How to write the best murder mystery book and avoid the worst kind of crime writing
The best way to write a good book is not to write a bad one. So what makes a bad story? A bad crime novel?
Here’s my selection, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, a few pointers if you like, of how to avoid writing a poor crime novel. A few cliché crushers for you.
- This is crucial don’t break this rule. Ever. Don’t have a mass murderer. Isn’t one death enough? Is a villain more villainous because he’s killed more people? Why must every book be about racing to catch the villain “before he kills again?” If you want to read Silence of the Lambs read Silence of the Lambs. You won’t do it better, so try writing something else instead. Okay?
- Don’t have the murderer collect their victim’s body parts. Must every murderer have a trophy cabinet of innards? It’s so over-done. Let’s face it, most murderers want to get rid of the corpse as fast as possible, it’s evidence for goodness sake. So what if there have been murderers with a fridge full of heads? That was creepy, but I want fiction. I don’t want the truth. I don’t want a crime novel to keep me awake at night. I want good to overcome evil. I don’t want to be looking under the bed each night to make sure it’s safe to go to sleep. I want a bit of entertainment before I turn off the bedside lamp and float off.
- Don’t have a policeman, or worse still, base your story in the U.K. and have a ‘cop’, with a drink problem/drug issue/psychosis. I blame Conan Doyle’s medical background, it’s been downhill ever since Conan Doyle completed Sherlock Holmes. Enough already, let’s just have a competent policeman, or woman; I’m easy. Someone well-balanced. And whilst we’re at it, no odd hobbies. A bit of gardening, or stamp collecting will suffice.
- And following on from that, let’s not have a detective with a relationship issue/divorce/partnership problem. Come on, people, there’s enough angst in the world already. What’s wrong with a nice happy human being who sees awful things all day, goes home to a nice dinner with the other half, and waters the germaniums? It worked for Dixon of Dock Green didn’t it?
- Now we’re getting to the nuts and bolts of a good story. Almost as important as 1. Don’t base your story somewhere you’ve only ever been on holiday, or know about from travel magazines, or from internet research, or worse still, if you’re a Brit, from watching U.S. TV shows. If you live in Essex and have only ever been to Blue Water, don’t try to convince me that you know the blue waters of San Francisco Bay. Been there and seen it? Good, then write about it. Otherwise shhhhh.
- Okay, there are two possible loopholes to 5. You can write about places you don’t know that well if your character is a visitor to the place. (Stay after class and speak to Lee Childs about Jack Reacher for details). And you can base your story in a fictional town that closely resembles a real place, or have absolutely made up based on blending real places (Peter Robinson, gold star for you too).
- Don’t have a whole supporting cast of “quirky” characters, or try to make me sympathetic to your pathetic hero by having them know a whole set of waifs and strays. One maybe, we’ve all got a dotty old biddy in our lives somewhere, but not a whole blimmin’ retirement home full. I will not form an emotional connection with the hero just because they serve afternoon teas at the local “Don’t Care Home”.
- Pets. People who fight crime can’t have pets. Think about it. “Oh sorry can’t chase the villain back to his hideaway, got to walk the labradoodle”. See my point? It doesn’t work, does it? It might work if the hero is a vicious, snarling clue following cat, or a burglar-biting hamster. Otherwise, it’s not going to work. So no pets.
- No characters with moral ambiguity. Please, it takes proper talent to do ambiguity and shades of grey. You won’t do better than Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, so leave it alone. Stick to plain good versus evil, keep it black and white. Heroes who are heroic, and villains who are villainous. Yes that’s it, write about the Mounties, “always get your man”, unless of course your hero/heroine is celibate… which brings me to…
- I am not interested in your hero’s personal antics, sexual orientation, bedroom shenanigans. What they do in the privacy of their own bedroom is their business, and none of ours, thank you very much. Shut the bedroom door thank you. If you want to portray a strong personal bond, maybe they could shake hands, if you want to show intimacy between the hero and someone else, maybe they could hug one another. Any more than that and… well really…
- Don’t let the hero give me any of their insights into human nature, or try to improve my inner self. I don’t want to be preached at. I don’t want any of your life affirming claptrap. “You’re nicked, sunbeam” is an adequate conclusion for a police procedural, “the butler did it” works wonders if it’s a murder mystery. Any more than that and you risk over doing it.
- And whilst we’re at it, don’t attempt any clever hero’s journey nonsense thank you. If the hero ends up being half the man they were at the start of the story, it had better be because he got sawn in half by the villain in chapter ten. Otherwise you’ll only make a ham fist of it. So don’t bother.
- Finally, and I feel I cannot emphasis this enough, never, ever, have your hero in a political post, or elected public office, (see, this clever rule precludes any Brit writing about the new sheriff in town, unless it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham, in which case they’d be a villain and this rule wouldn’t apply) as no one will believe that such a person can be a hero only the villain.
So there you go, 13 lucky, little helpful pointers that you can use to craft your story.
Happy reading – or writing.
See more of J Ash’s writing at www.jashwriter.com