Chapter Four Mysteries

The mystery story is the oldest of the seven categories discussed in this book. Oh, certainly, some fantasy was written centuries before Edgar Allan Poe created the first fictional detective (C. August Dupin, in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841), most notably The Iliad and The Odyssey. And erotica has been around nearly as long as the written word: even the Bible contains subdued erotic passages, stories of outlandish orgies, incest, and lascivious women. The Gothic novel pre-dates the mystery, but in its early form, the Gothic was much different than it is today: it contained little or no romance and was closer to what we now think of as the straight horror story. In any event, though all of these things existed prior to the mystery story, none of them achieved a steady, solidified audience or form strong enough to let them be thought of as categories until after the mystery emerged, as the first easily identifiable category of modern fiction.

Although very few mysteries provide a good vehicle for social commentary or important observations on the human condition, they do make for fine escape literature, and they are always being published. Because the mystery—as we discussed it the previous chapter—is most concerned with Who did it?, with the solving of a puzzle, and is very little concerned with the morals of crime or the themes of human suffering that crime is tied to, its function is more therapeutic than that of any other form of category fiction. Most people pick up a mystery novel when they want only to relax. The mystery reader doesn't want the slightest reminder of his workaday world. Unlike science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and occasionally the other genres, the mystery deals almost exclusively with lightweight material. Indeed, the only mystery novelist I can think of, after considerable cerebration, who writes meaningful mysteries is Ross MacDonald; and in his Lew Archer books, the reader actually becomes less concerned with the traditional mystery question— Who did it?—than with another question —Why was it done; with what social maladjustment does the fault lie?

You can, of course, attempt the Ross MacDonald sort of story; but, as with all category work, you will achieve acceptance and recognition much sooner if you begin within established limits before breaking out into less-tried territory.

In every genre, there is a single element of those five mentioned in Chapter One which is the most important. In science fiction, it is the background. In suspense, it's plot, closely followed by action; a suspense novel should move. And though your first impression may be that plot, once again, is the fundamental element of the mystery, such is not the case. In the mystery, the writer must pay special attention to character motivation.

Yes, I know, the words "mystery" and "plot" seem almost synonymous. However, consider that the average mystery novel's plot is quite like that of any other: a crime is committed; suspects are introduced in the course of the detective's probing; further crimes are committed by the villain as he tries to keep his identity secret; the detective draws nearer the truth, finally puts the pieces together; the guilty party is confronted; climax, conclusion. If this is somewhat simplified, it is also close enough to the required line of a mystery story to show you that plot is not the most essential element of the mystery.

Action, in the mystery story, is usually confined to the detective's travels and his interrogations of various witnesses and suspects. Though some physical confrontations between the hero and the villain may occur, they are generally saved for the end of the book, after the hero has begun to narrow down his field of suspects, and the villain has begun to feel the pressure.

Background is important, of course, but not nearly so major a factor in the successful mystery novel as it is in science fiction. Once you have chosen your background, a couple of books devoted exclusively to that area—or your own experience, if you place the story in your own geographical region—should prepare you to begin.

However, when you set out to establish the motives of the people in your mystery, you must give much careful consideration to each of them. Since the characters in a mystery are basically pieces in a puzzle, the reader's attention is focused on them, closely, as he tries to solve the crime before the author solves it for him. If the characters' motivations seem weak or implausible, the reader will notice it at once, and he will swiftly grow bored with your story.

Any of the major character motivations are applicable to the mystery. Love, greed, self-preservation, revenge, and duty within their limitations are all sound motives for murder. Curiosity might lead someone to become a victim.

And self-discovery might be a secondary motivation for your hero.

Keeping the nature of the mystery novel in mind— Who did it? being the first question the reader wants answered and the five elements of category fiction all employed, with special attention given to believable character motivations - there are fifteen other requirements of the form that you should be aware of:

1. Does your story open with a crime in the first chapter? It should. The sooner the puzzle is presented to both the reader and the hero, the stronger your narrative hook. You may even open after the murder was committed and the police have arrived. Or you might begin with the discovery of the body, or with a brief scene of the murder in progress. However you start, start with a bang.

In the first chapter of The Bridge that Went Nowhere by Robert L. Fish (one of his Captain Jose Da Silva mysteries), a plane lands in a clearing in a dense Brazilian jungle, carrying three men. One of these is shot on the second page of the story; another is blown up, along with the bridge that feeds into the clearing, on the fifth page, well before the end of the chapter. It would be difficult to imagine a bigger bang of a start, and the novel goes on successfully from there.

In Donald E. Westlake's Murder Among Children (under the pseudonym Tucker Coe), the hero, Mitch Tobin (who has appeared in five Coe mysteries to date), opens the first chapter with a trip into the West Village, in lower Manhattan, looking for his cousin, Robin Kennely. On the third page of the book, he finds her:

"The stairs are through that door," the young man said, and as he pointed the door opened and Robin Kennely came through, smeared with great streaks of not-dry blood. The knife in her hand was carmine with it.

"There's a certain thing," she said, enunciating clearly in a high thin voice, and collapsed on the floor.

Thus ends a very short first chapter, obviously immediately after a murder. Though the killer's identity would seem certain, the second chapter brings up other possibilities, other suspects, and launches the reader on the trail of the solution.

2. Does your hero appear in chapter one? He should. In most mysteries, he will be, by title and/or circumstance, a detective: policeman, private detective, a private citizen caught up in a situation only he can unravel (Agatha Christie's Jane Marple mysteries are good examples of this form), a scientist sorting through clues to a disaster only he can explain, a soldier-detective, a spy-detective—and his entire role in the story will be that of the sleuth seeking and evaluating clues. If the crime is committed at the outset, then, you'll have a good reason to focus on him from the first page.

Some mystery writers favor the first person viewpoint for telling a story—that is, telling it through the eyes and the mind of the lead character. In fact, the mystery genre supports more first person narratives than any other. Though this makes the early introduction of the hero almost no problem at all, it should be avoided; the vast majority of published novels are told in the third person. A great many editors and, apparently, readers as well, share a prejudice against the first person. Since your chief goal is to please first the editors and then the readers, you should not tackle a first person narrative until you can do it well enough to squelch any editorial dissatisfaction with the method.

In Rex Stout's enormously popular Nero Wolfe series, even though the initial crime is usually committed offstage, the heroes are onstage in the first chapter. With only a few exceptions, the Wolfe stories begin with a client who comes to Wolfe's 39th Street townhouse in an attempt to get Wolfe and his trusted associate, Archie Goodwin, to take on a case. We know our heroes straight off, and we soon learn the nature of the puzzle, and from there on, it's easy reading. (Some of the Wolfe novels, by Rex Stout, include The Doorbell Rang, Plot It Yourself, Death of a Doxy, The Father Hunt, The Mother Hunt, and Might as Well Be Dead.)

3. Does your hero have a sound motive for becoming involved in the investigation of a case? He should have some other reason, outside the most obvious—i.e., it's his job. For example, Stout's detective, Nero Wolfe, is quite often motivated by a desperate need for cash. Wolfe lives lavishly, with a full-time chef, a half-day orchid specialist who helps him tend his hundreds of greenhouse orchids, and other expensive accouterments of the "good life." Naturally, there are times when he is desperate enough for ready cash that he will take on even the most unpleasant cases. When it isn't money that motivates Wolfe it may be curiosity, because that overweight private investigator is as much a puzzle fancier as any mystery reader. Or he may be motivated by self-preservation, to the extent that Wolfe must preserve his rich lifestyle by preserving his reputation as a private investigator.

Occasionally a writer creates a mystery novel protagonist with more depth to him than most. Donald E. Westlake's ex-detective, Mitch Tobin, the focus of a series of novels (Kinds of Love Kinds of Death, Murder Among Children, Wax Apple, A Jade in Aries, and Don. 't Lie to Me), is a man with a monkey on his back: the monkey is guilt. It's like this: Tobin was once a respected detective on the police force. However, when he arrested a burglar named Dink Campbell, he met Campbell's wife and fell for her at once. The attraction was mutual. While Campbell was serving his sentence for burglary, Tobin and Linda Campbell carried on an affair; since Tobin was married, the affair had to be during working hours. Tobin's partner covered for him, during their tour of duty, when Tobin wanted to see Linda—until one afternoon, while Tobin was in bed with the girl, the partner was killed. Tobin was disgraced, thrown off the force, and left with a load of guilt he was almost unable to bear: guilt that he had cheated on his wife, guilt that he had embarrassed his son, guilt, most of all, that he had shirked his responsibility and had not been there to back up his partner when the partner arrested a heroin pusher. In each of the novels, one of Tobin's motivations, either unspoken or quite evident, is this guilt, a need to make up for what he's done, to repay the debts, to help other people and thereby even his own moral record a little. In some cases, he actually would prefer not to be involved at all, but does get involved, out of this sense of duty to his family, his dead partner, and himself.

4. Is your fictional crime violent enough? You cannot expect a reader to get terribly excited about a stolen car or a mugging. You should begin with a murder, attempted murder or threatened murder, or missing person. One other possibility is the story in which a woman (usually young and pretty, but not necessarily so), either the accused man's wife, sister, girlfriend, or mother, comes to the private detective


and hires him to prove that the accused is innocent despite what the police or the jury has said.

5. Is the method of murder or the way the body was found unique and attention-getting? It should be. Not every mystery must contain a clever murder method, but those that do have another plus. You should be anxious to acquire as many story values as possible, and you should try to think of something unique, something besides a simple stabbing, shooting, or strangling. An axe murder? Hit-and-run in a supermarket parking lot? A forced drowning? A murder made to look like a suicide, but so obviously bungled that the killer intended the police to know it was murder in disguise? A case of deliberate poisoning?

In the first chapter of Donald E. Westlake's Don't Lie to Me, the body is discovered nude, in the middle of a museum, as if it had been dropped out of the sky. Since the victim was strangled, he would have eliminated from bowels and bladder as he died, yet here he is clean as Christmas. Evidently, he was killed, then washed carefully, dried, and brought here in the dead of night, with the guard on duty. Why? How? And by whom? The circumstances of the body's discovery are startling enough to carry the reader through the book, wondering about the answer.

6. Do you introduce at least one potential suspect by the end of chapter two? You should, so that both the hero and the reader will have something to mull over. This doesn't necessarily mean that the suspect must be blatantly obvious (though he may be). You need only introduce an associate, friend, relative, or lover of the dead man, someone who might conceivably have a motive for killing him; this person may seem like a very unlikely prospect for the role of the killer, at first, but the important thing is that he remain at least a possibility.

7. Do you introduce a second suspect by the end of chapter three? The sooner you expand the list of possible killers, the more difficult the puzzle becomes—and the more firmly your narrative hook is implanted. For this reason, you should establish murderous motives for at least three characters. Even four or five suspects are easier to work with and better for the creation of a real puzzle.

For example, if in chapter one the president of a prosperous and busy city bank is found dead in his office immediately after his lunch hour, you might have the following suspects for your detective to question. The president's own Private Secretary, a beautiful young woman who has been angry with the president of late because he's been vacillating about his intentions of marrying her. She was out to lunch, but can't prove where she was when the murder took place. The Vice-President of the bank, who has long coveted the top job and feels the board would put him in if the president retired or left for another position in another bank. The banker's "cousin," who turns out to have been his Mistress. This girl often visited him during his lunch hour, for the purpose of quick sexual relaxation, and might have been there today—and might have been mad at him because he vacillated about rejecting the notion of marrying his secretary. The banker's desk drawer contains a typed note indicating that his ex-brother-in-law had borrowed $20,000 from him a year ago, agreeing to pay it back in twelve months. Perhaps the Brother-in-Law couldn't pay back the money and was there to plead, unsuccessfully, for an extension on the loan. Here you have four characters with murderous motives; in the course of this story, others could easily arise.

8. Have you provided legitimate clues to the killer's identity? You should hide at least three in the course of the story. These may be introduced so quietly that the reader never picks them up. Perhaps, for example, your story opens with a body found in a muddy flowerbed behind a mansion. When the detective covertly steals a glance at the shoes of each member of the household, as he questions them, he may notice that they are wearing scuffed or dusty shoes, that one man's shoes are freshly polished, but that no one is wearing muddy shoes. Later, it may dawn on the hero that the man with the freshly polished footwear had, just before the interrogation, scrubbed away the traces of mud; his shoeshine could have been to eliminate the evidence. This is, of course, an exaggerated example, but it should give you an idea of how the clue can be presented deceptively, the meaning quietly covered until later.

A clue may also be introduced with fanfare. A pair of work gloves, covered with garden mud, might be found in the room of the dead man's stepson, for example. This kind of thing is usually used to throw the reader off the track, to get him looking in all the wrong places. Later, it will turn out that the blatantly delivered clue was false; the muddy gloves could have been put there by the killer to throw suspicion on the stepson, or the stepson might have some perfectly legitimate explanation for them.

Likewise, the very obvious clue can be used to make the reader think: "Well, I'm supposed to suspect the stepson. That much is obvious. Therefore, it couldn't possibly be the stepson." Then, in the end, it is the stepson, after all.

The idea is to give the reader the pertinent data but to try to fool him into employing it incorrectly. When the real killer's identity is disclosed at the end of the book, the reader should be able to go back, spot check you, and say, "Now, why didn't I see that?"

9. Does your narrative tension come from the reader's desire to know who more than from his desire to know how to stop him? It should. The killer's identity, the why of the crime, is more important to the reader than any chase or race against time or anticipation of a violent event. Again, the Nero Wolfe books, or anything by Agatha Christie (especially The Mystery ofthe Blue Train, Murder in the Calais Coach, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) serves as a fine example of this.

10. Does your hero exhaust one avenue of investigation after another until it seems impossible to assign guilt for the crime? He should reach this point no sooner than halfway through the book. He should seem stumped, or so confused by new developments that the reader almost suspects the killer will get away with his crime.

11. Is your police and laboratory procedure genuine? Does your detective follow established investigatory procedure, as it is known in most public and private police agencies across the country? If you're writing about an autopsy, do you know just how one is done? Do you know what all the police can learn from an autopsy: old injuries, evidence of rape, traces of the killer's skin and hair, a thousand other useless and valuable bits of data? Do you know what surfaces take fingerprints well, what others take them poorly, and which ones don't take them at all? Do you know the different techniques for lifting fingerprints? Do you know how or why a shoe print or tire track can lead the authorities to the villain? All these and hundreds of other things can easily be researched in a university, city, county, or state library. If they do not have any books on criminology, they can borrow them from other libraries for as long as you will need to study them and make notes. One of the best resources on criminology is Jurgen Thorwald's Crime and Science, a Harvest Book published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in a moderately-priced, over-sized paperback. Thorwald's book is not only a valuable reference work, but an entertaining compilation of famous crimes that were solved through the clever application of forensic science.

12. Does your hero's sudden realization ofthe killer's identity evolve from a juxtaposition ofevents that he has been playing with, in his mind, all along but which he has been unable to interpret, thus far, because of some preconception or character flaw of his own? It should. You must never drop the solution into the hero's lap through some twist of fate or stupid mistake made by an otherwise clever villain. His own best efforts should solve the puzzle, his own wit.

(This is similar to the advice I gave in Section 2 of the preceding chapter, when we were considering the suspense novel. To gain some additional insight on mysteries, you should read Chapter Three as closely as this one.)

13. Does the revelation of the villains identity come close to the end of the book? If it comes in the first third, or in the middle, you are probably writing a suspense novel and not a mystery. Remember, the mystery reader wants to be kept guessing until the end.

14. Is the revelation of the killer's identity delivered in an action scene, as opposed to a dry, verbalized accounting made by the hero to other people in the story? Long summations, after the detective has called all the suspects into one room, are trite and tend to slow the plot nearly to a standstill. It is true that your reader, having come that far in the story, will read to the end no matter how you present the last few scenes. But it is better to leave a reader perfectly content with the final chapter, for it is this last sequence of events that he will most clearly remember. If he was displeased with your handling of the conclusion, he will not rush out to buy your next mystery novel. Instead of a tell-'em-about-it climax, incorporate the detective's summation into an action scene.

For example: The hero goes to the suspect's apartment, breaks in, and searches for that one last piece of evidence that will clinch the case. He finds it, but he is surprised by the villain before he can steal safely away. At the antagonist's mercy, perhaps at gunpoint, he bargains for time by trying to unsettle the killer. He laughs at him and tells him how inept he was at trying to hide his identity; in the course of delivering this ridicule, the detective explains how he came upon the clues, how he put them together, and why he decided the killer must be Mr. X. Like this:

I rested my hand on top of the paperweight, on the desk, getting an idea of its weight. It would make a good missile; even if I could not hit him with it, I could distract him long enough to close the short distance between us.

"But how did you know Rita was my old girlfriend?" he asked.

"You provided that clue yourself," I said. I gripped the paperweight, ready to throw it. "Do you remember when we were talking about—"

"Let go of the paperweight," he said, smiling. "I'd have a bullet in your chest before you could pitch it." Reluctantly, I did as he said. "Now, go on," he said.

As you see, there is a dramatic element intertwined with the explanation. As the detective tells how he put two and two together, he also searches for a way to turn the tables on the antagonist. This is much more readable than a dry summation.

15. In the course of your story, does your hero gain some piece of data from every interview and avenue of investigation that he conducts? Some new mystery writers construct paper suspects who can easily be proven innocent in the detective's first confrontation with them. Then they propel their protagonist through a series of interviews and surveillances that lead absolutely nowhere—except that the hero can say, at the conclusion of each dead end, something like: "Well, Walters, we don't know anything more about Lady Randolph's death now than when we started. But at least we can be certain that Lord Biggie is not the man we want!" It is acceptable to have your protagonist follow up a few bum leads, for this gives the story a realistic touch; but the majority of tacks he takes must provide some information, no matter how minimal, that has a bearing on the solution of the case.

Again, I must stress, these rules and requirements of the form will not be all you need to know to write a salable mystery novel. As important as knowing what pitfalls to avoid is your familiarity with the writers who have been successful in the genre. Toward that end, you should have read something by each of these writers: Ross MacDonald (The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, The Moving Target, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Ivory Grin), Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None, The A.B.C. Murders, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Passenger to Frankfurt), Georges Simenon (any of his Maigret stories), Evan Hunter (Shotgun, Jigsaw, Killer's Choice, all under the pseudonym Ed McBain), John Dickson Carr (The Problem ofthe Green Capsule, The Dead Man's Knock, The Man Who Could Not Shudder), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye), Nicholas Freeling (Death in Amsterdam, The Dresden Green, Strike Out Where Not Applicable), Harry Kemelman (Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home), Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black, The Black Angel, The Black Curtain, Deadline at Dawn), Colin Watson (Charity Ends at Home, Coffin Scarcely Used, Lonelyheart 4122) and Dashiell Hammett (all five of his brilliant novels: Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man). This is, of course, only the barest of lists, and should be supplemented with as many other mystery writers' work as you can find and can find time to read.

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