Friday, January 5, 2018

The Climax of the Story: Murder Mysteries

When I took a play-writing course in college, the most important principle of writing I learned was "pay-offs."

If a character is introduced in the first scene/chapter in a notable way, that character must be paid off at some point. (Hence, my argument, that Die Hard is the best action movie ever made because all of its set-ups are paid-off).

In novels, characters and ideas can be more easily dismissed (left to the reader's imagination)--less so in television and movies, which are intensely visual. However, even in books, a lack of pay-off can disconcert, especially the second time around.

The Nevermore series by C.S. Poe is well-written. I enjoyed the first book and purchased the second. Unfortunately, although I rate the romance/relationship, conflicts, and writing in both books quite high, I cannot rate the mysteries as high.

Regarding the first book, the problem isn't the obviousness of the bad guy; personally, I don't read mysteries to "guess," so I don't care if the bad guy is obvious. And the detective/collector's investigation of Poe's first published work is quite interesting

The problem is I could never completely grasped (even after the second reading), how the bad guy got into the detective's apartment.

Really. That's a problem.

I don't know if this is true--but it is hilarious.
Murder mysteries rely on empirical evidence and logistics, which can, quite obviously, be a pain to solve. (I'm reminded of a Poirot episode/short story in which a man writes to Poirot for help--Come at once! It turns out the man wrote a novel in which he created such watertight alibis, none of his characters could possibly be the murderer. He needs Poirot to figure it out for him--solve the mystery!)

A failure to solve logistics is not dissimilar to, though not as devastating as, Lee forgetting the logistics of food supplies when he entered Pennsylvania to fight at Gettysburg. Whether or not he won (whether or not the detective figures out the bad guy), how on earth was he planning to feed the survivors (how is the detective going to explain someone entering a locked room)?

A locked room is a locked room. Someone has to steal the keys from somewhere--or dismantle the hinges--or use a bump-key. Not a difficult fix, but it does need to be explained. And quite often, the fix will elucidate character: if, for example, the victim of the broken-into apartment is brilliant but absent-minded, having the villain filched an extra, forgotten-about key from the victim's workplace is a simple--and character expanding--solution.*

Advice For All Writers: Don't forget to explain how your characters got from A to B. You may know! That doesn't mean the reader does.

*In the 2nd book, C.S. Poe does back-write such an explanation regarding the 1st book's locked apartment, only to turn around and create ANOTHER unexplained locked room in the 2nd. Unfortunately, the author seems to believe that saying, "Of course, security professionals can figure out how to get in anywhere" is enough. It isn't. The excellent Encyclopedia Brown books could leave the reader to do the leg-work. Most mysteries can't.  

Perhaps, in her third book, the locked room puzzle will be "un-locked."