The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit

The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit

The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit has guided and inspired mystery writers—veterans as well as beginners—for nearly a decade. Here William G. Tapply, with more than 20 ...

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William G Tapply

William G. Tapply was the author of dozens of books, including more than two dozen New England-based mystery novels and ...

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Chapter 1

The Elements of Mystery Fiction

Mystery fiction was born in 1841 when Graham’s Magazine published Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Here Poe introduces C. Auguste Dupin, the detective who, through his superior intellect and brilliant powers of observation and deduction, sorts out the clues and identifies the murderer of an old woman and her daughter.

The mystery is a puzzler. Dupin is a genius. When he reveals the culprit, readers gasp in admiration.

Literary murders are as old as the book of Genesis. But no one before Poe, as far as we know, ever wrote a story in which the central plot question was “Who did it?” and the hero was a detective who correctly deduced the answer to that question.

If Poe invented mystery fiction, fifty years later Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made it wildly popular. Sherlock Holmes, like Poe’s Dupin, is a brilliant detective who gathers clues, ponders them privately, and then fingers the villain in a dramatic scene of revelation near the end of the story. His worshipful room- mate and chronicler, Dr. Watson, follows along to report on his friend’s activities. Watson is Everyman. He’s you, or I, or any reader of average intelligence. Unlike Holmes or his literary predecessor Dupin, Watson is accessible. He speaks directly to readers, who identify with the kindly doctor. He’s as baffled by Holmes as readers are, as awed by the detective’s deductive powers, as intrigued by his eccentricities.

Conan Doyle, with his down-to-earth narrator, his eccentric genius detective, his sharp portraits of nineteenth-century London, and his mind-bending puzzles, transformed mystery fiction into the stuff of best-sellers, which it has remained ever since.

In the stories of Poe and Doyle and their imitators, mystery readers were not allowed into the minds of literary detectives. Readers had no choice but to remain puzzled while Dupin and Holmes gathered clues and pondered them in private. The reader’s reward came when the detective dramatically identified the culprit, explained the villain’s method and motive, and enumerated the clues that had led him to his uncanny conclusion.

Agatha Christie converted the mystery into a participatory activity for the reader. Christie introduced the vital and revolutionary element of fair play to mystery fiction, making all the clues that were available to her detective equally available to the reader. Readers who could only watch and marvel at Holmes were invited to look for clues and interpret the behavior of Christie’s characters. Readers could match wits with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and when a Christie detective pointed the finger at a murderer, readers could slap their foreheads and say, “Of course! I should have figured that out for myself.”

With Christie, mystery reading became a game between writer and reader. “Fool me if you can,” begged the reader, “and I’ll be disappointed if you don’t. I want you to make me admire how cleverly you craft your plot and how well you camouflage your clues. But you’d better play fair.”

After Christie, successful mystery yarns did just that. The plots were complex, the puzzles bewildering, the motives obscure, and the murder methods bizarre. The story didn’t have to be realistic, nor did the characters need to resemble actual flesh-and-blood people, as long as the clues were laid out fairly—no matter how cleverly they were disguised. The writers of the 1920s and ’30s—Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, and many others—gave readers what they wanted. The period was known as “The Classical Age” of mystery fiction.

Then Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created their sleuths, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. These two American writers introduced mystery readers to the “mean streets” and the flesh-and-blood people who inhabited them. They created the “hard-boiled” mystery, in which gritty settings, three-dimensional characters, true-to-life dialogue, irony, mood, style, and pace were grafted onto the classical detective puzzle.

In other words, Chandler and Hammett gave us novels, mysteries that qualified as genuine works of literature, not merely clever puzzles.

Today’s mystery shelves are packed with a rich variety of novels. Contemporary mysteries come in all sizes, styles, themes, and moods—the classic private-eye puzzles of Sue Grafton and Robert B. Parker, the dark brooding novels of James Lee Burke and Lawrence Block, the medical mysteries of Patricia D. Cornwell and Michael Palmer, the police procedurals of Ed McBain and William J. Caunitz, the small-town domestic tales of Katherine Hall Page and Charlotte MacLeod.

But regardless of their genres and sub-genres, contemporary mysteries all contain the same elements:

  1. The puzzle. The important question that drives the plot of every mystery novel and short story is: Who did it? Who committed the crime (generally murder)? At the beginning, neither the reader nor the story’s protagonist knows the answer.
  2. Detection. The investigation of the crime constitutes the story’s central action. When the puzzle is solved, the story ends.
  3. The sleuth as hero. The protagonist is the character who solves the puzzle, generally through his intelligence, perseverance, courage, physical strength, moral conviction, or a combination of these qualities.
  4. The worthy villain. The antagonist, generally the murderer, tests the limits of the sleuth’s The villain is clever, resourceful, and single-mindedly intent on getting away with his crime. He makes the puzzle a supreme challenge for both the sleuth and the reader.
  5. Fair play. All of the evidence uncovered by the sleuth, in the form of clues, is equally available to the The climactic revelation presents no evidence that hasn’t already been disclosed in the course of the story.
  6. Realism and logic. Everything fits, makes sense, and could happen the way it’s depicted in the Mystery stories take place in actual places, or fictional places that seem real. They are populated with characters who resemble real people. Readers care about these characters, engage them emotionally, and feel as if they know them.

In the years since Hammett and Chandler, thousands of literary murders have been solved by hundreds of sleuths in every corner of the globe. There are so many different styles and approaches to the contemporary mystery that terms such as “police procedural,” “private eye,” “hard-boiled,” “soft-boiled,” and “cozy,” just to name the most obvious, have evolved to help classify them. There are series and non-series mysteries. They take place in the present, in historical eras, even in the future. They are wry and witty, dark and violent, philosophical and urbane. Fictional detectives range from professionals (police officers, private investigators, lawyers, district attorneys, forensic pathologists, newspaper reporters—those who get paid specifically to investigate murders) to schoolteachers, housewives, teenagers, and other amateurs. They can be female or male, gay or straight, old or young, rich or poor. They work in big cities, suburbs, rural areas, and the wilderness in every state and virtually every nation in the world.

Mystery novels by Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, Barbara Michaels, Robert Parker, Patricia Cornwell, and many others regularly appear on the best-seller lists. Hundreds of other talented writers produce a popular mystery novel every year or two. Many critics contend that some of the very best novel and short-story writers in America and England these days are those who produce mystery fiction.

Every year dozens of “first mysteries” are published. Periodicals such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are devoted exclusively to short mystery fiction. Editors and publishers continually search for the next popular writer, the next blockbuster mystery novel.

The basic elements of mystery fiction remain constant.

Mystery variants

If the story’s driving question is not “Who did it?,” and if detection is not the central action of the story, it is not, technically, a mystery. Today’s best-seller lists are often top-heavy with high-suspense titles in which the plot’s momentum comes from different questions, typically: “Will the bad guy succeed in carrying out his sinister plan before the good guy can stop him?” John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, and Tom Clancy, among many others, have made these “thrillers” enormously popular. Crime and justice are central issues in these novels. Since clues, detection, and puzzle-solving frequently play important, if secondary parts of their plots, many of the principles of mystery fiction apply equally to them.

The reader as participant

Contemporary mystery fiction invites readers to join the sleuth in the quest to solve a compelling puzzle. Modern readers will not settle for the role of spectator. They want to participate in your story.

Give your readers credit. Assume they are as smart as you are. “No one can write decently,” said E. B. White, “who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”

The most important advice I can give you is this: Always think of your audience. Write for your readers. Never deprive them of the chance to participate.

As we have seen, modern readers expect fair play. You cannot withhold vital clues from them. Everything of consequence that your sleuth encounters must also be encountered by your readers. Unless readers have the evidence, they cannot fairly participate in the solving of the puzzle.

On the other hand, readers don’t want to be guided through the puzzle’s solution. They want only a fair chance to solve it for themselves. They don’t want to be given more information than the sleuth has. That would give them an advantage over him, which also violates the rule of fair play. Readers resent having clues explained to them by an all-knowing author as much as they resent having clues withheld from them.

Invite them to walk beside your hero or heroine, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling along with your sleuth. No more, no less.

Showing without telling

For mystery writers, the golden rule is: Show, don’t tell. Give your readers the same kinds of sensory impressions they use in their own lives to interpret their world. Then let them draw their own conclusions. When you explain or elaborate for your readers, you deprive them of the opportunity to participate.

Let your readers encounter your story’s characters and situations as they experience their actual lives. When you meet and interact with other people, you observe their behavior and then you interpret it. People’s actions and words are clues to their inner feelings, attitudes, philosophies, and motives. You draw conclusions about others based on the clues they present to you. If you see a man crying, you might conclude that he is sad, or frustrated, or angry, or even happy. You take into account the context of his behavior and everything else you know about him—including the possibility that he might lie to you. Then you make your interpretation. You have no all-knowing narrator to tell you, “He is crying tears of joy” or “He is depressed because he killed his friend.”

If a woman slams her fist on a tabletop or curses loudly or clenches her teeth, you might conclude that she’s angry. You might be wrong. In fact, she might be trying to make you believe she’s angry when, in fact, she is trying to manipulate your emotions or make you believe something that isn’t true. You can’t be sure. You have to consider the clues—the observed behavior and everything else you know about that person—to arrive at your best interpretation. In actual life, no narrator stands at your shoulder whispering in your ear, “That person is angry” or “She’s only pretending to be angry.”

Just as you show your readers the characters in your stories, so should you create settings for them. Show your readers a restaurant with a jukebox playing a Patti Page  tune, candles  in Chianti bottles, and red-and-white-checked oilcloth tablecloths, then allow them to draw their own conclusions about the place. Do not tell them, “The restaurant had an old-fashioned ’50s atmosphere.” Readers can—and want to—deduce that for themselves.

Words such as “sad,” “manipulative,” and “old-fashioned” tell readers more than they want to know. Let them draw their own conclusions, the way they do in real life. Otherwise you’ll turn your readers into passive spectators—and turn them off.

Make your story a series of experiences for your readers. Give them sensory impressions. Show them some significant details of people and places, but resist the impulse to tell them what those details mean. Write scenes in which characters act and interact, and put your readers in the middle of those scenes. Allow them to participate, to interpret, to draw conclusions, and to fill in the blanks. Trust them to think for themselves. Respect their intelligence.

Showing without telling gives contemporary readers what they want from a mystery story—a fair chance to participate in the puzzle’s solution.

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