Sunday 1 December 2019

Literary Clichés Part Seven: How to Write a Modern Detective Story

The 1970s, when all cops start needing a good therapist.

We've moved on – Golden Age mystery detectives had quirks; modern detectives have problems. This makes them “3D characters with depth”. Modern mysteries also feature “real women with flaws”, but unfortunately this usually means “they drink a lot”.

Give your detective a few contrasting characteristics, but make him/her wise and warm.

The detective must engage in witty banter with a sidekick.

The detective must have a tormented private life which will from time to time impinge on the story: an unfaithful wife, a delinquent daughter, a drug-addicted son, an ill but estranged parent.

If male, the detective will be a chain-smoking alcoholic. He's crumpled, smelly, unshaven, in constant danger of losing his job/house/marriage. But he will relax by collecting ethnic art, and will have at least one affair with an attractive, much younger person. If female, the same, more or less. But troubled child (preferably daughter) obligatory. Will either live in an uber-chic through-designed minimalist pad or a tip. In both cases, however, will not be able to cook. Or possibly will have a depressingly normal sister who will crop up from time to time and ask "When are you going to settle down with a nice man like Tim? You and Tim were so good for each other." (JL)

Lead the reader into a world they don't know.

Set your story in the past, in a country other than the US or UK. It may or may not be your native land. Use the story as a frame for your research – pick a place and time that’s new to your readers.

Include descriptions of delicious food and if possible, recipes. The clue could be in the cookbook, and they only discover it’s in code when they try to follow the instructions for mulligatawny soup and find out it’s inedible, or uses a lot of mysterious ingredients which are all code for something,.

Include arcane knowledge (there’s a language called Yiddish, autistic people have literal minds).

The detective must teach you all about (for example) Chinese poetry while solving the mystery.

The detective must employ a dysfunctional young geek to do the computery bits of the investigation. (This may be a bit out of date now everyone's got a smartphone.)

The detective's love interest will turn out to be an enemy agent or master criminal but will die in the detective's arms at the end of the story.

The female detective, near the end of the novel, comes face to face with the Master Criminal, whom she is about to destroy before he destroys her. She of course finds him fascinating, compulsive, sexy. In their final confrontation she finds out that they are exactly similar (e.g. both adopted, abused as children, fought their way up from underclass, born in ghetto, traumatised by successful sibling, refugee, bullied at school etc etc). This won't stop her from destroying him at the end, of course, but it will mean that her triumph is hollow. (JL)

Some writers make you feel you're clever, by crudely dropping in little literary references (all of which are actually very obvious) to flatter your sense of your own intellectuality. The quotes are never identified, to make you feel even brighter for being one of the few to recognise them, or to appreciate the cod philosophy and Fine Writing and description for its own sake. (JL)

With a lot of help from James Loader.

More here and links to the rest.

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