So you want to solve a crime. Welcome to the world of detective novels. Here, you are free to make as many crazy theories as you want, but the answers may be hidden in plain sight. When you can pretend to be the felon, the hero, and the morally grey detective at the same time.
I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for detective novels. Before picking up The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I had the popular (and heavily mistaken) prejudice that reading was awfully boring. I had no idea how much I would come to enjoy this genre. When I started reading, I couldn’t seem to find a way to stop. Soon my first bookshelf was filled with Christie, Poe, and more works of Doyle.
Lately, the line between horror, mystery, and crime fiction genres can get blurry. As literature progresses and new, innovative pieces come out, it’s normal for genres to overlap. But for now, I’ll focus solely on classic detective novels.
Back to basics
Various works in this genre have had an impact on literature and society. Some of Agatha Christie’s stories surpass the 100 million books sold. “Sherlock”, the series based on Doyle’s novels, had almost 12 million viewers. Still, you can pick up any detective novel right now and you will see that they are based upon the same structure.
Everyone can deduce the first couple of elements, so I’ll try to cover them quickly. The victim (who’s most likely dead) and the criminal are involved directly in the crime. Investigators are outsiders, they just put things back in order. Qualities include being witty, intelligent, and moody. Sometimes, the same character can be the three elements at once. Honorable mention to the subjects and the police who make everything much more complicated and dramatic.
Rather appalling, the story always revolves around a crime, but there is much more to consider than “it was stolen” or “they’re dead”. The crime proposes an enigma. What keeps the readers in tension and suspense. It’s what will have readers making annotations to see if they can solve the case first. Writers can exaggerate or minimize the crime as much as they want to. Poe counts on grotesque scenarios, Christie on subtle clues and word games. Due to this liberty, writing crime fiction can get very tricky very fast. Writers should leave enough information for the readers to use, but not go into so many details that they won’t be surprised by the outcome. Plus, writers always include some piece of information that will be a mislead. If you think about it, it’s a lot like writing plot twists. The goal is for readers to have a how-didn’t-I-see-it-coming moment.
The two stories
Because crime fiction is often written in short stories, it needs to embrace a lot of information in a short amount of words. To do this, we can divide our main plot into two sub-stories.
Let’s picture the first part of a detective tale: the narrator introduces the characters and maybe a location to the reader. Almost immediately, the narrator develops the crime story. The investigators might read it in the newspaper or talk about it with a friend. The author doesn’t present the crime directly, but rather through others’ reports. It’s as if the characters were playing the Telephone game. Note that in peculiar cases, the detective might also be witnesses of the crime story. In this scenario, they either reached the place too late or it was dark and they couldn’t see, because they never know all the details. The crime story sums up what happened to the victim and who are the people that might be involved (the suspects).
As the crime story finishes, the investigation story starts. Our characters decide to tackle the matter on their own. The time for details has finally come. They will search for clues and leads, they will talk to suspects, and form theories. They will try to prove these theories and will either fail due to lack of evidence (and continue the investigation) or succeed and find the criminal. The resolution of the investigation story is up to the author. If the characters decide to catch the criminal, there might be an action-packed persecution scene or a passive-aggressive interrogation to look forward to. If they decide to do nothing about it, they will explain their reasons and move to the next case, make up an excuse for the local authorities, or die (in that order of probability).
Zafire rings stolen and diplomats disappearing, it is always fun to solve a mystery. Perhaps the reason for detective novels to be so prominent is that readers take them personally. It’s the best genre to let their intuition and deductive skills flourish. The crime story keeps the readers at the edge of their seats with its criminals, suspects, and victims. Meanwhile, the investigation story challenges their mind.
Even now, when I open a short story by Christie, I cannot resist the urge to underline and annotate clues and try to solve the puzzle first. And maybe by now, you are interested in picking one too!
Now here’s a mystery for you: I’ve left a short story recommendation hidden in this article. Perhaps you would like to find it out! If you’ve gotten to this point, thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something new!
A clue? It starts with S… another one? Ok, then. It ends with Z.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.