Some notes on writing mysteries

I was going through some old email, and found some notes to myself about how to write a mystery, derived from watching Veronica Mars. I imagine that most of these things are obvious to anyone who regularly writes or reads mystery, but it was useful to me to write this out, so figured I might as well post it.

  • Give lots of people secrets.
  • Give lots of people motives.
  • Give lots of people opportunity.
  • Give lots of people other bad things that they're doing or involved in.
  • Introduce the culprit early on.
  • Give the culprit something else bad that they're doing, something not directly or obviously related, so that any indication of wrongdoing on their part will seem to point to the other bad thing.
  • Provide clues that point to other people.
  • Remember that if person A thinks person B did something bad, they'll likely react in some way (such as by trying to protect or attack person B).

...But of course that's not Instructions On How To Write A Mystery, that's just some pieces of approaches that might be useful to keep in mind during the construction phase.

...In the same note, I had copied and pasted the final two paragraphs of Chandler's 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” (In case you want to read the whole thing: he criticizes Sayers, among many others, so if that's going to bother you, be forewarned.) Most of the essay is about mystery writing, and about trying to set mysteries in the real world rather than a contrived sort of puzzle-world (I'm wildly paraphrasing and drastically oversimplifying), but at the end he spends a couple of paragraphs on describing a protagonist, who he doesn't label the Chandler Hero but might as well. Obviously most modern mysteries have no use for a Chandler Hero, but I thought his description was interesting enough to include here anyway:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

2 Responses to “Some notes on writing mysteries”

  1. danima

    Relevant: a while ago, Ben Rosenbaum put out in some forum or other that I can’t retrieve now the question of how one might set a noir detective story in a feminist utopia-approximation. Have pinged said Ben.

    Also relevant:

  2. plausible.fabulist

    I have no idea where I said that, but it sounds good. Also: sort of reminiscent of something from John Kessel’s “Stories for Men” Cousins universe?

    The Chandler passage is fascinating — inspiring and embarrassing in turns. Who says you can’t create great and enduring art centered around a shameless Mary Sue? How interesting that passage about eunuchs and satyrs now is — don’t care much, eh Raymond? Au contraire. Also fascinating: “too dull to be worth living in” — there’s a surprise for you! Does the Chandler Hero feel that way too? I don’t think so — indeed, I think he’d have contempt for that sentiment as immature — which is precisely where Chandler-the-fanboy diverges from his hero….


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