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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery
A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript
By James N. Frey
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 James N. Frey
All rights reserved.
Why People Read Mysteries and Other Useful Stuff for Mystery Writers to Know
First, the Classic Answer. (And it's still true.)
If your aim is to write a damn good mystery, the first thing to get straight is why people read them.
The usual answer is that people read mysteries as "escape," as a form of entertainment. Reading a mystery is a good way to spend a few quiet hours away from the hubbub of real life — it's diverting. But there are a lot of things that are diverting that aren't as popular as reading mysteries. Mud wrestling, as an example.
Ed McBain (author of the 87th Precinct series) once said in an interview that we read mysteries because they "reconfirm our faith that a society of laws can work." Indeed, they do that.
It's usually assumed that most readers enjoy "solving" a mystery the way people enjoy "solving" a crossword puzzle. They say a mystery is an elaborate puzzle carefully constructed to baffle the reader, and that the writers of mysteries are playing a sort of game with their readers, hiding clues in plain sight, presenting suspects who couldn't have done the murder, but act as if they did, and so on, so the reader will go down what will very likely be the wrong path. The detective in a mystery almost always beats the reader at the game of who-done-it.
But if the love of a puzzle were the principal reason most people read mysteries, the mystery would have died out with the "locked-room" mysteries of the 1930s and 1940s, which were perfect puzzles, ingeniously devised. The murder would happen, say, in a room locked from the inside, with only a corpse inside — or some other devilishly devised perfect puzzle that at first would seem impossible to figure out. A bullet wound with no bullet. A body disappears from a rooftop. Any reader who could unravel one could be justifiably proud.
A damn good mystery is far more than a clever puzzle.
Marie Rodell, in Mystery Fiction (1943), gave the following four classic reasons that people read mysteries and the reasons haven't changed much since. People, she said, read mysteries to get:
1. The vicarious thrill of the manhunt ... carried on intellectually in the cleverness of detective and reader.
2. The satisfaction of seeing the transgressor punished.
3. A sense of identification with the people [the hero principally] and events in the story which will make the reader feel more heroic.
4. A sense of conviction about the reality of the story.
And, Ms. Rodell goes on to say, "The mystery which fails to satisfy these demands will be an unsuccessful mystery." This is just as true today as then, maybe more so: Because today's readers are more skeptical, more in tune with police procedures and forensic science, the "sense of reality" needs to be greater than in days gone by.
The Modern Mystery as Heroic Literature
Barbara Norville, in her very helpful and informative Writing the Modern Mystery (1986), claimed that the modern mystery story had its roots in the medieval morality play, but, she said, "today's literary culprit works in a framework of felonious assault against neighbor ... rather than, as in the morality play, against the sins of pride, sloth, envy, and so on."
While it is true that the two forms — the medieval morality play and the modern mystery — have elements in common, the modern mystery has its roots, I believe, in far older stories. The modern mystery is a version of the oldest story ever told: the mythic journey of the warrior hero.
When I refer to "myth" or "mythic forms" in reference to mysteries, I mean that mysteries echo mythic forms and that the mystery is a modern retelling of a very old form of literature. The hero of ancient myth slew dragons (monsters who threaten the community) and rescued damsels in distress; the contemporary mystery hero captures murderers (monsters who threaten the community) and rescues damsels in distress. Ancient heroes and modern mystery heroes share many qualities: courage, loyalty, a determination to defeat evil, the drive to sacrifice for an ideal, and so on.
Best-selling mystery writer Robert B. Parker (the Spenser series) has called the mystery novel "one of the last refuges of the hero." Fortunately, for those of us who write mysteries, it's a large refuge indeed. In the publishing world, mystery fiction attracts immense audiences, and accounts for more than a third of all fiction sold in the English-speaking world.
In The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (2000), I showed how a modern writer can tap into the power of myth and use ancient forms and motifs that readers unconsciously respond to in a very deep and powerful way. These forms and motifs are called "functions" by mythologists, and, remarkably, the same functions are seen in every culture on earth, through every age. These functions might be characters, such as the "trickster" or the "mentor," or they might be actions, such as "the hero has a special birth" or "the hero is imprisoned." These functions are repeated over and over again, and form the patterns of myths and legends found in all cultures. As an example, some mythologists claim that there is a recognizable version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, even in places where there are no beans and no stalks.
Lord Raglan, a British mythologist, claimed in his book The Hero (1956) that the "myth of the hero king" (where the hero becomes the ruler and lawgiver, falls out of favor, and is killed) has appeared in an easily recognizable form in every culture on earth without exception.
Often, myths and legends are in the form of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the "hero's journey," which he described in detail in his famous Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948). Christopher Vogler, in The Writer's Journey (1992) — a book aimed at screenwriters but a must-read for any fiction writer — applied Campbell's insights to the art of screenwriting. The hero's journey is the most common of all mythic forms and is the basis of most literature, both ancient and modern, according to Campbell. The modern mystery is an incarnation of the mythic hero's journey.
For mystery writers, the important thing about the hero's journey is that its mythic form and the mythic functions that appear in the modern mystery have a powerful pull on the reader. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, thought of the functions of myth as corresponding to structures in the mind — structures human beings are born with — that he called archetypes. In other words, the attraction to the mythic forms is inherited, a part of the human psyche — hence, universal. I find his arguments extremely compelling — and for a mystery writer, very useful. The hero of the ancient myth in pursuit of golden fleece or the elixir of life, the medieval knight pursuing dragons to slay, — today these are the detectives in pursuit of justice.
The usual pattern of the hero's journey is this: The hero has a call to adventure, which is generally some kind of a mission on behalf of his community; the hero goes forth into a strange land where he or she learns new rules, is tested, encounters various archetypal characters (the woman as whore, the woman as goddess, threshold guardians, magical helpers, and so on), has a death and rebirth, encounters the evil one, defeats the evil one, and returns with a boon that will be a benefit to the community.
There are variations within this basic design. Some heroes resist going on the journey, as an example, and may suffer guilt for refusing the call. Some heroes have to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the path of their journey. Some heroes fail to defeat the evil one. Some are killed.
In the modern mystery the hero/detective has a mission to find a murderer and goes forth, not to a strange, magical land as in the ancient myths, but to a place of lies and deception, a place foreign to the hero, where he or she encounters the evil one — a murderer — and, using courage and reason in a clever and resourceful way, defeats the evil one. Then the hero/detective returns to his or her community, bringing the "boon" of justice.
The weapon the mystery hero uses is never luck, chance, or intuition (though these things may play a part); the modern mystery hero/detective's weapon is reason. The almost universal premise of a mystery — using the term "premise" as I defined it in How to Write a Damn Good Novel (1987) — is reason conquers evil. The nature of the evil will, of course, vary from story to story, but that same basic premise is the foundation of all damn good mysteries. The hero/detective, through the use of reason, will bring a murderous evil one to justice.
Why Is the Injustice a Murder?
In modern mysteries the crime to be solved is nearly always a murder. Couldn't you write a clever burglary story where the crown jewels were stolen from a room locked from the inside and it's the hero/detective and the reader's job to figure out how it was done? For most readers, figuring out who committed a burglary wouldn't hold much interest. Why is that? you ask. This is an important question.
In a mystery, death, which to all of us seems so arbitrary and irrational, is made logical and rational. The hero, using reason, triumphs over irrational death in a symbolic way. The mystery touches us in the deepest part of our being because it shows that death is accountable to reason. When we finish a damn good mystery, we feel that the human condition is not entirely at the mercy of irrational forces set on destroying each of us. Readers, I believe, find the dramatic presentation of reason conquering evil profoundly satisfying.
Modern mysteries are not just diverting entertainments and puzzles to solve, but important contributions to our cultural life. Culture is based on myth. Heroes are not just comic-book characters to entertain children. Mythic cultural heroes are as important to our civilization as yeast is to bread. Heroes are role models. As Marie Rodell said over half a century ago, reading a mystery makes the reader "feel more heroic."
There are other cultural values associated with mysteries as well. Take a look at the tough-guy mysteries that appeared in the 1920s in America. It was the heyday of the dime mystery and cheap pulp fiction magazines like Black Mask, featuring comic-book-type mythic heroes like "The Shadow" and "The Spider." It was a time when America was going through vast changes. America was the victor in World War I and was trying to come to terms with its new role as a leader in the new world. It was a time when industry was booming and farms in the Midwest were facing hardship. A devastated Europe was not buying American farm products, and the drought that caused what became known as the Dust Bowl had already begun. It was a time when a vast number of people from the farmlands of America were moving into already-overcrowded cities where factories were humming and where the 1919 Volstead Act, which, with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, had made alcohol illegal, was spawning a speakeasy subculture of fast money and easy virtue.
People caught up in these changes felt lost in these fast-growing, dirty, clogged cities. The individual felt helpless. Later, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, this feeling of helplessness was greatly exacerbated and the tough-guy detective came into a full flowering with the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The tough-guy detective became the most widely recognized American cultural hero. He was a loner and he was tough, but — damn it — he cared about the little guy. He was tough-talking and if need be he could punch or shoot his way out of trouble with his ole reliable .38 snub nose.
The wonderful thing about the tough-guy detective was that even though on the outside he was hard as pig iron, inside he was soft as goose down.
An outstanding example is Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). He's a loner and tough and, damn it, he cares for the little guy. He's up against tough cops and tough bad guys, but he falls in love with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who, it turns out, is the murderer. He has to send her over — it's his duty — but, get this: He'll wait for her, he says, even if it takes twenty years. Now that's an old softy.
Robert B. Parker's Spencer is an example of a modern incarnation of Sam Spade, only Spencer's outer softness conceals an inner toughness, instead of the other way around.
It's not surprising that in the 1970s and 1980s, when women were moving out of the home and into the war zone called Corporate America, the tough-talking, tough-guy model of the cultural hero of the past did not fit. A new cultural hero arose, the tough-guy female hero.
Take Kate Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell's series detective. Kate's a modern female cultural hero. She's a hero who has long ago entered the jungle known as Corporate America and now she's a top forensic pathologist. She's a cultural hero for women who have found their place in Corporate America and are battling pervasive sexism. She's a typical American cultural hero: She's a loner, tough, brilliant, educated, and can punch or shoot her way out of trouble if the need arises. Now there's a hero millions of women — and men — can identify with.
This phenomenon is not limited to America. Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect, a made-for-TV film (1981) which won an Edgar (Edgar Alan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America), is about Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tenneson, a British woman hero/detective, who is in conflict more with her own male chauvinistic department than she is with suspects and culprits, truly a cultural hero for our times.
Cultural heroes embody the values of the culture, which change from time to time, but the core of the heroic character remains the same. DCI Jane Tenneson, Patricia Cornwell's Kate Scarpetta, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Mullhone, and Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski are modern incarnations of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.
Modern mythic detective heroes share the same core traits as other mythic heroes that I described in The Key. They are courageous, good at what they do for a living, have a special talent, are wounded, and are almost always an "outlaw" in some way. Modern mystery cultural heroes are not slaying dragons; they're pursuing justice. The mystery is a story in which a cultural hero, in the face of a grave moral wrong, seeks justice, not for himself or herself, but for others. The mystery hero is self-sacrificing; that is the key to the hero/detective's character.
In The Key, I referred to Ian Fleming's James Bond as an example of a cultural hero. He was created in the 1950s, when it looked as if communism were going to take over the world. James Bond certainly embodied bourgeois cultural values: He had his silk suit tailor-made in Hong Kong, he drove a Bentley, and he knew which grape was used to make the brandy in his glass by the bouquet alone. And he was licensed to kill (making him, in one sense, an outlaw).
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is a cultural hero. She was created in the 1930s when England was still trying desperately to return to normal after the ravages of World War I and was facing both a deepening depression and a new threat from the Nazis in Germany. Miss Marple was a member of the gentry and exhibited the virtues the English people have long held dear: She was loyal to king and country; she lived in an idyllic English village; she was shrewd, but kindly; she had a sharp eye, a keen wit, and was 1,000 percent English, right down to her sensible shoes. She indulged in her ritual afternoon tea, and always carried her sturdy umbrella.
Many of the most popular and enduring characters in fiction endure because they are cultural heroes, even though these characters are somewhat cardboard, some would even say "cartoon." James Bond is but one well-known example. Indiana Jones is another. Such characters have very few inner conflicts, doubts, misgivings; rarely do they suffer from guilt. Many popular hero/detectives are of this ilk. Perry Mason and his sidekicks Della Street and Paul Drake are examples, yet they endure. They endure because they embody the universal heroic mythic values, even though as characters they're one-dimensional, and as flat and thin as a credit card.
Excerpted from How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey. Copyright © 2004 James N. Frey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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