Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts

Saturday, May 15

The Structure of Genre: Analyzing story structure by genre

The Structure of Genre: Analyzing story structure by genre

I’ve been on a journey of sorts over the past decade. I wanted to understand--intellectually, but also on a blood and bone level--the elements of a good story. Why am I unable to put one book down while another is a cure for insomnia? 

I've talked quite a lot about the structure of Story write large, but in this article I muse about the structure of genre stories.

To read more about this, here is a link to my article over on my substack: The Structure of Genre.

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! :-)


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.

Wednesday, September 7

Review: Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

I began reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins in part because it was compared favorably to Gillian Flynn's spellbinding novel, Gone Girl, and partly because many of the reviews I read described the story as Hitchcockian. When I was a kid I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock's movies with my dad. He loved those movies like some love fine wine. My affection for Hitchcock's movies soon mirrored his own, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

And I was not disappointed!

By now I'm sure you're familiar with the plot. The protagonist, Rachel Watson, has been fired from her job for alienating a client because she was drunk, and yet she continues to take the train into London every workday, often taking advantage of the journey to drink herself into oblivion.

On her way to and from London the train passes the house where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband, Tom. Tom has married Anna, the woman for whom he left Rachel, and they have a child.

To distract herself from the painful reality of her life, Rachel fantasizes about another couple who live just down the street from Tom and Anna. In her imagination they are a lovely couple, upstanding citizens and very much in love. Their lives are perfect, they are perfect. This is the life she wanted, the life (or something like it) she believes she once had with her ex-husband Tom.

Of course the rest of the book systematically, relentlessly, painfully, dismantles her fantasy and forces Rachel to let go of her illusions and face the reality of her life with Tom. Somewhere along Rachel's path of self-revelation a killer is exposed in a rather delicious twist (I won't spoil it!).

My thoughts on Girl on the Train:

Rachel is about as likable as she is reliable, which is to say not much. She has her share of glaring faults—as do we all—but her life is melting down around her and, in her own confused and confusing way, she tries to grope her way through.

Strangely, I ended up relating to Rachel in part because of her unreliability as a narrator. What I found appealing was the way Paula Hawkins deftly prises apart two reasons for Rachel's unreliability. Often Rachel is unreliable because she tries to live in a fantasy but she is also occasionally unreliable because she honestly believes—and has more-or-less good reason to believe—something that is not true.

Part of the task Hawkins sets the reader is teasing those threads apart.

All in all, a wonderful—and wonderfully addictive—read.

I'm giving Girl on the Train 4.5 stars out of 5 because some (many?) of Rachel's actions appear bizarre or unmotivated. Sure one can say, Well, she's melting down, she wasn't in her right mind, but that's the thing. In real life that sort of reason might work, but this is a story. It is (in my humble opinion) supposed to make sense.

But, still, this was a wonderful book and a mesmerizing read. Highly recommended.

That's it for today! I'm trying out a new blogging schedule where I post something Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Do you prefer only two posts a week? Three? Four? Five? Six? Seven? More? Please let me know!) So, I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Other articles you might like: 

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery
Three Ways To Create Suspense
Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Wednesday, October 15

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and thrillers. In a mystery an event happens toward the beginning of the story—often in the first few pages—that violates one’s sense of justice, that shatters the status quo of the community. Things must be set right, justice must be meted out, the wrongdoer(s) must pay. But, first, they must be discovered. (How to write a murderously good mystery.)


In a mystery the crime, often a murder, grows out of a pre-existing rottenness in the social fabric of the community, a rottenness few (if any) suspected was there. For example, in Agatha Christie’s story “Toward Zero” the murder of Lady Tressilian grew from Nevile Strange’s insane desire to possess the woman he loves (Audrey). Years ago he had committed one murder to secure her love and, now, he decides to commit another. The difference is that Nevil’s goal is not to rekindle their devotion but to frame Audrey for murder, in his mind this is just punishment for rejecting him.

On her way to figuring out whodunit the intrepid Miss Marple must bring to light the concealed injustices of the past, for the murder is generally (at least in books!) not a crime of passion or the fruit of psychotic craving, it has a pedigree, it has roots. These roots are generally long and snarled. The primary work of the sleuth is to discover these roots and, in so doing, unmask the perpetrator of the current crime.

In this sense, much of the work of a mystery is spent delving into and uncovering those past events which gave birth to the catastrophic event (/Inciting Incident) which set the current story into motion.


What’s the difference between a murder mystery and a thriller?

Paul Levine, in his article Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers, puts it like this:

“... the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plan, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened.”

I think that’s it in a nutshell. Though, that said, often the hero of a thriller is tasked with doing both. 

In a mystery-thriller the hero must not only discover the perpetrator of a crime, she must also prevent the antagonist from accomplishing his goal. Further, often the crimes the hero is trying to prevent are on a grand scale: “serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments” (Thriller, Wikipedia).

It’s a difference in focus. In a mystery, we look back into the past, back to the murder that became the Inciting Incident.

In a thriller while we do look backward (that’s how the hero uncovers the clues that will allow the protagonist to ultimately outwit the killer), the emphasis, especially at the end of the story, is on the future. Often the hero solves the puzzle and reveals the identity of the antagonist before the climax (though perhaps not long before). The most tense part of a thriller generates that tension through the lives of the characters, characters we have come to care about, being put in danger.

While in a mystery lives are on the line as well they aren’t effected in the same way. In a mystery the characters will not be able to go back to their normal lives (back to the Ordinary World) until the murderer is discovered by the sleuth and revealed to the community. Often one or more characters will be social pariahs, indefinitely under suspicion, if the murderer is not brought to justice.[1] 

Similarities between mysteries and thrillers:

1. Mystery. Thrillers often include a mystery or puzzle. Often this mystery involves some perversion of justice.

2. Suspense. Both mysteries and thrillers are suspenseful, though in a typical murder mystery the life of the sleuth is not put in danger. That said, their reputation and (often) way of life will be on the line.

Differences between mysteries and thrillers:

1. In general, a mystery looks backward while a thriller looks forward. In a mystery, the most horrible perversion of justice lies in the past where, with a thriller, it will occur in the future if the hero does not bring the antagonist to justice.

2. Hero versus Sleuth. The protagonist of a murder mystery is usually some sort of sleuth. They will be either a professional detective (police officer or private detective) or will be recognized as possessing that role by the other characters (for example, Miss Marple). In a thriller, on the other hand, the protagonist’s main goal generally isn’t to solve the mystery, it is to (for example) prevent something from happening in the future or to make sure it does. Yes, solving a mystery is usually crucial to the outcome of the story, but the mystery is not the central event. For example, in the movie “Along Came A Spider” the protagonist’s goal was to return the kidnapped child. In keeping with this, often the protagonist’s of thrillers are neither full-time nor part-time detectives.


It seems to me that the difference between a mystery and a thriller is one of emphasis. In a thriller there is generally a race to the finish line while in a mystery there is a reveal. The sleuth already has all the answers, all that is left is for him to reveal them.[2]


1. Though, that said, Agatha Christie wrote many stories that were clever variations on this theme. For example, in “The King of Clubs” no one was murdered, though there was an unexplained death. Further, if the killer had been exposed this would have brought about an injustice. In another of her stories, “Murder on the Orient Express,” the murder that the sleuth starts off investigating is (on one interpretation) an act of justice.

2. I’m currently reading, “Falling Angel,” by William Hjortsberg, it’s the book on which the 1987 movie “Angel Heart” was based. That book (as well as the movie) is an excellent example of a mystery (the private detective is investigatin g events long past to determine whether Johnny Favorite is alive or dead) but it morphs into something more when many of the people the sleuth talks to end up murdered. It’s one of the best and most daring mysteries I’ve read and provides us with an example of a story that straddles the divide between mystery and thriller.

Photo credit: "the proper order of things is often a mystery to me" by Robert Couse-Baker 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.


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  

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:


1. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at 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
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!


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. 

In Cards on the Table Christie subverted the stereotype. 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 stereotype in Cards my making Mr. Shaitana do the completely unexpected--he arranged for his own murder. This is made plausible by the psychological state of the man and what he hoped to accomplish by the act.

(Future me: In an earlier version of this post I had written that Shaitana killed himself. A keen eyed reader pointed out that wasn't true. And that's correct. Shaitana set up a little drama with the intention that one of his guests would kill him and then he drugged himself because he didn't want to feel the dagger as it was slipped into his body. Shaitana did, in a sense, commit suicide, but, still, he was murdered.)

(August 2021 Note: In the above I had mixed together the excellent television adaptation of Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table with Christie's equally excellent book. In the book, Shaitana does not anticipate that one of his guests will kill him, that only happens in television adaptation (Poirot, Season 10, Episode 2) staring the wonderfully talented David Suchet. Thank you to all those who pointed this out.)

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.)


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at
3. "Agatha Christie,"
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,"
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie,"
7. "Mystery Tropes,"
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.

Tuesday, March 25

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and one of my favorite authors. I've spent many a night curled up in front of a roaring fire, cocoa close at hand, reading and re-reading her now familiar tales. 

Although no one can write exactly like she did--and who would want to? The goal of each writer is to develop their own voice--time and again I have wondered about the secret of her success. I'm not suggesting she employed any sort of formula, but I believe that there were certain elements, certain characteristic regularities, to her work that may have contributed to her phenomenal success.

Before we turn our attention to this, though, let's take a quick look at Agatha Christie's accomplishments.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's novels have sold 4 billion copies making her the best-selling novelist of all time. Since her books have been translated into over 100 languages she is also, to date, the world's most-translated individual author. [3]

That kind of success is difficult to grasp! Christie's best selling novel--And Then There Were None--is also the best selling mystery novel ever with 100 million in sales. To put that in perspective, the 50 Shades of Grey series has sold 100 million copies to date. Those books did so well that "Random House CEO Markus Dohle" awarded "$5,000 bonuses to every member of his staff, from top editors to warehouse workers."

Even though Christie passed away in 1976 her influence has not waned. Just last year her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd "was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers' Association." [3]

So! Hopefully I've whet your appetite. The question is: How (apart from hard work and luck) did Agatha Christie write books with such universal appeal?

The Structure of an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery

I'm in the midst of writing a series that discusses the building blocks of a mystery novel (victims, sleuth, murder, and so on) so I don't want this post to cover territory I've already gone over. As a result, I'm going to concentrate on only those aspects I feel are characteristic (though perhaps not unique) to Agatha Christie.

- Setting
- A, B, & C Story
- Murder (Inciting Incident)
- The Psychological Method
- Trickery
- The Unexpected
- A Unique Structure
- The Reveal


These points about setting aren't unique to Christie but they are so important that I think they bear repeating. If you're writing a cosy (and cosy's are the kind of mystery I'm focusing on) then the setting needs to be:

a) closed, and
b) something that provides a contrast

I go over these points in detail in my article, The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery, but, briefly, you want a setting that will exclude the possibility of a character from the outside coming in and committing the murder and, also, you want to maximize the disruption the murder will create in the society. For example, the murder of a presidential candidate on the eve of the election, one executed somewhere public such as a parade route, would cause a lot of disruption to society compare to, say, the murder of a John Doe in an alleyway in a crime infested part of town.

Main Plot & Subplots: The A, B & C Story

In "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," Evelyn Hepburn writes that Agatha Christie generally has two main threads in her books. One thread involves the murder while the other, a subplot, "involves a psychological trickster: a character that intentionally creates fear and chaos for the other characters. Usually this character is not the one that committed the murder, as this conclusion would be too obvious; rather, it is an individual with a hidden vendetta against the rest of the party." [1]

As soon as I read this I thought, "Yes! Why hadn't I noticed that?" 

Myself, I think Christie often (though not always) had three distinct threads interwoven throughout most of her plots. Let's call these the A story, the B story and the C story.

A Story --> the murder (the whodunit)
B Story --> a romance
C Story --> a touch of evil

The A story is the main story, the story of the murder. The B story is a subplot that includes one of the main characters in a romance. The C story is another subplot, one about a character who has malign intentions toward one of the other characters. These intentions aren't related to the murder--perhaps this is suspected but, in the end, the 'touch of evil' character will not be intimately connected with it.

Yesterday I watched a BBC program based on Christie's Greenshaw's Folly. In that story (the BBC version at least), the main story was the 'touch of evil' plot. A mother (Louisa Oxley) and her young son flee her abusive husband. Miss Marple put them up for a night and then found the mother a job at Greenshaw's Folly where, of course, a number of suspicious deaths occur. Throughout the story, the young mother is terrified that her husband will find her and take her son away. Louisa thinks she sees her husband's face several times, peering in at her through a windowpane.

In Greenshaw's Folly the main subplot involves the murders and continues to grow in importance until around the 75% mark where this subplot and the main plot dovetail.

The second subplot is the romance that is slowly developing between the main character, Louisa (who, interestingly, is not the sleuth), and her object of romantic interest, Alfred Pollock. Since Louisa is, technically, still married the romance itself is downplayed but Alfred is shown to be an excellent role model for her son and a steadfast friend. It is a rocky romance, though, since Alfred is suspected of the murders and, were it not for Miss Marple, he would have hanged for them.

One thing that I like about Agatha Christie's stories is that, while her sleuths are strictly celibate, many times there is a (very mild) romance between two of the characters. Though other authors do include a romance in their mysteries or thrillers, I appreciate the way Christie intertwined this romance with the main thread of murder, making the outcome of the romance dependent on finding out who the true murderer was.

The Murder (Inciting Incident)

Many of the murder mysteries I read (and watch) have a relatively short interval between the start of the story and the murder. Not so for Agatha Christie's books. She often had an extended interval between the first character walking on stage and someone getting knocked off.

I found this over at

"Author Filibuster: Christie novels tended to have long Start to Corpse times, something which she was occasionally criticized for. She used the first chapter of Towards Zero to respond to these criticisms by having a character deliver a lengthy speech on how a murder is the culmination of a murderer's plot rather than the instigating point, and thus should come as late in the book as possible." [6]

Received wisdom these days seems to be that one should get to the murder as soon as possible, but a late start certainly did work for Christie. 

The Psychological Method

Hercule Poirot often refers to his "little grey cells." This harkens back to the idea that a true detective needs nothing more than the facts and a comfortable armchair to solve a case. Though Poirot fits within this tradition, Christie added a twist: the psychological method. 

It wasn't through facts alone--the overturned candlestick in the bedroom, the list of toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, etc.--that the murderer was discovered, it was also through a deep understanding of human psychology. In Christie's later books Poirot holds that certain types of crimes are committed by certain types--certain psychological types--of people. 

In contrast to other detectives (notably Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté in Murder on the Links), Poirot arrives at the identity of the murderer by looking at two things: a) the nature of the victim and b) the psychology of the murderer. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)


Poirot--and to a certain extent Miss Marple--wasn't beneath using deception if it would help him unravel the psychological puzzle before him. To this end, Poirot sometimes got people to talk to him by giving out false or misleading information about himself or his background. (Hercule Poirot, Wikipedia)

Also, HP would make himself seem more foreign or vein to make other characters underestimate, or even despise him. As their estimation of his ability lowered so did their guard and they often let slip something they never would have if they thought he was an upstanding, competent, member of English society.

Poirot would do things Hastings (the Watson) viewed as very un-English, like rummaging through a woman's belongings without her permission and reading her love letters to find a clue.

I thought I was going to be able to get through this material, but there's no way! I want to talk (briefly) about Agatha Christie doing the unexpected, even the forbidden, and what the result of that was. Finally, I want to share certain points about the structure of Christie's novels that were, if not unique, characteristic of many of her works. 


1. "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by
2. "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at
3. "Agatha Christie,"
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,"
6. "Creator: Agatha Christie,"
7. "Mystery Tropes,"

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

Friday, March 21

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim

Today I'm continuing my mini-series on how to write a murderously good mystery by exploring what qualities the murder victim might have.

The Victim

W.H. Auden in The Guilty Vicarage [2] writes that two things should be true of the victim (and please keep in mind that the murder mysteries under discussion are English cozies where all the characters have some connection to each other):

i. All your characters should have a reason to want to kill the victim.
ii. All your characters should feel sorry, or at least a little guilty, that the victim is dead, or for wanting him dead.

The trouble, of course, is that for everyone to want the victim dead it's unlikely he's going to be a shining ray of sunshine. On the contrary, he's probably going to be one fine example of an SOB. This sets up a contradiction: Why should the characters feel guilty that someone they hated is dead? Or, more importantly, why should your readers care that the victim is dead?

Survivor Guilt

First of all let me mildly disagree with W.H. Auden. In the majority of the murder mysteries I've read and watched the survivors do not mourn the untimely passing of the first victim. In fact, often, this initial death is greeted with a measure of glee. Though, that said, I do grant that sometimes, perhaps even often, one or more of the survivors do experience feelings of guilt for wanting the victim dead. 

For example, Agatha Christie's short story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, the victim is singularly despicable in every way and anything we found out about the deceased afterward just confirmed our low opinion of him. (The same can be said of the victim in Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.)

On the other hand, in Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie reveals that much of what we thought we know about the victim came by way of the killers. Sure, no one would nominate her for person of the year but she was young and lonely and alone. 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you want your characters to think better of the victim after they've given their pseudo-life for the plot, you could have the survivors discover either that they'd been misinformed about some of the victim's faults or discover new information about the victim, information that paints them as a nice--or nicer--person. For instance, perhaps the victim gave generously to a children's hospital because his child died of an, at that time, incurable disease.

A Sympathetic Character

Occasionally when the first victim is thoroughly reprehensible you can get your readers to care about who killed them by making a sympathetic character the first suspect (e.g., Agatha Christie's story, The Triangle at Rhodes). 

The sympathetic character, though, doesn't always have to be the first suspect, it could be someone who cares about the suspect (a girlfriend for example) or someone who believes that justice has not been done and swears to make sure it is. 

For example, in Agatha Christie's Mrs McGinty's Dead, James Bentley--a thoroughly unsympathetic character--is convicted of her murder. But that's fine because Christie draws the reader into the story--makes them care about the fate of the prisoner--through her use of the thoroughly sympathetic character, Superintendent Spence, as well as James' almost-girlfriend Maude Williams. And, of course, through the recurring character of  Hercule Poirot. 

Subsequent Victims

Auden writes, "If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a consequence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to murder against his will where he has no grievance but his own guilt." [2]

This is something I've noticed as well; it doesn't always happen, but if you have a murderer whose first victim is a reprehensible character, one the murderer felt pushed to kill, it is often effective to have the next victims be sympathetic, perhaps even characters the murderer cared for. When this is the case it sets up tremendous conflict within the murderer.  

For instance, in Agatha Christie's novel, A Murder is Announced, while the first murder victim was a minor criminal and not very sympathetic, the other two victims were. More than that, the killer truly loved one of them. 

In the next installment of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I will talk about what readers look for in the second most important element of a good murder mystery: the murderer.


2. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
3. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at

4. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...

Photo credit: "Lavender Dreams" by Bhumika Bhatia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.