The recipe for a good murder mystery…

I’ve been reading one of Miguel Barclay’s cook books and I really like the simplicity of his recipes. The book is based on the notion that you can eat well for just one pound ($1.20) a portion but, besides the fact that they taste good and are nutritious, the real appeal for me is that all the meals are quite quick to cook. To explain, I used to love cooking and found it to be something of an antidote to the stress that had built up during a long working day and commute. I didn’t even mind if the recipe was complicated, it just gave me more time to unwind.

That was great when I had the energy or spoons to do it but now I’m finding that, by the time I’ve cooked the meal, I might not have enough energy left to enjoy it. So, Miguel, with his quick recipes, has helped to restore my love of cooking by allowing me to spend less energy in the kitchen thus allowing me to enjoy the eating part too. I was looking at one of his recipes yesterday and I started wondering what would be a good recipe for a crime story. This is my take on that…

One genre (according to taste) – I talk about crime genres in a post where I describe the spectrum as running from cozy country house mysteries to hard-boiled. Neither end of the spectrum is that realistic and I’d guess that the Mac Maguire mysteries would fall somewhere in between. Now, very few murder mysteries could be described as being realistic as murder enquiries in the real world use vast teams of detectives and sometimes may take months, or even years to solve. Also, in the real world, many crimes never get solved. In a typical Mac Maguire mystery, the reader is only introduced to a fairly small team, so as not to complicate things, and the action usually only lasts for a matter of weeks. It’s good to have an idea where your novel fits as flitting from a cozy mystery to a hard-boiled one within the same book, while it may be interesting, would only confuse your readers and play havoc with their expectations.

Holmes and Watson

One (or two) interesting detectives – From Holmes onwards, the notion of the detective with his, usually, less intelligent sidekick has become something of a trope. Just think of Poirot and Captain Hastings, Morse and Lewis and even Batman and Robin and you’ll get the idea. The strength of having a detective team is that the lead investigator can discuss the details of a case with his partner thus letting the reader understand what’s going on. However, there is another trope, that of the lone wolf, the rebellious copper who works alone and breaks the rules if necessary or sometimes just for the fun of it. Of course, in reality such a policeman wouldn’t last long in any modern police force. Mac Maguire doesn’t really fall into either camp but, fortunately for the reader, Mac had a close friend who he discusses his cases with and, on his police cases, he is often partnered by a younger police detective. Mac is a real team player and likes to discuss his ideas with his partner, partly to try and understand the case better but also in the hope that his partner will shoot down anything that doesn’t fly. The two most vital parts of a successful crime novel are having a good story plus a detective that is interesting and relatable. Your detective will feature on just about every page of your book and if they are not engaging then, in all likelihood and no matter how good your story is, you will have lost your reader.

One good story – Carrying on from above, if your story is not up to scratch then it doesn’t matter how engaging your detectives may be. What makes a good story? I wish I knew. It’s just whatever works. You can set it in the past just as Sansom has done with his Shardlake novels or even in the future as Dick did with his Blade Runner Rick Deckart or anywhere in between come to that. What your story doesn’t need are inconsistencies, plot holes or situations that readers might feel are implausible. While incredibly strange things happen in real life you should be wary of using these in your story. Your readers’ suspension of disbelief may be quite fragile and, once broken, it’s gone forever. As I say below, if you can get some good readers to read your pre-publication drafts then this will help. Trust them and don’t dismiss their feedback.

Also don’t tell the reader everything at once. Giving your readers a piece of the jigsaw here and another one there will hold their interest and make your story more intriguing. For my books, I always think of the investigation process as peeling off one layer of the onion at a time. As with real police investigations, evidence can seem to make no sense or can even be contradictory until the truth is finally revealed. If the story is drip fed to the reader in the correct way, you will keep them with you until what should be a satisfying end.

A good supporting cast – Your detective or detective team will need to interact with many other characters. With some of your more minor characters, you might get away with a few brush strokes to describe them but, for other recurring characters you will need to define them enough so that your readers can really picture them as they read. I have read some novels where each character is fully described on the reader first meeting them which can be a bit laborious and, frankly, boring at times. Personally, if characters crop up more than once in the story, I try to use each appearance to tell the reader a little more about them. Besides the detective, the criminal and the victim(s) will usually be your most important characters. If you can make these feel real to your readers then you will be well on the way to writing a successful book.

Maigret’s Paris

One (or more) good location(s) – Having an interesting location that resonates with your main character can add an immense amount to your story. Just think of Holmes’ London with its swirling fogs, its gentlemen’s clubs and Hansom cabs or Maigret’s Paris with its bistros, the demi-monde of Montmartre and the Seine or indeed Morse with its backdrop of Oxford’s ancient places of learning. In my opinion, none of them would be quite as good if they were set elsewhere. That’s not to say that your location has to be romantic or historic, especially so for the more hard-boiled novels. Chandler set his Marlow novels in Los Angeles which he said was ‘A city with all the personality of a paper cup‘. This gritty background though was a perfect foil for the double dealing and dubious characters that inhabit Chandler’s books. I talk about why I chose Letchworth Garden City as a backdrop for my crime stories and how Mankell influenced me to do so in this post.

Several good readers – I’ve written extensively on why you need readers to sanity check your book including this post. Having your book sanity checked before publication is a must. While writing any novel might be equated with keeping your balance on a high wire, your readers are your safety net. They may be the difference between your reputation as a writer living for another day or ending up like a squashed tomato.

Now put it all in the oven – The last part, the inevitable rewrites, can be equated to cooking your dish, the final re-edit as the garnish or the icing on the top. All the ingredients are in there and, once the rewrites are completed, you can hit the ‘publish’ button and your book will be served up to your readers. Hopefully, it will be more like a feast fit to serve a king and less like a dog’s dinner.

Best of luck.

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