Showing posts with label murder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label murder. Show all posts

Friday, May 26

Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim


Writing a Murder Mystery: The First Victim


The first murder victim is unique.

Of course talking about a first victim assumes there will be more than one murder victim. True. But, these days, most murder mysteries DO include more than one victim.

And, honestly, I think it’s easier to structure a murder mystery that has more than one murder. I’ll talk more about story structure later on in this series. (By the way, this post is part of a series on How to Write a Murder Mystery.)

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

3 Things That Make the First Victim Special


1. The first victim brings the detective into the story.


The discovery of the first victim’s body CREATES the Inciting Incident. Regardless of the murderer’s motives, the first victim summons the detective and in this sense they are the reason for everything.

2. Usually, the relationship between the killer and the first victim ties the victims and the suspects together.


In traditional murder mysteries, killers kill for a reason. They have a motive. Since, often, the first victim is the only one the murderer intended to kill, the second, third, etc., victims are killed to tie up loose ends. In this sense, the killer’s motive for dispatching the first victim is either directly or indirectly responsible for all the other deaths.

3. Since the murderer is trying to tie up loose ends, subsequent murders are often more spontaneous than premeditated.


Often, the second and subsequent murders are committed because something went wrong with the first and the murderer is forced to improvise. Or if the first killing was a crime of passion—in other words, there was no plan, the killing was not at all premeditated—the subsequent murders would be done to cover the murderer’s tracks and so could be sloppy and rushed. And THIS—this lack of finesse—could itself be a clue.

Other factors:


The murderer plans for multiple victims rather than just one.


Granted, it isn’t always the case that the murderer begins his crime spree only intending to kill one person. Sometimes the murderer has a list of people who he feels either did him wrong or who harmed someone he loves. Or perhaps the murderer has a goal and to reach this goal he will have to kill more than one person.

A classic example of this often has to do with a tontine. With a tontine, a number of people contribute to a fund. As each of them die the fund grows larger. When the second to last person dies the final survivor controls the remaining capital. This provided the motive for no end of murders—at least in stories!

Also, although it didn’t have anything to do with a tontine, Agatha Christie’s most popular novel—And Then There Were None—features a murderer who intended to kill absolutely everyone, the entire cast of characters!

In this case the first murder victim isn’t as important, though the detective won’t know that. In this case sometimes the murderer intends the first murder to be a distraction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder Three Act Tragedy the first murder is a trial run. The murderer had nothing against the first victim—in fact, the first victim was randomly chosen!—he was simply testing out his murder method.

Wrap Up


I’ve found that in many murder mystery stories, the second, third, and so on, murders usually are a response to factors that unfold AFTER the initial crime.

Often, though not always.

Sometimes the murderer intends to kill two or more people, though even in these cases additional murders can occur as plans unravel and the murderer, panicked, tries to tie up loose ends.

Whatever the case, the murderer is changed by the first murder. He or she is now a different person. This can be shown in a number of ways. After this, the stakes are higher, they wonder if the police suspect them, their stress levels increase. Depending on how good the murderer is at dealing with stress, this could lead to them making mistakes, blurting out information they should have kept quiet about, or doing something rash because they're driven by fear.

In my next post I'll talk more about how to create a murder victim.



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book, a murder mystery, I’ve read a number of times. Each time I discovered something new and valuable! I’m talking about Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mystery: And Then There Were None.

From the blurb: “The world's best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies sold! / Ten people, each with something to hide and something to fear, are invited to a lonely mansion on Indian Island by a host who, surprisingly, fails to appear. On the island they are cut off from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives. One by one, the guests share the darkest secrets of their wicked pasts. And one by one, they die…”




Tuesday, March 28

Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two


Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two


"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing." —Lee Goldberg[1]
“One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.” —Jim Butcher[3]
A murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. It is not primarily about the detective, it is not primarily about the sleuth’s sidekick, it is not even primarily about the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill. If your detective doesn’t have a strong antagonist to butt heads with, things will get boring quickly. In a murder mystery creating a strong murderer can be especially tricky because readers (hopefully!) don’t know who the antagonist is until the very end.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of creating a strong antagonist, one your readers will love to hate. It is the battle between the protagonist and antagonist, their contest of wills, that generates the narrative drive that will mercilessly pull readers through the story.

How to Create an Interesting Murderer


Make the antagonist sympathetic: As strange as it may seem, we want readers to become emotionally connected to the antagonist. Readers need to be able to see themselves in the antagonist and, in so doing, understand her. (Or at least that's one way to go. Many of Agatha Christie's antagonists weren't in the least sympathetic and yet her stories are worldwide bestsellers.)

The antagonist provides obstacles for the protagonist: The antagonist puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist as she seeks to identify the murderer. This generates narrative drive by either providing new clues (or pseudo clues) or by resolving one clue while providing another.

The antagonist is equal but opposite: The antagonist is often very much like the protagonist. For instance, Luke and Darth Vader were both strong in The Force and both trained as Jedi Knights. One could say they both wanted what was best but they had very different ideas about what that was.

One crucial difference: There is one crucial difference between the protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist will hold a value that the antagonist doesn’t. So, for instance, the protagonist generally does something unselfish, sometimes it doesn’t even make much rational sense. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dr. Belloq was Indiana Jones’ nemesis. They were both archaeologists, they were both passionate about finding and bringing back the Ark and they both liked Marion Ravenwood. The big difference? People were more important to Indiana than relics.

5 Questions to Ask about the Murderer:


1. Who does the murderer need to kill? 


I’ve found that, usually, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectations against them (for example, Three Act Tragedy, The A.B.C. Murders).

2. What is the murder method?


Is the murder method, the means of death, an arcane poison? Or perhaps it's a normal poison but there is a problem figuring out how, or when, it was administered? Get creative! If at all possible make the murder method unique and extreme—which is to say, memorable. Read books, watch TV. Write down the many and various ways characters are dispatched. Mix and match. Use what you find to generate your own ideas.

3. Why does the killer need to kill? What is her motivation?


P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love.”[2]

Lust. This is perhaps the oldest motive. Someone sees something they feel they can't live without. Something they covet, something they obsess over. It could be the corner office or the most beautiful girl at prom. It could be your neighbor's wife.

Lucre. Greed. The murderer wants to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous and is willing to do anything to make that happen.

Loathing. Hatred. The desire to settle a grudge. A perceived offence. The desire to do unspeakable things to the drunk driver who mowed down your wife and children. His lawyer got him off on a technicality, so now you're taking matters into your own hands.

Love: Someone stole the heart of the person you've loved since fifth grade and then threw her away like garbage. As a result she committed suicide. Now you're out for revenge.

4. What does the murderer stand to lose, what are the stakes?


The murderer wants to prevent the detective from identifying her. If she fails in this then she will either be killed or spend the rest of her life in prison. In addition, she'll likely lose all her friends and possibly her family as well.

Of course often the stakes are more specific, more personal. It could be that the murderer is trying to save something he loves, a winery, a restaurant, or a relationship. For him, the worst thing in the world would be to lose that, but if he is revealed as the murderer the thing he loves most in the world will be ripped from him.

5. What did the killer do wrong? What did she overlook?


It seems axiomatic—at least in fiction—that every killer, no matter how intelligent or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever, trying to pull the wool over the detective's eyes. But her detective turned this into a trap. For example, Poirot assumed the guise of the silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was his armor, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game.

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling.

My point is that by working backward, looking at the killer, figuring out the motive and the murder method, and then asking where she slipped up is much easier than doing things the other way around.

The Goal: To Surprise the Reader


Never lose sight of the goal: to surprise the reader. I like it when I figure out the identity of the murderer a few paragraphs before the detective unmasks her. That way I feel clever because I've guessed right but I’m not bored.

Even more important, though, than surprising the reader is playing fair. Or, more precisely, it is important that the reader believes you’ve played fair and haven’t unfairly misled them. The reader must feel that everything hangs together and makes perfect sense.



Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

This is one of my favorites: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 10.

From the blurb: "At the dawn of the 20th century, Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) solves Toronto's trickiest cases with scientific insight and ingenuity in the tenth season of the award-winning mystery series."




Notes:


1. How to Write a Murder Mystery, by Lee Goldberg.

2. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.

3. How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

Sunday, March 12

The Structure of a Murder Mystery in 5 Acts

The Structure of a Murder Mystery in 5 Acts


What follows is a structure—one-among-many—a murder mystery could have. If you would like to read about a general story structure head over here: The Structure of a Great Story: How to Write a Suspenseful Tale!

Below, I’ve broken a murder mystery into six main events stretched over five acts.

A Murder Mystery in Six Events


1. A Crime
2. 1st Murder
3. Crime solved
4. 2nd Murder
5. Sleuth’s Trap
6. Reveal & Wrap Up

I'll discuss each of these in more detail in what follows.

Again, I want to stress that I’m not saying this is how all murder mysteries are structured, simply that this is one way a murder mystery could be structured.

A Murder Mystery in Five Acts


Act One: The Crime, Murderer Introduced and the 1st Body Found


Opens with: The Crime.

The Crime. In the first act a crime occurs and is the inciting incident for that act (not the main story). The crime is not the first murder. It could be blackmail, common assault, burglary, vandalism, etc. Your detective could investigate this crime or someone else might. For instance, if your detective works as a homicide detective this would be outside her purview. Or if your detective runs a bake shop this particular crime might involve those close to her, but not involve her directly.[1]

The Murderer is introduced. The murderer doesn’t have to be introduced in Act One, but I think it’s a good idea. If you don’t introduce the murderer here try to at least have one or more of your characters mention him or her in conversation.

The 1st Body. At the end of Act One we have the Inciting Incident for the main arc of the story: The first body is discovered. This event draws the detective into the story.

Close with: Finding the 1st body.

Act Two: Detective Introduced and Led Astray


Opens with: The detective. Perhaps the detective is at the crime scene or at the morgue. Generally I think it works best if the detective is introduced with the victim since it was the victim who, in a sense, called him into the story. It is the victim the detective seeks justice for.

Detective Introduced. The detective and her sidekick/helper are introduced and interview the suspects. They will likely also talk to one or two experts over the course of the story.

Led Astray. Initially, the murder leads the detective astray. Gives them a red herring. As a result of this, the murderer gains the upper hand. (The detective likely won't realize this is the case until after the second body is found.)

2nd body found. The detective feels he is partially responsible for this person’s death. Perhaps he suspected this person wasn’t telling him everything but he didn’t press her because she seemed frail and elderly, or perhaps the sleuth and this person had a relationship.

Closes with: The second body is discovered.

Act Three: Crime Solved and the Detective Knows Who the Killer Is


Begins with: The detective at the crime scene or in the morgue. He discusses with his helper/sidekick how the death changes things, his current theory of the crime, and so on. This is a low point for the detective. The murderer has the upper hand.

New information sets the sleuth on the right track. We’re at the midpoint now and this storyline should resolve and loop back into your main arc. This will have the effect of giving the detective a major revelation into either the circumstances of the first murder or the murderer himself/herself. At this point the detective gets information that gives him a whole new perspective on the case.

Crime Solved. The detective uses the information, his increased knowledge, to solve the initial crime. The detective is back on his game and the murderer is nervous.

Detectives figures out the identity of the murderer. Detectives figures out the identity of the murderer. This act ends with the detective at a high point. He has solved the initial crime and this resolution combined with something his sidekick says (it doesn't have to be this, though it often is), allows him to identify the murderer. The detective also, often, knows how the murderer pulled it off, he just doesn't have any proof.

Ends with: The detective solving the crime.

Act Four: Third Body Found; Sleuth Lays a Trap for the Killer; The Reveal


Begins with: The sleuth puts into action a plan to trap the killer.

Act Four begins with a sequel. We need to all be on the same page. The sleuth is about to keep something from Watson, which means he’s going to keep something from the reader. We need to be sure not to trick the reader, not to keep anything back. All the clues need to be on the table at this point.

The Third ‘Murder.’ There really is no third murder. This is a trap the detective lays for the killer. Perhaps the murderer wants to kill the sleuth and the sleuth fakes his death. Perhaps the sleuth gets an accomplice to blackmail the killer and the killer takes the bait and appears to murder the blackmailer (or perhaps the murderer is apprehended before he or she can do the deed; if this is the case then it also serves as The Reveal).

The Reveal. The murderer thinks he’s in the clear, he’s gotten away with it. Everyone is in the library sipping brandy and pulling a long face. The detective says, “Well, at least I now know who committed the crimes.” The real killer thinks the detective is a fool and plays along.

The detective begins to lay out all the clues, explaining things as though he is still fooled by the murderer. Then he explains why the person the murderer was framing couldn’t have done it.

This makes everyone nervous. What is the detective talking about? What he’s suggesting is impossible! We know the victims were murdered, but the detective has ruled everyone out!

Then the detective says: No. The killer was clever, yes, but he was up against me, the great one! He never had a chance. The detective then goes on to explain what the real killer's plan was, what his motives where and how he did what he did.

The killer now feels like a cornered animal, fighting for its life. He passionately denies everything. "No, this is impossible! This is outrageous!"

But then comes the final detail, the final twist. The third victim isn’t dead! It had been a trap all along! The killer, panicked, springs up ready to run but is overpowered by the detective’s helper and the rest of the suspects.

Ends with: The reveal. The detective reveals the killers identity.

Act Five: The Wrap Up


Begins with: The detective explains how he discovered the identity of the murderer and ties up all the loose ends.

Finish explaining the clues. The first part of the wrap up deals with any unresolved details, any unanswered questions from the reveal. You can take a bit of time here.

Resolve the relationship arcs. The second part of the wrap up deals with relationship arcs, resolving them and tying them off. Make sure the detective and his sidekick, their conflict, is resolved right before the end.

Ends with: The detective, having wrapped up all the relationship arcs, goes back to his ordinary life.

* * *

I want to stress again that this is just one of thousands of possibilities for how you could structure a murder mystery.



Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Witness for the Prosecution, by Agatha Christie.

This is, hands down, one of the best plotted stories I have ever read! If you’ve never seen it before—I believe it started out life as a play—read it! Or, if you like, watch the 1957 movie of the same name. Don’t let anyone tell you the ending, though! It’s one of the best endings of a mystery story, ever!

From the blurb: “When wealthy spinster Emily French is found murdered, suspicion falls on Leonard Vole, the man to whom she hastily bequeathed her riches before she died.”



That’s it! I have another post nearly finished, one that picks up some of these same themes. In the meantime, good writing! :-)

Notes:

1. Above, I suggested beginning your murder mystery with a run-of-the-mill crime but there's another way to approach this, a way that can increase the stakes and start things off with spine-tingling excitement: Show the murder happening. The body, though, is still found at the end of the first act.

Friday, May 23

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2


This discussion of how to write a murder mystery is a continuation of my last post (see: How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery). In that post I talked about:

- The qualities of a terrific detective
- The importance of personality, character, strengths and weaknesses, and relationships
- The setting/arena
- The inciting incident
- Clues, what kinds there are and how to use them
- Character solutions vs forensic solutions

Today I'm going to conclude by examining:

- Other characters such as the murderer and the victim
- Open versus closed mysteries
- The importance of fair play

What follows is from Lee Goldberg's wonderful article, How To Write A Murder Mystery.

Other Characters


Lee Goldberg writes:

"I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?"[3]

Putting this in point form:

- What makes these characters interesting?
- What are their goals?
- How does each character's goal (or goals) conflict with those of the other characters?
- How do these goals create obstacles for the hero/main character/detective?
- How do the other characters help the reader understand the setting/arena?

The Murderer


"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing."[1]

- Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I find that, often, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectation against them (for example, Murder in Three Acts, The A.B.C. Murders).

- How does the killer do it?

What is the murder method? An arcane poison? Or a normal poison that no one can figure out how it was administered? Locked room mysteries also fall into this category. Or perhaps (and this is truly diabolical) the victim is forced to kill him/herself (A Study in Pink, Se7en). 

- Why does the killer need to kill?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."[4] True. We could also say that:

- The murderer wants to prevent certain information from coming out about him, information that would radically transform his life in ways he would hate. 

- The murderer wants to take revenge on someone because they radically transformed her life in ways she hated.

- The murderer wants to radically transform his life into something (he thinks would be) infinitely better. And so on.

- What did the killer do wrong? What did he/she overlook?

It seems axiomatic--at least in fiction--that every killer, no matter how intelligent they are or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever and trying to pull the wool over Poirot's eyes. But this was a trap. Poirot assumed the guise of a silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was, in a way, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what he/she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to his/her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind immediately is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands, of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling. (Sorry. Sherlock is one of my favorite shows and I tend to rhapsodize. Moving on.)

The Victim


Lee Goldberg writes:

"And then I ask myself the big questions—who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? Is it an 'open' or 'closed' mystery?"

Putting this in point form: 

a. Who gets murdered?
b. How are they killed?
c. Why are they killed?
d. Is it an "open" or "closed" mystery.

Let's take these one at a time:

a. Who gets murdered?

Lee Goldberg doesn't have a lot to say about the victim, so let me draw on a point I made--I borrowed it from W.H. Auden--in Writing a Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of The Murder Victim.

W.H. Auden, self-confessed addict of English-style whodunits, believed the following about the victim:

i) All your characters should have a reason to want to kill them.

ii) All your characters should have some sort of change in feeling for the victim after they learn of their death. 

For example, a character who loathed the victim might feel guilty for wanting her dead; or perhaps just worried that her (widely known) sentiments about the victim will make her the detective's primary suspect.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is simply that the victim's death must be a catalyst for that most important aspect of storytelling: change.

b. How are they killed?

Susan Spann advises us to kill our characters with style: 

"In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels."[5]

Here are the results of my google-foo:

- Death by Egyptian curse
- Death by puffer fish poison
- Death by ricin
- Death by caffeine
- Death by puppets
- Death by robot
- Death by milk (In honor of Mr. Monk)

c. Why are they killed?

I've already talked, in general terms, about motives. Here we're interested in specifics. We want to know why, within the context of the story, this character was done away with. 


Let's say that there are two broad reasons why people murder: 

i) People murder to radically transform their life in ways that they think they would like.

ii) People murder to keep their life from being radically transformed in ways they don't think they would like.

In other words, folks murder because they want good things or because they want to avoid bad things. But that's general. To put meat on those bones (or tofu, if that's your preference) we need to know what the murderer wants, what he desires. And to know that we need to know what his strengths and weaknesses are. 

I talked about this last time in regards to the hero, but it applies to the murderer as well.

d. Open vs Closed

Lee Goldberg explains the terms "open mystery" and "closed mystery" as pertaining to the readers/viewers knowledge. If the reader/viewer knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning then the mystery is open. On the other hand, if the reader/viewer finds out about the identity of the murderer at approximately the same time the detective unveils his/her identity, then it's closed.

Goldberg adds that whether a mystery is open or closed is determined by the series concept. For example, in a Columbo episode the viewer usually[2] knew the identity of the murderer from the beginning. Cracker, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and scads of other TV shows are examples of closed murder mysteries. Diagnosis Murder--one of the shows Lee Goldberg both wrote for and produced--had both open and closed murders.

Trying to decide which kind of structure will work best for your tale? Lee Goldberg writes that:

"An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime and finding the flaws you didn’t see.

"A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it."[1]

The Importance Of Fair Play


"In a true whodunit, the reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair. That means that all of the clues, including the 'Ah, ha!,' have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them."[1]

Never withhold clues from your readers. They need to find out about all clues at the same time as your detective.

The detective can't receive crucial information 'off-screen,' the reader needs to see the detective finding everything. Now, that doesn't mean that the detective has to explain the significance of the clue to the reader. Generally that's kept back for the final reveal.

It can be tempting to hide clues from the reader because then it's easier to keep the reader in the dark, it's easier to keep them from guessing the identity of the murderer before you want them to. It is also a sure-fire way to make your readers mad as aggrieved hornets and you don't want that! 

How To Play Fair


What's the trick? How do we give readers all the facts and keep them from guessing the identity of the killer? Lee Goldberg writes:

"Obviously, you want to distract, trick, and manipulate the readers and make it as hard as possible for them to solve the crime, but you can do that without keeping important information from them. You just have to be artful about turning their attention away from it, to get them to focus on the wrong things.

"As the author, you have a real advantage. You are the control voice in The Outer Limits. You control point-of-view, in essence the camera through which the reader is seeing and interpreting the world. For instance, if in your story the detectives are focusing on what’s in the room where a murder took place, talking about each item in detail, tracing the history of each piece, that’s what the reader will be thinking about, too, and not the real clue that you are distracting them from: what’s not in the room."

An example of distraction.


I watched an episode of Diagnosis Murder the other day. In this episode, Murder with Mirrors, the killer was a magician and the victim was killed by their own trick. 

The victim was handcuffed and dropped into a tank of water. He was supposed to use a lockpick, given to him by his accomplice onstage, to pick the handcuffs and free himself. The problem: the key didn't fit the cuffs. 

Most of the show was spent trying to figure out who had access to the key and who had a motive to swap the real key with a fake one. The problem: no one who had a motive had the opportunity to switch keys. 

The solution: The killer hadn't swapped the key, he'd swapped the handcuffs! The viewer was so busy wondering who had access to the key that they didn't realize someone could have, instead, swapped the handcuffs. At least, that was the hope. As soon as the detective, Mark Sloan (played by Dick Van Dyke), realized this, the case was solved.

In summary. I apologize for quoting so much of Lee Goldberg's article, but it is a terrific article that anyone who wants to write a murder mystery should read. Again, that's How To Write A Murder Mystery by Lee Goldberg.

Further Reading


- Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.
- Writing Nero Wolfe, by Lee Goldberg

In this article Tod Goldberg, Lee Goldberg's brother, talks about why he decided to do the novelization for Burn Notice and what the experience was like:
- Burn Notice: The Novel (Tod Goldberg), by Tod Goldberg, Special to The Times 

Notes/References



2. I say "usually" because in at least one episode the viewer was tricked into thinking they knew the murderer's identity when they didn't. For example, Double Shock and Last Salute to the Commodore.


4. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

5. 25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann, over at Chuck Wendig's blog TerribleMinds.com. (I wrote a post about Susan Spann's post, How To Write A Murder Mystery.)

Photo credit: "241" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 21

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery


Ever wanted to write a murder mystery? I have! I love murder mysteries. I love reading them, I love watching them, I love thinking about them.

And so I was terrifically, fabulously, excited when I discovered that Lee Goldberg--screenwriter, executive producer, award winning mystery author, and New York Times bestselling author--had written an article about how to write a murder mystery. If anyone knows about writing a murder mystery, it's Goldberg. In addition to writing 15 Mr. Monk books (all of which I have read and enjoyed), Goldberg wrote 26 episodes of Diagnosis Murder and was an executive producer for the show. What follows is drawn from Lee Goldberg's article.

The Qualities of a Terrific Detective


Lee Goldberg writes:

"The idea for the mystery will arise from the personality of the hero, and what aspects of his character I want to explore, what arena (a place, industry, sport, culture, etc.) I want to put him in, and finally what kind of conflict I think will best bring all of those aspects together and give me a narrative engine for my story."[1]

The above paragraph, like most of Goldberg's wonderful article, is densely packed with information. Let's write out the points he brought up so we can see it at a glance:

- The detective should have an interesting personality.
- The detective should have a well-developed character.
- The setting (or arena) for the mystery should be pregnant with potential conflict.

The complex interplay of these three things (personality, character and setting) forms the narrative engine for the story.

An example: Adrian Monk


Lee Goldberg writes:

"If the character is, say, Adrian Monk, I start by asking myself what new aspect of his personality, his obsessive/compulsive disorder, and his relationships with others, can I explore this time? What situation can I put him in that he hasn’t been in before?"[1]

Let's unpack this.

1a. Personality


What is personality? For our purposes, I'm going to go with Wikipedia and say that:

"Personality has to do with individual differences among people in behavior patterns, cognition and emotion." (Personality, Wikipedia) 

When we talk about a person's--or a character's--personality we're talking about what is unique to them. What makes them who they are. It is the specific combination of general elements that comes together to make each person unique.

1b. Character


While personality has to do with what makes each individual unique--as well as how that can go wrong--character has more to do with the type of person one is. It has to do with archetypes, tropes. I'm not sure if that's how Goldberg uses the term, but it's how I'll use it in this article. 

1c. Strengths and weaknesses.


Like us, our characters have weaknesses. Mr. Monk had a prodigious memory as well as the ability to make connections between apparently unrelated things. He also suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder and was scared of just about everything. Sherlock Holmes (in Sherlock) is inhumanly smart but socially clueless. Hercule Poirot was brilliant but vain. All characters have strengths and weaknesses. 

1d. Relationships


Our characters strengths and weaknesses define them, but so do their relationships with others. 

Every character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character--the detective--achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting/arena.

1e. Setting/Arena


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Those questions inevitably lead me to the arena, the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. A murder in a police precinct. A road-trip in a motorhome. But an arena is not necessarily a place. It can also be a situation, like the rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of the same man. Or how people cope with unexpected, and devastating financial hardship. Or how having a child changes relationships. The arena can also be a sport. The world of horse racing. The world of stamp collecting.

"You get the idea.

"The arena can be anything. It’s the setting, the backdrop, the context that allows you to reveal your hero to the reader in entertaining and compelling ways."[1]

The Inciting Incident


In a murder mystery the Inciting Incident is often the murder itself. Sometimes--I believe CSI does it this way, or at least used to when I watched CSI Vegas--the murder is shown first and then the hero, the detective (or detectives), comes on scene after the body is discovered. Sometimes the murder isn't shown and we just see the Call to Adventure and the detective is asked to discover the identity of the murderer.

Lee Goldberg writes that the main purpose of what I'm calling the Inciting Incident is to "create conflict and reveal character." Lester Dent wrote about having a clever device for the murder; something interesting, something puzzling. And I think that's important, but whatever one uses, whatever one's Inciting Incident is, it must serve those two functions; one about plot, the other character. It must:

(a) create conflict, and
(b) reveal character.

The Clues


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Now I can get into the nuts and bolts of figuring out the clues, and how the hero will discover them. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, either, because the clues will also be organic to the story, and because of that, they won’t just lead us to the killer, they will also stoke the conflict, illuminate the theme, and open up our arena. The clues will reveal themselves to you. Trust me on this."

The clues must:

- Lead to the killer
- Stoke the conflict
- Illuminate the theme
- Open up the arena

Using the clues.


"I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and some that point right to the murderer."[1]

The finish clue.


"The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as I call it, the “Ah, ha!” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime—but still leaves the reader in the dark.

"The finish clue is the hardest part of writing any mystery for me because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when the hero nails the murderer with it."[1]

Character solutions vs forensic solutions.


Character solutions are, all things being equal, better than forensic solutions. Lee Goldberg writes:

"In my experience, the best “Ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics. For instance, a character solution is having the hero discover that Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew. That’s so much more satisfying than a forensic solution, like finding Aunt Mildred’s finger print, or catching her on a security camera, or anything else that doesn’t require the detective to be clever and make some surprising deductions."[1]

That's it for today. On Friday I'll finish up looking at Lee Goldberg's article: How To Write A Murder Mystery. We'll look at the murderer, the victim, open versus closed mysteries as well as the importance of fair play. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part Two of Two.

Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.

Notes/References



Monday, April 7

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer


W.H. Auden writes that the test of a good detective story is twofold:

a) The reader must be surprised when the sleuth reveals the identity of the murderer.

b) The reader must believe that "everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer."[1]

An excellent test! Also, it highlights an important point: a murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. Not the sleuth, not the sidekick, not even the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill.

Qualities of an Interesting Murderer


1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.


Storytellers want their audience to think the sleuth is clever and resourceful. This means the storyteller must show him being clever and resourceful. But the only way to do this is to pit the sleuth against an opposing force--the murderer--who is every bit as clever and resourceful as the sleuth. 

When the protagonist fails (as he/she inevitably will at some point) we understand that they were up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever then when the sleuth fails ... well, that's just embarrassing! 

Also, when the sleuth finally solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it means  more because the antagonist was clever. So clever, in fact, that only your sleuth could have brought him/her to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.


No inexplicable desires or drives, please. Not in a cosy. The murderer must have an easy-to-understand motive. P.D. James in her wonderful book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes:

"All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing, and love."

3. The murderer could have a deep psychological wound.


I think there are, roughly, two kinds of murderers. Criminal masterminds like Professor Moriarty and garden variety criminals who poison their great aunt so she won't discover they've embezzled all her money. Generally, Agatha Christie portrayed the latter as weak and, possibly, evil. That works for me. 

Which isn't to say that these person-next-door criminals didn't have awful things happen to them which left wounds. I'm sure they did. But I doubt that any wound could explain committing murder. But wounds do something else: they humanize. And that's good because we want round murderers not stick figures like Dr. Fu Manchu.

Murderers like Moriarty, criminal masterminds, are generally  brilliant and calculating. It isn't so much that they have a deep psychological wound which explains their behavior but that some event or series of events radically transformed them into what they are. 

An event or ability. In the TV show Sherlock, Moriarty is portrayed as a brilliant psychopath, almost as clever as Sherlock himself. But his oddess is--or so I thought--explained by his brilliance. He is so smart that he views ordinary humans as ordinary humans view ants. He views himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a moose or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so.

Sleuths and Psychological Wounds


I know this question was about murderers, but I'd like to answer it for sleuths as well. Although this may be seen as heresy, I don't believe that all sleuths need to have a deep psychological wound. Especially if one is writing in something of the style of the (English) golden age mysteries, those set between the wars. (Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are just two of the many authors whose works fall into this category.)

Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot, though excessively fastidious and saddled with a taste in clothes and facial hair that could be comically old-fashioned, did not have a deep psychological wound (and the same goes for Miss Marple and Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey). 

Contrast this with Sherlock from the TV show of the same name. Now that is a character with a deep psychological wound. One of my favorite lines from that show is from the first episode of the first season, A Study In Pink:

Sherlock Holmes: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high functioning sociopath. Do your research."[4]

And then, again, in the last episode of season three: His Last Vow:

Sherlock Holmes: "Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

I would argue that the original Sherlock Holmes did not have a deep psychological flaw. Yes, he was different—quirky—but nothing on the order of the Sherlock Holmes portrayed (brilliantly) by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

And it works. Sherlock is, hands down, my favorite show and I'm not alone. It enjoys a 9.3/10 rating over at IMDb and a 9.1 user score over at Metacritic.com.  

But Poirot is popular as well. Agatha Christie is, after all, the world's third best selling novelist and the most popular mystery writer of all time.

Whether to give your sleuth a deep emotional flaw might depend on the kind of murder mystery you intend to write. In a cosy it is the sleuth's ratiocination that takes center stage. We are concerned with logic; as Poirot would say, it is all about order and method.

On the other hand, in a hardboiled detective mystery such as "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," the logic of the crime is downplayed in favor of the sleuth understanding how the city, the police and the gangsters operate. That, and the sleuth's ability to take a punch as well as give one. In keeping with the setting, these sleuths are darker and more flawed.

4. Make the conflict personal.


Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Make the murderer want to taunt the sleuth. Make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then?

Yes, not being able to solve the puzzle or, worse, offering up an incorrect solution--being foiled by the murderer--could not only ruin the sleuth's reputation (assuming he cares) but send an innocent person to prison. And that is something the sleuth must care about. I think that's a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one depraved, sick, puppy.


For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask they are getting more desperate and their sickness, their desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.


Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he's going to fail. Often this happens at the midpoint. The sleuth--or the sleuth's helper--thinks they know who did it. But they're wrong. Often the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.


The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the book she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. Now we get to see her as she really is. We get to see the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Although there is a lot more that can be said about qualities the murderer should, or could, have; qualities that would contribute to making him or her an interesting character, one a reader would love to hate, that's it for today. In the next episode of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I'll talk about the second most important character in a murder mystery: the sleuth.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series:


Links/References


1. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at Harpers.org. This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
2. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at OpenCulture.com.
3. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...
4. This line is from the episode, "A Study in Pink," from the TV show Sherlock. Episode written by [].

I also drew from my previous articles:

Photo credit: "Taking A Fence" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 3

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs


Today I examine certain structural elements of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries. Specifically, I look at two things. First, how soon the initial murder tended to occur and, second, a common plot device; namely, a way she diverted suspicion from the murderer early on in the story.

This is the third and last instalment of my series on Agatha Christie--though, that said, I've had so much fun writing these articles I'm sure I'll blog about her, and the secret of her remarkable success, again. In case you want to read them, here are links to the first and second articles:


The Murder Tends To Occur Later In The Story


As I mentioned in my first post, though many (perhaps most) murder mystery authors have a corpse turn up within the first few pages it was not uncommon for Christie to hold off introducing the first murder until well into the second act. 

To double-check this, I looked up where the first murder falls in a few of Agatha Christie's novels. Here's what I discovered:

(1920) The Mysterious Affair at Styles: 14%
(1923) The Murder on the Links: 8%
(1924) The Man in the Brown Suit: 9%
(1926) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: 1%
(1927) The Big Four: 6%
(1928) The Mystery of the Blue Train: 30%
(1930) The Murder at the Vicarage: 15% 
(1931) The Sittaford Mystery: 9%
(1932) Peril at End House: 34%
(1933) Lord Edgware Dies: 20%
(1936) Murder in Mesopotamia: 24%
(1937) Death on the Nile: 46%
(1941) Evil Under The Sun: 23%
(1944) Towards Zero: 48%
(1950) A Murder Is Announced: 13%

The percentage indicates how far into the novel the first murder occurred. If I were doing this scientifically I would list all of Christie's 66 mystery novels. As it is, from this far-from-random sample, the average percentage is 20%. It seems that, on average, Christie waited until the end of the second of the three acts to bump off her first victim.

It seems as though the more Christie wrote the more comfortable she became with delaying the first murder, sometimes even until the middle of the book!

Her reasoning for this? For Christie, the murder was the culmination of the murderer's plot and so needed to be built up to. It wasn't the beginning of the story, it was the middle; the first part belonged to the murderer (though his/her identity was hidden from us) while the second belonged to the sleuth. 

It's a trade-off. Risk losing your reader by not providing something exciting up front or risk losing them because they don't care enough about the characters for it to matter one was snuffed out.

A Common Plot Device: The character whose life appeared to be in danger was really the murderer.


Although this doesn't happen in all or even the majority of Agatha Christie's stories it does happen in quite a few. (Spoiler warning.)

a. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)


The victim, Emily Inglethorp, dies of strychnine poisoning and her husband Alfred Inglethorp, a man many years her junior, is immediately suspected. He will benefit financially from her death and he was seen purchasing strychnine in the village. Poirot, though, proves that Alfred could not have purchased the strychnine and the suspicions of the police settle elsewhere. However, it was Alfred Inglethorp who, along with Emily's companion Evelyn Howard, killed his wife.

b. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)


When Colonel Lucius Protheroe is killed the first suspect is his wife, Anne Protheroe. Lawrence Redding, her lover, confesses to the murder (we are led to believe he did so because he thought Anne was the murderer and wanted to protect her). Then Anne Protheroe confesses (ostensibly to protect her lover, Lawrence). However, after many entertaining twists and turns, we find that Anne and Lawrence are, indeed, the murderers.

c. Peril at End House (1932)


This is one of my favorite and, I believe, best plotted, Poirot mysteries.

Shortly after Poirot meets Magdala "Nick" Buckley he comes to believe that someone is trying to kill her. But, really, Nick has planted false clues to give Poirot that impression. Her goal is to prevent her prize possession, End House, from going to reck and ruin. To this end she murders her cousin, Maggie Buckley, to gain access to a fortune the girl recently inherited. This plot is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is a drug smuggling ring. But Poirot unravels this knotty problem and arrives at the truth.[1] 

d. Lord Edgeware Dies (1933)


When Lord Edgeware is found dead in his study his estranged wife, Jane Wilkinson, is immediately suspected of the murder. After all, she had come to his house the night before, announced herself, and visited him in his study at around the time he was killed. 

The problem: Jane couldn't have killed him because she had a cast-iron alibi: at the time of the murder she had been at a dinner party with thirteen other people. Poirot believes the true killer hired a master of disguise to impersonate and incriminate Jane. The plan went wrong because the mastermind hadn't known Jane was going to be at the dinner party. 

In the end it turns out that Poirot was correct but he'd gotten it the wrong way around. The killer had hired an impersonator to pretend to be Jane, but that person was Jane herself! While everyone thought she was at the dinner party she had actually been murdering Lord Edgeware.

e. Three Act Tragedy (1935)


The murderer, Sir Charles Cartwright, tests his method of murder at his cocktail party. He puts poison in a cocktail and then watches as a random guest, Reverend Babbington, drinks it and dies. Although Cartwright does his best to get Poirot to suspect murder, since no poison is found in the glass, the Reverend's death is ruled to be due to natural causes. 

Emboldened, Cartwright (wearing a disguise) uses the same method to kill his lifelong friend, Dr. Bartholomew Strange. His motive: Love. He wanted to marry Hermione Lytton Gore (called "Egg") but was already married to a woman he could not divorce. The only person who knew this was Dr. Strange.[2] 

Here are a few other novels where Christie used this motif:

f. Death on the Nile (1937)
g. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
h. Towards Zero (1944)
i. The Hollow (1946)
j. A Murder Is Announced (1950)
k. Ordeal by Innocence (1958)
l. The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962)
m. At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
n. Curtain (1975)

3. The Reveal


Though I don't believe it was unique to Agatha Christie, it was a mark of her stories that all the suspects gathered together, at the end, to await the sleuth's dramatic unravelling of the case. The sleuth generally did three things:

a. Recounts all the clues and reveals whether they were irrelevant, a red herring, or genuine.

b. As the sleuth recounts the clues he exposes the secrets of all those gathered. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for everyone lying to him! 

c. The sleuth unmasks his hidden adversary, the killer, and turns them over to the police. (Occasionally the killer will kill himself rather than be apprehended and hanged.)

Now, as their evil deeds are laid bare, the murderer shows his/her true face. Where before they seemed sweet and caring now they show themselves to be self-involved and contemptuous of others.

Agatha Christie's Plot Devices


At some point in the future I would like to write another post--or series of posts--on the plot devices Agatha Christie used. In the meantime, here are a couple of excellent articles on the subject:


Thanks for reading!

Links/References


1. As in A Murder is Announced, Christie uses nicknames vs real names to set up a vital clue early on.
2. Another motif in Christie's stories (this is evidenced in A Murder is Announced as well) is that often the murderer is forced to kill someone they love dearly in order to obtain something they love even more.) 

Photo credit: "Ghost..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 26

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules


Today I'm continuing with the second part of my two part series on how to write like the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Today I want to look at three things:

1. Agatha Christie the rebel
2. Christie's story structure
3. The reveal

I feel that each of these elements contributed not only to her astonishing success but to the uniqueness of her work.

By the way, my title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I truly don't believe there was a secret to Christie's success; no formula exists for reproducing her phenomenal achievements. That said, I do believe that part of her success was due to her willingness to flout the conventions of her craft and risk the ire of critics as well as her peers.

(Note: Though I did try to get through all these points, I only made it through the first. As a result this article is actually part two of a three part series.)

1. Christie did the unexpected, even the forbidden


There is a story making the rounds that Agatha Christie was nearly thrown out of the Detection Club because she so thoroughly and regularly broke their rules of fair play in writing, specifically her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. According to the story it was Dorothy L. Sayers (then club president) who cast the vote that saved her from the disgrace of expulsion.

While this is a terrific story, I doubt it ever happened. (Since this is off topic, I'll put my reasons for disbelief in footnote 9, see below.) The reason I mention the story is because the tale nicely illustrates an essential truth about Christie's work: she wasn't afraid to break rules or flout conventions. For example, although I doubt anyone wanted to expel her for it, she did likely break the rules of the Detection Club more than any other writer. [11]

Let's take a look at each rule of the detection club (these seem to have been less like rules and more like ethical guidelines) and see whether, and how, Christie broke it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Rule #1: "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know."


Famously, Agatha Christie broke this rule in her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. That book is told by the killer who is acting as Hercule Poirot's assistant--his Watson--in the case. Further, it is told using the first person, so one does know the innermost thoughts of the narrator/killer. 

This certainly didn't seem to hurt the book! This is from Wikipedia:

"It [The Murder of Roger Ackroyd] is one of Christie's best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre. The short biography of Christie which is included in the present UK printings of all of her books states that this novel is her masterpiece. Howard Haycraft, in his seminal 1941 work, Murder for Pleasure, included the novel in his "cornerstones" list of the most influential crime novels ever written. The character of Caroline Sheppard was later acknowledged by Christie as a possible precursor to her famous detective Miss Marple." (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

Not satisfied, in 1967 Christie broke the rule again in her critically acclaimed Endless Night.

Rule #2: "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course."


Off the top of my head, The Idol House of Astarte and Dead Man's Mirror violated this rule. Yes, the final solution didn't involve anything supernatural but the supernatural wasn't ruled out until the very end. That is, a supernatural explanation wasn't ruled out as a matter of course but, instead, seemed to be taken seriously. (Also, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb)

Rule #3: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable."


Christie had a lot of fun with secret rooms and passages, but (as far as I can recall) nearly always used them as a red herring, something the murderer used in an attempt to throw the sleuth off the trail. For example, Three Act Tragedy and Peril at End House. However Christie did use them more seriously in The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly.

Rule #4: "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end."


I don't think Agatha Christie broke this rule. 

Rule #5: Do not use stereotyped boogymen. [This is my paraphrase of the original rule.]


Just last night I re-watched the BBC's excellent adaptation of Cards on the Table which breaks rule number five, a rule which I take as saying that one must not use fictional stereotyped boogymen like Fu Manchu. One's villains (in this case Mr. Shaitana) must be three-dimensional (or round). 

In Cards on the Table Christie subverted the steriotype. Though I have never read a book that Fu Manchu appeared in, it seems he was, fundamentally, the kind of character who killed people and did all sorts of dastardly deeds. Christie cleverly subverts that steriotype in Cards my making Mr. Shaitana do the completely unexpected--he kills himself. This is made plausible by the psychological state of the man and what he hoped to accomplish by the act.

Rule #6: No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.


Though I have to say that Christie didn't always play fair with the reader--in at least one of her stories I swear there was no way a reader could have guessed the solution--I can't think of a book of hers in which this occurred. (Can you? If so, please leave a comment.)

Rule #7: "The detective himself must not commit the crime."


Christie shattered this rule more than once. She did this first and most spectacularly (as we have seen) in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but also in Endless Night

Rule #8: "The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover."


I think Christie tended to play fair with this. Her detectives shared all their clues with the reader, but almost never shared the inferences drawn from them, except at the end.

Rule #9: "The 'sidekick' of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."


As we have discussed, Christie shattered this one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Rule #10: "Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."


I think Christie played fair with this. One of the books she used this idea in (though they aren't, strictly speaking, twins) with great effect is A Murder is Announced.

Agatha Christie's Score: How much of a rule breaker was she?


What is Agatha Christie's score?

Rule 1: Broken
Rule 2: Broken
Rule 3: Subverted
Rule 4: Kept
Rule 5: Subverted
Rule 6: Mostly kept
Rule 7: Broken
Rule 8: Kept
Rule 9: Broken
Rule 10: Kept

(By "subverted" I mean that while Christie technically broke the rule she still played fair with the reader. By "broken" I mean to indicate that, strictly speaking, she did not play fair.)

Well, 4 out of 10 isn't bad! (grin) So she broke the rules more than she kept them, but she did it intelligently, creatively and with wit.

Thanks for reading and I promise to wrap up this series in one more post. (Perhaps not the next post--I think I'll blog about something else next time--but soon.)

Links/References


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by FreelanceWriting.com.
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at christiemystery.co.uk.
3. "Agatha Christie," Wikipedia.org.
4. "Random House employees get $5,000 bonuses, thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’," by Caitlin Dewey over at The Washington Post.
5. "Fifty Shades of Grey," Wikipedia.org.
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie," tvtropes.org.
7. "Mystery Tropes," tvtropes.org.
8. Some accounts have the Detection Club forming as late as 1930. Either way, however, my point stands.
9. First, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926 and the murder club didn't start up until 1928.[8] Presumably the other authors had read, or at least knew of, Agatha Christie's work and wouldn't have invited her to join if they so disapproved with her methods.
     Second, Dorothy L. Sayers became president of the Detection Club in 1949, 23 years after Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I find it difficult to believe that it took (at least) 23 years for the members to become so incensed at the flouting of their rules that they clamoured to expel her. 
     Third, in the documentation I have read about Christie and the Detection Club [link to post on murder site], the members--especially by 1949--seem to have been in awe of Agatha Christie so I doubt any of them would have demanded her removal.
     But, I could be wrong. As they say, life is stranger than fiction. If anyone has any concrete information about this please do leave a comment or use my comment form to contact me privately.
10. The oath and initiation ceremony of the Detection Club. A-Z Challenge – Rules of the Detection Club (circa 1929), by elegsabiff over at Quite Contrary.
11. S.S. Van Dine also formulated a set of rules. See: Twenty rules for writing detective stories.

Photo credit: "Breaking the rules" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0. The original photo is "Chicken Run" by Alison Christine under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.