Reading a murder mystery is like going on a treasure hunt. The challenges are exciting and the process of eliminating the suspects to identify the culprit requires an exercise of the gray cells. There are clues to be followed, red herrings to be discarded and the culprit to be detected. There is nothing like a good detective novel and a cup of coffee on a cold night or a rainy day. It is as addictive as alcohol. Perhaps, that is the reason for the popularity of crime books. How else can one explain the enduring allure of Agatha Christie’s books? Just as a detective novel calls for the readers to use their gray cells and imagination, writing it requires a great deal of skill on the writer’s part.
It begins with the plotting of a spellbinding story and finding the correct background as setting, followed by the creation of a believable detective, scattering red herrings and fleshing out the characters. All this has to be done without the reader getting a wind of the culprit. The readers’ interest should not dwindle, at any given time. The best scenario is when the reader spends time ruminating over the story even after he’s finished reading it. Let me assure you, it is no mean feat.
So, how does one go about the exercise of writing a good murder mystery? While there are no set rules, there are a few guidelines that can be followed for best results.
• The Plot
The plot is the supreme factor in all books, more so in a crime book. It must be strong enough to hold the interest till the end. A weak and ill planned plot can ruin any book, but in detective fiction, it can be disastrous.
• The Setting
It is important to have a perfect setting for the story. Much of the action and interaction will depend on the kind of location you decide. Is it a small town or a large metropolis, a densely populated place or a thinly populated one? Whatever be the setting, it should catch the readers’ imagination.
• The Characters
Characters in the book should be credible. They should fit into the kind of location chosen to set the story. One-dimensional characters can be boring. At the same time, fleshing out a character calls for writing skill.
• The Detective
The sleuth is mostly the protagonist in detective novels. He has to be a intelligent person with several talents. Solving crimes requires an extensive knowledge of forensics, law and human psychology, so the sleuth in the story should possess enough knowledge of these elements to come across as an intelligent investigator. Besides, (s)he should be a relatable character, who can earn the respect and faith of the reader. Perfection is odious, so a quirky and credible character works well with the readers. He can be an amateur or a professional, depending on the writer’s fancy. What is important is to flesh out the character to make him interesting.
• The Murder, Method and Motive
There are three non negotiable elements in a murder mystery – the act of murder, the method by which the murderer uses to kill his victim and the motive for the murder. The murder should happen within the first few chapters of the book, so that the suspense starts early and continues through the book. The murderer invariably has a motive for the crime. It is the writer’s job to assign a strong motive to the culprit, one that can compel him to carry out the crime. Motives can range from money to love or revenge. Fear or hatred of the victim can also lead to a murder.
• The Suspects
Introducing too many suspects at the same time, without defining their background, can ruin the impact and kill an element of surprise. Unlike in the Bollywood movies, most culprits are not scarred or villainous looking. They could be normal people like you and me. It is the psychology of a killer that matters. A seemingly normal person can often have latent psychological deviations. More importantly, he or she should be capable of committing a crime. Conveying the inner thoughts and emotions can create a enigmatic culprit. It is equally essential to provide the suspects with enough motive for committing the murder.
• The Clues
There should be a fair sprinkling of clues to help the readers solve the mystery. The clues should be evenly scattered as the story goes forth. Putting too many or too few clues can take away the challenge.
• The Red Herrings
Red herrings are used to hoodwink the readers, but they have to be used judicially. Putting too many of them with an objective of misleading can rob the readers’ interest. More importantly, the red herrings should not mislead the readers to the extent that they are not able to find their way to the goal.
• The Mental Challenge
A good detective novel should offer intellectual challenge to the sleuth as well as the readers. Scientific reasoning, well balanced analysis of the situations and a credible aftermath are the few essentials in creating the challenge. The readers must have a sense of participation and satisfaction at solving the crime successfully.
• The end
It is essential to tie up all loose ends. Hanging and unaccounted for threads can be annoying. Besides, readers prefer a proper closure rather than an unresolved crime. The maxim that good always wins, still holds true for most of us. There is comfort in the belief that the world has more good than evil.
Some of my favourite Indian detective fiction writers are Satyajit Ray, who created the adorable sleuth called Feluda aka Prodosh Mitter, and Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, the creator of the enduring character called Byomkesh Bakshi., who calls himself Satyanvenshi (seeker of the truth). The two sleuths are comparable to Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, in terms of recall value and popularity.
Among my other favourites in detective fiction are writers like Ambai, the creator of a sharp and efficient female detective named Sudha Gupta. Arjun Raj Gaind, whose protagonist is Maharaja Sikander Singh. Set against the backdrop of the British Raj, Gaind’s book takes the readers through a nail biting suspense story with the maharaja solving a Very Pukka Murder case. Also on my list is Madhulika Liddle, the creator of Muzaffar Jang, a maverick nobleman and detective.
My latest book ‘A Closetful of Skeletons’ has just been published by Harper Collins.
Author(s): Tanushree Podder
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release: December 2017
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Featured image from Freepik