“The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction” (by Marvin Kaye)

Marvin Kaye’s long and distinguished career as a writer and editor encompasses the fields of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery. He has served as editor-in-chief of three magazines: H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. He has also authored more than a dozen novels and compiled dozens of anthologies, and as you’ll see from this post, he has taught creative writing. His new story for EQMM is a Nero Wolfe pastiche, one of a series he is currently writing. It will appear in our July/August issue (to be released on June 19).  The advice he gives here to writers of the classical whodunit should be helpful, coming from a writer who has tackled the challenges himself.—Janet Hutchings

For over twenty years I served as Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, where I lectured on the construction of murder mysteries and other genres. I had an average of one student a year who sold a novel begun in our workshop, also one screenplay that was made into a well-done film starring Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper.

In those days, the standard form of mysteries embraced reader-solvable puzzles, what John Dickson Carr called The Grandest Game. Soon after, when I became a member of the Steering Committee of The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe society, I was asked to head an annual judging committee for Nero Awards. The other judges were Barbara Stout, Rex’s daughter, who died recently, Robert Goldsborough, authorized writer of new Nero Wolfe novels, and a floating member from the Pack.

As I began reading the new output from various publishers, I was dismayed to discover that few of the books submitted were reader-solvable. Instead they were books about murder and other crimes, often with fascinating characters and interesting plots, but without the classic structure of clues and red herrings that led the Great Detective to an eleventh-hour showdown. As far as I can tell today, the situation remains that way.

What a loss! The market seems devoid of new Rex Stouts or Dorothy Sayers or Clayton Rawsons, et cetera. The only remedy I can see is to teach contemporary writers the nuts and bolts of well-crafted whodunits. I suspect, however, that many will not want to be bothered because, after all, writing a good reader-solvable mystery is a difficult affair.

One might be faithful to all the old rules and still fail. Analogically, it is possible for a musician to create a fugue for organ, say, that observes all the necessary requirements of that form so that the result is a well-crafted fugure that, however, makes for dreary listening.

Following are a few structural guidelines to think about en route to building a true ratiocinative challenge to the reader (a phrase often used by Ellery Queen).

1. The Detective. It should be obvious that your sleuth must have the intellectual capacity to process clues and winnow out the red herrings. He or she also should be interesting for his or her own sake.

2. The Franchise. There are, as I see it, three possible choices governing the detective’s ability to investigate crimes. If he is a policeman, it is his job, sanctioned by his local or state government. If he is a private detective, he is licensed to do the same, but usually within limitations that most private eyes bend or break from time to time, and that includes Sherlock Holmes. The third possibility is that the detective is an amateur who either likes criminal investigation or has an emotional interest in finding out the truth, often to vindicate some wrongly accused friend and/or relative. Her problem (it is often a woman, as, for instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) is that she has no legal standing to butt into police business. Sometimes this sleuth has a friend on the force who helps smooth the way.

Each of the above choices is valid; each has its strengths and difficulties. It is up to the author to select whichever variety of character they are most comfortable writing about.

3. Viewpointing. There have been mysteries written first-person from the detective’s point of view. The question it raises, of course, is why doesn’t the sleuth share all internal thoughts and speculations with the reader? There are strengths and weaknesses involved, though excellent novels have been written first-person. I suppose the safest way to go is third person, though it potentially may flatten the emotional impact of the tale. Personally I prefer first person by the detective’s faithful companion, the Dr. Watson or Archie Goodwin. Not only is the emotional impact guaranteed, the author may send the narrator on some important mission which keeps him or her away from the sleuth as he or she unravels the chain of circumstances leading to a solution.

Again, any such choice is valid; it depends on the kind of book you’d enjoy writing the most.

4. The M-O-M Chart. This is a tool I developed that students found helpful in plotting their stories. On a piece of paper, draw four separate vertical columns labeled Character, M (for Motive), O (for Opportunity) and M (for Method). Then draw as many horizontal intersecting lines as needed for the main characters of your novel.

Under character, put the names of the dramatis personae with the murderer occupying the top space. Enter the means, opportunity, and method in the appropriate places. The first horizontal row contains the clues necessary to solve the crime. Note that if you leave a space blank for any of the suspects, that personage will be eliminated as the killer. Of course that makes for a comparatively simple tale, but the more complete rows of red herrings you lay in complicates the situation and provides the detective with fallow investigating ground. A common device that authors employ is to make only one suspect (not the perpetrator) have all three M-O-M data. This character is ripe to become the second murder victim.

5. The Master Chart. This tool enables the writer to structure and keep a record of all the plotting data involved. It may be as simple or elaborate as desired. On a large piece of paper, create a series of vertical columns crossed by horizontal dividers. Label the columns as needed; A simple arrangement would be: Chapter Number, Setting, Characters, Clues, Red Herrings. I also had a Plot Points column because my settings tended to be colorful and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget various interesting items along the way.

By now you will have drawn up a list of the essential necessary clues. Enter these in the appropriate spaces, as well as the other indicated data. Then begin to write. This chart is not a bible; as you proceed, you will surely find it necessary to omit or add information. If and when you do, adjust the Master Chart accordingly. As this involves a lot of erasing, a pencil should be used, not a pen.

6. The Clue Log. As you write your story, have a separate paper handy on which you should enter the occurrence of clues and the manuscript pages on which they appear. Thus when you reach the solution chapter, you won’t have to go paging back through all those papers to discover when the detective learned this and that.

The final step in the process is to vary the way clues are introduced and disguised throughout. This is a subject sufficiently complicated to require extensive explanation in a separate article.

Goodbye and happy sleuthing!

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3 Responses to “The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction” (by Marvin Kaye)

  1. Dear Mr. Kaye:

    This is a valuable article on mystery writing which I am bookmarking so that I can read and digest it for future reference as I write my own short stories and mystery novels. Thank you for sharing with us. I feel privileged to have some of my short stories published in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

  2. Mysti Berry says:

    Thank you for this great article, it’s so helpful!!!!

    There is another category of franchise, the “semi-pro.” These are people like fraud investigators who are hired by a private company but often work closely with official law enforcement. They struggle in the space in between public and private duties, which can be interesting.

  3. Very clarifying, reducing a complex process to its essence.

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