Showing posts with label whodunit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label whodunit. Show all posts

Thursday, February 23

English vs American Murder Mysteries

English vs American Murder Mysteries

Sorry this post is late! I’ve been working on my next book. This post is sort-of, kind-of a rough draft of a chapter for that book. So—as always!—your feedback is most welcome. :-)

I’ve been mulling over the question of what distinguishes an English murder mystery from an American one.[3] So, while I have a few ideas of my own (I’ve been a voracious reader of murder mysteries since the 9th grade), I did research.[5]

I LOVE Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s so fluid, so alive. So I’ll let her take center stage and sum up some of the differences between an English and an American murder mystery:
“Their [American] world was fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I'd never heard pronounced—slang words like "gunsel", fancy words like "punctilious." This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story—there were fewer clues, and these were more likely to be lies people told rather than cuff buttons they'd left strewn around. There were more corpses, with less importance bestowed on each: a new character would appear, only to be gunned down by a fire-spitting revolver.”[4]
Yes!!! I love Atwood’s writing, it has bite. You feel it, it’s rhythm.

Another person who has weighed in on the basic difference between English and American murder mysteries is W.H. Auden. In his wonderful essay “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,”[2] Auden defined the whodunit as:
“The basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”
I’ll come back to this in a moment. Right now let’s look at what, according to Auden, is the progress of the major events in a murder mystery:

Peaceful state before murder
False clues, secondary murder, etc.
Arrest of murderer
Peaceful state after arrest

Let’s Talk Character

And, while we’re at it, here (see below) is how Auden thinks of the progress of events that pertain to characters who are NOT the murderer. They may be guilty of something, but it’s not the murder under investigation.

False innocence
Revelation of presence of guilt
False location of guilt
Location of real guilt
True innocence

In other words, at the beginning of a murder mystery the innocent seem guilty (and the guilty seem innocent).

In addition, there is what Auden calls a “double reversal.” Have you ever read a murder mystery where you’re sure someone—call them Dan—committed the murder then something happens, the detective discovers some clue, one that makes it SEEM as though Dan couldn’t have done it? Then, at the end of the book, in the big reveal, it turns out Dan is the murderer? That’s a double reversal and, when done right, can be very satisfying for the reader.

I’ll come back to this progression later, perhaps in another post, but I wanted to include it here because I think it could provide someone with a valuable framework.

Now let’s continue our discussion of what an English murder mystery is and what it isn’t.

What an English Murder Mystery Is Not

As Auden points out, his definition excludes the following kinds of stories:

A. Readers Know Who the Murderer Is

In some murder mysteries readers know the identity of the murderer from the outset. For example, one of my all-time favorite murder mystery TV shows was Columbo. (It seems the writers of Columbo called it a “howcatchem” rather than a “whodunit” or “howdunit.”)

Not that no English mystery can be a howcatchem, but I believe it would be odd for a certain kind of English murder mystery—the cozy—to be a howcatchem, and I'm focusing on cozies. I’ll also, in a later post, discuss what I see as a subgenre of the murder mystery, the locked room mystery.

B. The Identity of the Murderer Isn’t the Focus of the Story

This point often applies to thrillers and caper stories. Recall that in a thriller the identity of the murderer often isn’t the focus of the story. Yes, there is an investigation, yes the detective gathers clues and decodes them, but catching rather than unmasking the killer is the ultimate goal.

In a caper story the question is: Will the group of theives be able to do it? Will they be able to pull off the perfect crime? That’s not to suggest that an element of mystery isn’t involved. For instance, there’s often a mole, a double-agent, in the group. The identity of this person is a mystery, but one that is usually solved before the climax.

How an English Murder Mystery Differs From Other Kinds of Mysteries

The Essential Function of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

Auden influenced my thinking about this. He held that the essential function of the detective was to restore justice—restore balance—to a community after the peace, the norms of the community, was violated. This is one reason many cozy mysteries take place in small close knit communities: a monastery, a rectory or the country estate of landed gentry.

The ultimate purpose of the sleuth was to mend the community's structure of social and moral values.

P.D. James, in her book Talking About Detective Fiction, argues that:
"The differences between the hard-boiled school and such Golden Age writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes, are so profound that it seems stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category. If the British detective story is concerned with bringing order out of disorder, a genre of reconciliation and social healing, restoring the mythical village of Mayhem Parva to prelapsarian tranquillity, in the United States Hammett and Chandler were depicting and exploring the great social upheavals of the 1920s—lawlessness, prohibition, corruption, the power and violence of notorious gangsters who were close to becoming folk heroes, the cycle of boom and depression—and creating detectives who were inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms."

American Murder Mystery

American murder mysteries tend to be darker, much darker. The detective has given up on bringing balance to society. Given this, why does the detective bother to do what he does? Is it all about the money?

Not at all. In the American murder mysteries (though the motivation does vary) the detective solves the mystery and brings the murderer to justice (because either of his own personal internal will of ethics or because he has formed an emotional attachment to a person involved in the case. In short, the case has become personal for him. Just as no one needs anything as high sounding as a code of ethics to defend a loved one, so these detectives may have no code. They may, in fact, be what most of those in society think of as bad guys. But, still, they protect their own.

The Significance of Society

English Murder Mystery

Auden writes, “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.”[2]

As P.D. James says, the location of a typical British mystery is much like the world she was born into. She writes:
As I was born in 1920 it was an England I knew, a cohesive world... It was an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration, and in which there was small sympathy for the criminal; it was generally accepted that murderers, when convicted, would hang...”
Accordingly, cozies (also known as ‘Country House mysteries’) were generally set in small interwoven communities and typically took the many interrelationships of such a community as a key theme.

American Murder Mystery

The American murder mystery is much darker. There is no sense of the detective striving to bring balance—justice and fairness—back to the community. In fact, sometimes the detective labors knowing that either this WON’T happen or that it will make the society MORE chaotic.

Closed versus Open Society

English Murder Mystery

In the English murder mysteries all the suspects come from a—to use Auden’s phrase—closed society.

This means that, in an English murder mystery, right from the get go we know who could have, and who could not have, committed the murder. In an American mystery we have our suspicions—perhaps we know certain characters are involved—but we don’t have the certain knowledge that one of a list of characters is the murderer.

This is one of the conventions of a cozy mystery. I would go so far to say if this isn’t the case, if the reader doesn't know who could have committed the crime, then the story in question cannot be a cozy mystery.

American Murder Mystery

In an American Murder Mystery the society usually isn’t closed although the reader does often feel the culprit is either one of the named characters OR one of the named characters is involved with the crime, although not the killer and one feels perhaps they were coerced. In this sense, the American murder mystery is a bit like the thriller.

The Detective and the Police

American Mysteries

It’s also telling, I think, that in American Mysteries the detective is often a loner, a private investigator who does not enjoy good relationships with most of the people on the police force. Perhaps one of them is kinda-sorta his friend, but even that is tenuous. Most police would just as soon lock him up and throw away the key.

And that’s another thing. American detectives, especially of Noir fiction, are usually male.

Perhaps this has changed in the last couple of decades, what with Eve Dallas (a fictional detective created by J.D. Robb, pen name of prolific writer Nora Roberts), Kinsey Millhone (a fictional character created by Sue Grafton for her alphabet murder mysteries) and last but surely not least Dr. Kay Scarpetta (a fictional medical examiner created by Patricia Cornwell).

English Mysteries

There isn’t as much to say about the relationship between the British detective and the police. Probably because the relationship is generally placid! And why wouldn’t it be? The detective is well heeled, knowledgeable, affable (if a little quirky) and generally quite happy to let the police take credit for solving the crime!

One of Agatha Christie’s less famous sleuths, Miss Marple, often had a more antagonistic relationship with the police, at least at first. They saw her as a meddlesome little old lady who couldn’t do anything for the investigation other than muck it up. As Miss Marple helped them prise apart the many delicate threads of the case, their attitude changed.

But, at least in Miss Marple’s case, the police were always fair in the sense they gave Miss Marple a fair shake. When she proved herself they, sometimes grudgingly, accepted her help and, often, thanked her at the end. This is perhaps the most significant difference between English mysteries and their American counterparts: in the hardboiled variety the world isn’t fair and this is reflected in the detective’s relationship with the police.

Often the local police despised the detective and even if the police believed he could help them solve the crime the police would have rejected his help. In fact, sometimes the police are corrupt and do not wish the crime solved!

The Private Life of the Detective

American Mysteries

Another difference between British and American mysteries is that in American mysteries—and in contemporary stories generally—the private life and loves of the detective are an important part of the story.

English Murder Mystery

I’m not saying that this disregard of the private life of the detective is true for ALL cozy’s, though I have found it to be true for most.

That said, in many contemporary cozy’s, those where the protagonist often owns her own business (a bakery perhaps) and has an on-again off-again relationship with the unbelievably gorgeous deputy, that this relationship isn’t an important B story. But it’s not the visceral, gut wrenching, demon-exploring scrutiny that can occur in the more American variants of the murder mystery.

The Temperament of the Detective

English Murder Mystery

And this brings us to what might be the single most important difference between American murder mysteries and English cozies: cozies are light and bright. As a general rule, nothing irredeemably bad happens to anyone in them except for the murder victim(s). Even then, the victims are often horrible people the townspeople had oodles of reasons to want dead.

Cozies are read as a diversion, as an escape, as a mental exercise.

That said, there are notable exceptions to this. I’m reminded of P.D. James’ wonderful character Adam Dalgliesh. He is tortured. Truly bad things happened to him and James’ other characters. And James wrote books that were classic English cozies.

To sum up, I think the generalization that British sleuths are emotionally muted in the sense that they are rarely frightened, that they are rarely themselves victims of crime, that they outwit the criminal rather than the reverse and that, taken collectively, they are a rather courageous lot, is more or less accurate.

American Murder Mystery

As Margaret Atwood mentioned, American detectives are at home on the mean streets, perhaps because they are more violent and know how to punch and jab and kick. Myself, I can’t imagine either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple doing anything like that!

Commonalities Between English and American Mysteries

What is common between the genres? Both rely on suspense to drive the story forward.

Categories of Crime Fiction

The way I’ve been using the word, a whodunit is any crime story where a crucial element of the suspense, the mystery, is who committed the crime. In this sense, all of the following categories are whodunits.

The Categories:

Cozy mystery
Locked room mystery
Historical murder mystery
Hardboiled murder mystery
Police procedural murder mystery
Forensic murder mystery
Legal thriller

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That’s it for now! I’ll have another post for you tomorrow and to catch up, another one either Saturday or Sunday. Until I talk to you again, good writing!


1. The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction, by Seonaidh Ceannéidigh.

2. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict,” By W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.

3. Here I talk about British and American mysteries but could just as easily have talked about softboiled versus hardboiled mysteries.

4. “Mystery writer,” by Margaret Atwood.

5. A note on terminology. The way I’m using the words, “whodunit” is ambiguous between English and American murder mysteries. To my mind the essential characteristic of a whodunit is just what the name suggests: The focus of the story—the story question—has to do with who committed the murder. As opposed to, say, how the murderer committed the crime or whether and how the murderer was caught.

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.

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.

Friday, March 7

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery

Today I continue talking about murderously good mysteries and how to write them.

The Five Elements: Milieu, Victim, Murderer, Suspects, Detectives

"The detective story has five elements — the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives."

I want to look at each of these in turn but that's going to take a while so, for today, let's start with a murder mystery's milieu.


a. The Society/Setting must be closed.

I think that what W.H. Auden meant by "society" was, in practical terms, the sum total of characters that would have to be taken into consideration when solving the murder. One's pool of suspects.

Small suspect pool. When Auden writes that the society must be closed he means that, in selecting the setting, we need to pick something that will limit the number of people who could have committed the murder; that is, limit the number of suspects we'll have to deal with.

For example, in Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage the society would be everyone in the village of St. Mary Mead where the murder took place. The suspects are those who had, or could have had, the means, motive and opportunity to kill the victim, Colonel Lucius Protheroe.

One murderer. In addition to having a relatively small suspect pool it must also be clear that the murderer is one of the people in the society you set up.  Auden writes that what the murder mystery writer needs to avoid is any possibility the murderer comes from outside the society. For example, it wouldn't do for the murderer to be someone on a road trip from London who killed the Colonel for kicks and then drove back to London. 

It must be clear from the beginning that one of the people in the society (in the case of my example, the village of St. Mary Mead) must have committed the crime. The only question is: who?

By the way, it doesn't have to be just one murderer, but the principle of parsimony applies and if the evidence doesn't suggest more than one murderer was at work, it's likely best not to complicate matters. On the other hand, as time goes on it may appear that there was more than one murderer. In several of Agatha Christie's books it turned out this was the case but she tended to use this as a twist near, or at, the end of the tale.

Every character within the society should have multiple connections with every other member.

Characters, like people, aren't islands unto themselves; each character has--or should have--multiple connections to every other character. This raises certain questions: i) what kind of connections and ii) how are they relevant to the murder (many connections probably wouldn't be) and iii) how will the sleuth discover them?

Kind of connections. Auden writes that everyone in the society should be closely related either by family ties, by geography (a small village such as St. Mary Mead), by occupation (they all work at the same company or go to the same lodge) or by happenstance (happen to be trapped in an aeroplane together). 

Relevance and discoverability. Each and every character should be a potential suspect, but the detective might have to dig a bit; do some research, interview a few characters; to figure out the exact nature of the connection between the suspect and the victim and whether it's relevant to the murder.

In the beginning, the members of the group--the society--will first appear to be strangers to each other, but the sleuth will discover they have many interesting, intimate (and possibly scandalous) connections with each other.

- Group of relatives (Auden gives the examples of the Christmas dinner at the country house).
- Geography keeping people together; a small rural village, a college campus, a military academy.
- A group of people who work together. Auden suggests a theatre company, but it could also be a band, choir, writers' convention, and so on.
- A group isolated by technology: an airplane, a train, an RV, and so on.

b. Nothing bad ever happens here.

Auden writes that:

"Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet." (Auden)

The setting should be unsullied by murder. The society should be such that murder is ... well, if not unthinkable, then very very unlikely. A nunnery, academia, the church choir. This way, when murder occurs, the crises is greater. If a murder were to occur, say, in the bad area of a big city late at night we wouldn't be as shocked than if it occurred in the middle of a play on a cruise ship in mid-afternoon.

Also, having the murder occur in a setting, a context, where murder is rare helps put pressure on the law to solve the crime in order that things can get back to normal. 

In addition, the law itself would be a disruptive influence, one that many would find unwelcome. This may be bad for the characters, but it's great for the storyteller because it's a source of conflict. Every character--even the (apparently) most blameless, most upright, is cast under the same pall of suspicion. This makes everyone--everyone except the murderer!--anxious to expose the murderer and get things back to the way they were.


Auden writes:

"The characters in a detective story should [...] be eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical) — good, that is, either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad." 

In other words, it should, on the face of it, seem implausible that any of the suspects committed the murder. (If there is someone around who hated the victim then give them an ironclad alibi.)

As the murder mystery unfolds, those who seemed to have no motive will become serious contenders for the murder. Similarly, those who seemed most likely to commit the murder will be shown either not to have had the opportunity, or to have vastly different motives than it first appeared.

Thats it for today! It looks as though these posts have morphed into a series. In the next instalment I will look at what W.H. Auden--lifelong lover of murder mysteries that he was--had to say about what makes the perfect victim. In the meantime, good writing!

Photo credit: "Recreation" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.