The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit, by William G. Tapply, is a must-read for any new crime fiction writer. It covers the basics, beginning with finding your story and defining your sleuth, “the character readers care most about,” Tapply writes.
While mystery story lines are driven by the “whodunit” question, a mystery is also a quest story, Tapply writes, with the sleuth having “purity of purpose, courage, conviction, and single-minded commitment to ideals.” These sleuths need to have a sense of mission. Create a great sleuth and keep their future in doubt—and you’ll hook the reader, Tapply advises.
He doesn’t leave the bad guys out either. He writes about the number of suspects there should be and how long they should be under suspicion. The answer: the more suspects you have the better, and the longer you keep them under suspicion, the better your puzzle. Tapply also addresses victims. After all, part of the sleuth’s job, he writes, “becomes the painstaking piecing together of the victim’s backstory, which comes in bits and pieces of information, often seemingly contradictory, filtered through the memories and motives and lives of other characters.”
Other topics include point of view, setting, narrative hooks, building tension, conflict, dialogue, and revising. The book is rounded out by several chapters from other mystery writers, who discuss such topics as working with a collaborator (Hallie Ephron) to whether you should write a series or standalone (Bill Eidson).
This is a book you’ll want to buy, and return to often. There’s always a gem there upon rereading.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.