Agatha Christie disliked her fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, so intensely that according to Christie’s grandson, Matthew Prichard, she wished “exorcise herself of him”. Yet, he was so popular with her readership, she continued to weave stories about him.
Which brings us to the second question: What is the mystery writer’s perfect weapon?
The Mystery Writer’s Perfect Weapon
The Imperfect Sleuth
Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t keep turning the pages of a murder mystery if the characters weren’t believable and interesting.
How can a writer create such characters that keep the reader turning the pages of a novel?
Make the sleuth flawed.
In other words, give the hero of the story the elements that make us human. Readers love watching heroes stumble and pick themselves up from the ashes. Fighting demons and problems and overcoming them are the grist of Life. As authors, we want our readers to care about the sleuth. Otherwise, who cares what happens?
The good mystery has many common elements:
- Red herrings – false clues/leads that mislead the reader and the sleuths
- A sidekick –
- Someone who provides a different perspective
- Someone who is a sounding board for the sleuth
- Someone who provides comic relief
- Someone who plays by the rules
- Believable motives
- Fairness with clues – the sleuth and the reader has all the same information to solve the mystery
Rule of thumb – everybody lies.
Fictional detective and sleuths are often portrayed as outsiders, loners, or misfits who trust almost no one. They are somehow broken and the setting and world they live in reflects this. Readers connect to these traits. The character flaws are devices that throw obstacles in the heroes’ paths, and in some cases, give the sleuth an advantage in solving the crime.
Examples of Famous ‘Flawed’ Sleuths
Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
- Intelligent – uses logical reasoning and observation to solve crimes
- Dislikes people
- Morphine addict
- Injects cocaine
Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)
- Intelligent – utilizes logic to solve crimes
Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke)
- Recovering alcoholic
- Suffers from depression
- Doesn’t follow the rules
- Fighting inner demons from his days in Vietnam
Keep the pages turning:
- Craft a likeable, albeit imperfect hero
- Set the stakes high.
- Will the hero succeed or fail?
- Increase the tension in the story to increase reader engagement.
- Move your story forward with great dialogue.
- Humans have 5 senses. Remember to use them all in your story.
- Inject unexpected twists and turns.
- Make the reader laugh.
- Make the reader cry.
- Put your flawed sleuth in everyday situations and let him flounder, flub up, flop, and flourish like the rest of us.