Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

murder at the vicarageOne of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries.  Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery.  So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels.  The basic plot is:  dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips.  Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away.  Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.

Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does.  Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:

  • Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away.  For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
  • There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense.  A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
  • The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
  • It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.”  For bonus points:  Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.

In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well.  Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…