The impossibility of the puzzle-type crime novel: writing crime novels

February 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The writer of the classic puzzle-type crime novel is attempting to reconcile some irreconcilables, so it is expected that something should fail.

The crime writer is bound to have a mystery: the solution thereof should not jump into the reader’s mind straight off. And this mystery must be plausible. Someone must be murdered, the murderer must have a strong motive, and then several eligible murderers must converge (or must possibly have converged) at the time and place of the murder.

The murderer, if we are to be puzzled at all, while having a strong motive, must seem quite unsuspicious or so suspicious that we count him out. The crime writer has a tall order to fill: I don’t expect her to fill it, and I am quite willing to make allowances.

Ivy Compton-Burnett said real life is of very little use in helping you to formulate plots. Real life is rather plotless. Equally real murders are of very little use to the crime writer. They, too, are rather plotless. Motives can be feeble, suspects rather scare—and therefore obvious from the outset—and real-life detectives never display Sherlock Holmes’s brilliance.

Judges do not throw murder cases out of court because of the feebleness of the murderer’s motive. But readers do reject crime novels because of a murderer’s inadequate motive. As there is something essentially fantastical about the puzzle-type crime novel, the writer can never completely get over its hurdles. Crime novels rarely have satisfying denouements. So the crime writer must offer some pretty good things along the way, to distract the reader from the fact that the novel’s resolution does not really past muster.

Both Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare) and The Widow of Bath (Margot Bennett) offer many compensations.


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