By: David Bishop
Writing a mystery novel is like going on vacation. You don’t load up the car and pull away from the curb until you know your destination. To do otherwise, opens you up to many wrong turns and lost miles, even the likelihood of ending up somewhere you never would have chosen to end up. This means I first decide the crime, the protagonist and the perpetrator (in a most general sense) and my destination, the solution of the mystery. Now I can load up the story and pull away from the euphemistic curb to begin the journey that will bring my protagonist and the reader to the intended destination.
First and foremost, I must create at least one character the reader will care about, or can relate to. These characters for caring may be Hannibal Lector or Clarice Starling, or, in my novel The Beholder, homicide detective, Maddie Richards. Or the reader can be captured by the challenge of who is the serial killer or simply wanting to be sure he gets what’s coming to him. Ideally, you want the reader to like the hero and be fascinated on some level by the villain. Whether these characters are good or evil is not the key. The key is that the reader cares what happens to them. Will they solve the crime? Will they be seduced or slain? Perhaps get married. If, within the first not-too-many pages, the reader consciously or subconsciously thinks, I don’t care what happens to any of these people, the reader is going to turn that book into a wall banger and pick up another.
The first third of a novel sets up the plot and shapes the primary characters. The last third brings the story home to where evil is stopped and justice, in some form, is served. What about the middle third? This is where the writer proves his worth by keeping the story moving and interesting. The middle should be crowded with tension and traps that must be navigated as the story unfolds. The middle is often where subplots are developed or expanded. Well-crafted subplots humanize the primary characters, allow romance to blossom, and otherwise engages and entertains the reader. The middle is the second most difficult area for a writer. The opening third must create characters that capture the reader’s interest. The magic of the middle third is about keeping the water in both pots boiling: the mystery pot and the romance pot. When we listen to readers talk about novels they have read, we often hear things like, “It was all right, I guess. But the middle dragged.” The novelist cannot allow this to happen. The books about which readers say, “That was a great book,” are always stories with engaging middles. Writing novels is much like the fight to lose weight. Win the battle of the middle and the body of your story will be a beaut.
While it often goes unnoticed, mysteries contain two simultaneous contests. The first and obvious one is the contest between the protagonist and the villain. The second challenge goes on quietly behind the scenes, between the protagonist and the reader. Will the reader be able to solve the crime before the hero does? This part of the novel must be played fairly. The clues the hero will use to solve the mystery must be presented to allow the reader a chance to beat the hero to the solution. These clues can be as large as a log or as tiny as a bump thereon, as prominent as a woman’s dropped purse or as insignificant as something which spills out. There should be false clues which lead the reader to believe one or another innocent person is guilty. Readers don’t mind being wrong about who is guilty, but they resent learning at the end that the hero used clues the reader had never been told. Sherlock Holmes often used these, shall we say, private clues, but when writing mysteries today this is considered inappropriate. The modern perspective is to give the reader and the hero the same vista.
The above paragraphs primarily refer to the traditional whodunit mystery, but there are also howdunits and whydunits. In some mysteries we are immediately told the identity of the villain. In the Columbo TV series the viewers commonly knew the identity of the killer within the first few minutes, often before Columbo knew. Then the story became the tug of war between the wit and wisdom of Columbo and the conniving and cunning of the criminal. This is the juxtaposed style used in stories like The Day of the Jackal, and my novel, The Third Coincidence, in which as much time is spent tagging along with the villains as along with the heroes. I also used this style in my novel, The Blackmail Club, which is told through the struggles of the leading man, Jack McCall, and also, to a lesser degree, through scenes and vignettes from the killer’s point of view. This is done without disclosing the killer’s identity for The Blackmail Club is primarily a whodunit with a fabulous twist at the end. Two twists actually.
All mystery styles are wonderful when told well through the eyes of characters about whom the readers care. Another way to look at this critical point: you and I start getting fidgety when a good chunk of our time is taken with a long story about the trials and tribulations of acquaintances we don’t like. Similarly, readers have no interest in using chunks of their time reading the rest of a story about fictional characters in whom they have no interest.
I’d like to add an additional comment to everyone reading this article. The last several years I have been writing well enough to allow me to say: My stories are good. Take a journey with me. Laugh. Hold your breath. Cheer. Boo. The characters are rich, and the plots are grabbers. I promise most of you that you will be very glad you came along. I’d promise all of you, but nothing is liked by everyone. Some people don’t like chocolate, or apple pie, or even a hearty laugh. But I’ll bet you like some of that stuff and I’ll bet you’ll like my mysteries. — Yours Very Truly, David Bishop