This blog is a thrilling ‘Howdunnit?’…possibly.
You find me just starting on my fifth murder mystery, you see. I do so in the company of my usual detectives, Abbot Peter and D.I.Tamsin Shah. But I really am just starting – there isn’t a case for them to investigate yet… they’re probably getting on with other things as I write.
What do I know? Well, I do know who will be murdered and can picture the five suspects in a rather impressionist way – but I don’t yet know which of them will do it.
And really, how could I? I’ve barely met them. So before the detectives arrive on the scene and begin their questioning, I need to begin mine. I glimpse something about each of them – perhaps status, an attitude or a mannerism – but they remain elusive still.
Don’t worry, though, I know what I need to do. I need to get them in a room together, to start them talking with each other… and see what emerges. Characters are always revealed to me in dialogue… my sense of them grows in the human exchange.
Someone’s talk-style is such a give-away, don’t you find?
So the first draft, by far the hardest, is concerned with finding out who these people are whilst allowing a plot to settle gently around their contours. I’m aware some thriller writers sit down with a carefully-crafted plot outline, and lead their characters through it; but for good or ill, this has never been my way. I sit down at the keyboard not knowing anything but the blank page in front of me, a few ghostly characters – and a narrative that doesn’t exist.
On a good day, my only role is to sit and watch as the characters take the story on. (I tap away at the keyboards, as I do now – but really, I’m only watching.) It’s only on the 3rd draft that I’ll begin to be a little controlling about their behaviour, bring some tightening and order to proceedings. Murder mysteries require a degree of careful plotting not necessarily required of other novels; control by edit has its place.
But it’s not just about the characters and plot; settings are important as well. (Morse – Oxford; Rebus – Edinburgh; TV’s ‘Death in Paradise’ – paradise.) Indeed, for some, setting is more important than character. They just like to be taken somewhere – somewhere other than where they are… and they’re not too bothered by the company they find there.
All my murder mysteries take place in the bleak coastal town of Stormhaven, (a thinly-disguised version of Seaford, between Newhaven and Eastbourne on the south coast – and conveniently near the suicide mecca of Beachy Head.)
My detective lives there and so, now – after thirty years in London – do I. My friend came to see me recently and declared the place ‘shit’. But one man’s shit is another man’s heaven.
This story though will focus on two particular venues – a brothel and a closed-down mental asylum. The mental asylum is there because I saw a photo recently of a lone bed in a huge space that had previously been an asylum – before places like that got closed down in the 1990’s. I thought, ‘I have to write about that space.’
The brothel appears after I watched a documentary on the sex trade. Sex is a huge employer in this country, (more than the church, for instance) yet discrete in its movements, a hinterland of legality and illegality, joy and sadness, easy pleasure and hard-nosed income. And again I thought, ‘I have to write about that space.’
Some people don’t think it’s a good idea, of course… I mean, the whole murder mystery thing. They don’t believe it to be a good use of my time writing this sort of stuff… not very useful. The remarkable Lawrence of Arabia didn’t hold back. He called detective novels ‘literary golf – they waste brain concentration on imaginary problems.’
But perhaps that is to misunderstand the genre today. Murder mysteries, from where I’m sitting, exist to look at life under pressure; the move towards what Agatha Christie called ‘the zero hour’ of the murder – and the exposure of secrets and hiddenness which follows.
The imaginary plot is merely the frame for the picture – the picture of light and dark, bravery and deceit, resilience and capitulation…and pondering such things is not such a waste of the brain.
But that’s enough high-falutin’ theory. For now, though I know who’ll be killed, I don’t know the killer. And though I’ve wandered the haunting corridors of the asylum and met the courteous – pleasant, even – madam of the brothel, I don’t know where they’ll fit in. I’ve written the opening scene – but the next 240 pages are blank.
For a ‘Howdunnit?’ this is a pretty unsatisfactory ending…
Simon Parke once wrote for ‘Spitting Image’ but like some sad re-working of ‘Decline and fall’, ended up writing self-help books such as ‘One Minute Mindfulness.’ He has now turned to fiction with ‘Pippa’s Progress’ (Pilgrim’s Progress re-imagined) and the Abbot Peter murder mystery series. Away from the quill and ink, he has adventures of the therapeutic kind as CEO of the Mind Clinic which takes active listening into schools and businesses. He blogs at simonparke.com/blog here.
I really sat up and cheered when I read this. The firm belief that if you don’t know who and how your characters are, the what and the where won’t signify. The idea that that plot isn’t just character driven, but that characters are plot. And I love the way the narrative will ultimately call the shots. If it’s true. A pleasure to read. Thank you.
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Thanks so much for your encouragement John. I loved reading it too. It’s helping me rethink one or two things, as does your wonderful insight. As ever with grateful good wishes, Anthony
I’m not a huge fan of murder mysteries, though I have enjoyed the odd one, but I love that bit about them existing “to look at life under pressure” and the kind of progress towards, and consequences of, that “zero hour”. I shall regard them rather differently now.
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Thank you so much for saying so, Lesley. I had much the same reaction, even though I love a good crime. Life under pressure though. I’m stealing that one.