How to Write a Mystery Novel…

16 Apr

I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve this week and thought I’d revisit a topic that I posted about early in the life of this blog. I’d love to hear from the aspiring and published writers on this topic. Enjoy! Brad

How to create a mystery novel?  Of course, the answer is to read as many mysteries as possible.  There are no better models than the classics by Raymond Chandler or the modern thrillers written by Martin Cruz Smith – who I unashamedly admit to be my lord of lords, creator of the Moscow-based detective, Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park.  (I would sacrifice a very private portion of my anatomy if I could write a fraction as well as Mr. Smith can – the left one, in fact.)  You can even learn something from Janet Evanovich, who is more machine these days than writer.  Though her plots may be thin and repetitious, they still obey certain rules that a new writer can observe, internalize, and replicate.

I never wanted to write mysteries.  I wanted to write historical novels along the lines of those written by Mika Waltari (The Egyptian) or Gary Jennings (Aztec).  But no one wants to read these epics today, and certainly no publishing house wants to publish them either.  (All those pages – such expense!)  But historical mysteries are another matter.  Mysteries, you see, rarely take more than a month to solve in a novel’s timeline.  They are never epics.  I like to tell my students that mysteries are not like symphonies, with hundreds of musicians, but more like chamber pieces with eight musicians at most.

So my first mysteries were set in Ancient Egypt and Babylon respectively, allowing me to write about history, true, but using the format of a mystery and keeping the action fast, hard-hitting, and distinctly non-epic.  My books have been called, as a result, “pharaonic noir” and my detective, Semerket, the clerk of investigations and secrets, an “Egyptian Sam Spade.”

I like it best when a detective is a flawed man, like my poor, alcoholic Semerket, so that in addition to solving the mystery at hand he must also solve part of the mystery within himself. Like the protagonists in Martin Cruz Smith novels, they also become the seat of moral authority.  All around them are crimes, official corruption, and indifference, but they remain committed to the truth, regardless of how unpleasant it is.  No matter how dark or dismal they are, they become heroic in the process – and your readers root for their success.

As to the plot, I like to think of it as a beautiful, decorated plate – intact and gorgeous – that has been viciously smashed to pieces by the crime at its center.  It is your detective’s task to pick up the pieces one by one, to find how they once fit together.  He or she is constantly picking up this piece and that piece in random order, until by the end of the book the plate has been put back together – irretrievably damaged, of course, but whole.  And though the mystery is solved, the denouement (literally, “untying” in French) should always resolve itself in a melancholic mood – for by solving the crime we come to know how unpleasant and corrupt the detective’s (and our) world really is.

In a mystery, the secondary characters are almost as important as your detective protagonist, because they will mostly fall into two groups – the criminal(s) and the “information passers”.  Each of these characters has one of the pieces of the plate in their possession; for reasons of their own, usually because they are implicated in the crime, they are sometimes reluctant to surrender it.  Others may be too willing to give up their piece, their information, but they are suspect, too.  Not only must your detective gather these pieces, the clues, but also perceive why and how these people who surrender them to him are connected to the crime, and how valuable their information really is.

Now, having said this, I have to confess that my latest mystery, The Stand In, violates most of these rules.  There is no real central detective; instead, the readers themselves take on this role.  This is because the story is actually a “smoke and mirrors” mirage – a special effect, if you will, something that Hollywood does so well – and Hollywood is the location of the novel, after all.  What is the truth?  What is really happening?  It’s all there in front of your eyes, yet it seems like something else is happening altogether….  Some will figure it out right away, others must wait until the very last sentence in the book…which is last piece of that plate.

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8 Responses to “How to Write a Mystery Novel…”

  1. M.S. Fowle April 17, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    This can really carry over into (almost) any genre. Every story should have a little mystery.

    • Brad Geagley April 17, 2012 at 8:06 am #

      I totally agree. I use this approach in all my stories – now, whether that’s because I’ve locked myself into a format that I cannot escape or that format is universally adaptable, I have no idea. I just know it works. Thanks for writing!

  2. Dawn Pisturino April 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    I stopped reading mysteries for awhile because the “flawed detectives” began to mimic each other and the plots all seemed the same. Then I discovered a British author named Ruth Rendell. Her mysteries develop out of the personalities of her characters so they tend to be more quirky and unusual.

    • Brad Geagley April 19, 2012 at 9:27 am #

      I rarely read mysteries any longer now that I’m writing them, only because I’m such an unconscious mimic. But I like the flawed ones if they’re written as well as M.C. Smith’s Arkady Renko in his “Gorky Park” novels. Wonderful stuff.

  3. yhosby April 18, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Love this post! I’m attempting my first mystery/suspense for NaNo. Thanks for the tips.

    Keep smiling,
    Yawatta

    • Brad Geagley April 19, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Good luck – you’ve set yourself a wonderful task. Write and let me know how you’re progressing, or if you have a specific question.

    • Brad Geagley April 19, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Dear Yawatta,

      Best of luck in your endeavor. Write and let me know how you’re progressing.

  4. Fay Moore May 5, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Hi Brad. Another pressing of your post to my blog. It posts Sunday May 6 about 10 AM Eastern time. Here’s the link. I hope you get some new visitors!
    http://faymoore.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=667&action=edit

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