant. Even the most well-known of your number was an accomplished medical doctor."
"But surely, Seeker, this all sounds a bit... samey. Any way we can shake up the formula?"
"Of course," Seeker replied casually. "Say, for example, the detective gets the solution wrong at the end."
"Surely not, Seeker!"
"What better way to play with such a formula than to change the expected outcome? Alternatively, my dear Foyle, perhaps the detective or the companion know who committed the crime in advance. Indeed, Foyle, they may have known all along, because the villain behind the crime was them!"
I paused for a moment, shaken by the thought of an intellect such as that of Algernon Seeker's turned to villainy.
"Of course," Seeker allowed reluctantly, "that presents it's own pitfall; the audience may feel cheated if the person they've trusted to solve the crime or accurately report the crime turns out to be the one who did it; again, you need to make it so that the reader can determine the solution of the mystery from the clues provided, and neither detective nor narrator is likely to deliberately implicate themselves. But in the hands of a skilled writer, any possibility can be made entertaining."
"An even more interesting, although more difficult, subversion would be 'The murderer is the author'; in fact, the only subversion never used yet would be 'The murderer is the reader', for reasons I don't have to explain."
"But what's the point, Seeker? Why read and write these stories? What's the message?"
Seeker's eyes blazed like fire, and he pointed his pipe at me. "Why, Foyle, it is that all mysteries have a solution!" He cried. "That there is a logical outcome to any unexplained or unknown phenomenon or occurrence, and that the application of intelligence and insight is sufficient to determine it! And that the perpetrators of injustice and lawlessness will surely meet their match in a brilliant mind that can unpack their nefarious crimes!"
"What sort of stories tend to be told in these matters, then, Seeker?"
Seeker frowned. "The Murder Mystery is by far the most common," he allowed. "In a large portion of detective stories, the crime is always murder, even if it doesn't appear so on first glance. In certain cases, the detective may be prompted to prove someone's innocence and determine the true culprit of the affair."
"Of course," Seeker added calmly, "they can be set anywhere."
"What makes you say that, Seeker?"
"Why, my dear Foyle, mystery has existed since the dawn of humanity! There has always been a mystery to explore, a question to answer. Detectives can be found in the earliest days of history and the far-flung worlds of the future!"
"That said," Seeker allowed, "Victorian Britain and The Edwardian Era are quite popular settings. As is the 1920s and 1930s. The genre experienced something of a Golden Age in those times, it seems, and even later writers like to set them there. But of course, they can be set anywhere."
"And any common props?"
"That would depend on the mystery. But if there's foul play involved, then some kind of murder weapon; guns and knives will suffice, but for the more creative forms of the crime you will need to think a little harder in order to interest and surprise your reader."
"Well, that all makes sense," I allowed. "But just one thing; is there anything that should be read to gain an understanding of this genre? Any great works that stick out?"
"The works of Agatha Christie," Seeker said firmly. "Not for nothing is she called the Queen of the Classic Mystery. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, too; Americans, and frequently of a rougher edge than a lot of British material of the same era, but brilliant mystery writers both. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is another excellent choice"
"And of course," I offered, "There's Sherlock Holmes."
Seeker frowned, in a rather petulant manner, I thought; his rivalry with the man they called the Great Detective was still going strong, apparently. But he did not refute the suggestion, and rightfully so.
"Well, that all seems straightforward," I observed. "But, Seeker, there's still something bothering me."
"And that would be?" Seeker asked.
"Well... dash it all, Seeker, how do you know all of this? How did you put this all together?"
Algernon Seeker smiled thinly, and leaned back into his chair, closing his eyes.
"Elementary, my dear Foyle," he murmured, "entirely elementary."