The History of Writing Mystery: Advice from the Greats

Deborah Lacy likes to collect handbags inspired by books and frequents speakeasies. She blogs at Mystery Playground and Criminal Element.

Writing excellent fiction is hard. This is an obvious fact to anyone who has attempted it.  Never fear because help is on the way. Many of the best crime fiction storytellers have left you clues to assist and inspire, if you know where to look. Here are a suggestions from greats in the genre.

“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.” — Dashiell Hammett

The king of the hard-boiled school of fiction, Hammett is best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.  His Sam Spade character brought grit and the tough guy back into storytelling in a way that is still imitated today.  His stories didn’t shy away from tough subjects.

“There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it.” — Agatha Christie

Christie is not only known for her enduring characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, but also for her intricate plots. Who can forget the precision of And Then There Were None where ten criminals are brought together on an island to be murdered one at a time matching a nursery rhyme? Or the serial killer in the A.B.C. Murders who sends a clue to Poirot before each killing?  If distance helped Christie hone this work, it could easily work for you.

More of Christie’s writing advice as well as details from her life can be found in her uncreatively titled autobiography, An Autobiography.

“Stories are nothing but mystery boxes” — J.J. Abrahms

A few years ago the king of the boffo premise, J.J. Abrahms — creator of Lost, Alias and the latest Star Trek movies — gave a great talk at the TED Conference where he compared storytelling to an unopened box (You can see the entire talk here). Abrahms talked about how once the box is open, the mystery ends and so does the suspense. He keeps an unopened box on his desk as a reminder. This is another way of saying – as you write, ask dramatic questions instead of answering them. Of course, in a traditional mystery readers will want to know the answers in the end.

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” — Lawrence Block

A Grand Master of Mystery Writes of American, Block is known for his two series: one featuring recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder series and the other featuring gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. He’s won multiple Edgar, Anthony and Shamus awards and has published more than 50 novels and 100 short stories. He’s written five books for writers including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit. Block’s permission to let himself write badly gives way to him writing well and being prolific and has stopped writer’s block from stalling his writing career.

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” — Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s masterpiece character, Philip Marlowe was carefully developed in novelettes for the BLACK MASK pulp magazine until he was ready to write his first novel, The Big Sleep.  All of those stories helped Chandler learn how to refine and reduce his work in a way that is still admired today.

(Best selling author of the Lincoln Lawyer and Blood Work, Michael Connolly agrees with this advice on revising.)

Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe character was strongly influenced by Hammett’s Sam Spade, and both have been often imitated. Even the late great Robert B. Parker said he modeled his most popular character, Spenser, after Marlowe. But as Spenser may have sprung from Marlowe, he quickly became his own man as Marlowe was his own.  It’s important as we take lessons from the greats that we use these ideas as a starting point for something new, rather than just copying what has succeeded in the past.