Wednesday, January 2, 2013

With all the crime.....

By Jenny Hilborne, Author of mysteries and thrillers

I've noticed a lot of recent discussion about fictional crime compared to real life crime, with plenty of focus on the negative aspects of fictional crime, especially in the face of the horrific shooting events in the US. The fictional violence and brutality sometimes bothers me, too, if I think about it too much, so I wanted to concentrate for a few minutes on the positive, fun aspects of fictional crime.  

Mystery writers must consider many things in their stories: plot, subplot, motive, setting, logic, alibi, clues, evidence, witnesses, and conclusion, with explanation. It must all make sense. Different types of mysteries include a variation of these elements: a cozy is a more peaceful mystery with lots of clues, less action, and less danger to the main character; a hard-boiled mystery includes a lot of action and rough realism; procedurals draw the reader's attention to the rules of law enforcement; an amateur sleuth stumbles into the mystery by accident and helps the detective solve the crime.

All good mysteries contain secrets, riddles, and clues to solve the puzzle. What makes a mystery or a thriller spectacular, for me anyway, is the element of surprise, the perplexity of the plot, the probing questions that draw me deep into the story, and the fact it is fiction and not real life - a world I can visit, without participating in any of the crimes, except trying to catch the killer. After watching a couple of Agatha Christie episodes last week, I realized I mostly enjoy the red herring. It's a mind game using clues to capture and evade, rather than coincidence. The villain matches wits with the detective, the reader matches wits with the author to crack the case. The reader wants to work out the author's plot and the author tries to prevent it, until he/she is ready for the big reveal. We are testing each other.

Red herrings are the false clues that throw off the investigator, increase the challenge and make the mystery so much fun. Skillful mystery writers like Agathie Christie make the guilty appear innocent, turn the innocent into suspects and do so convincingly, sending us looking the wrong way. It's like finding our way out of a maze and we learn from our mistakes, sharpening our skills each time, both as readers and writers. 

Another spectacular part of the fictional mystery is the shock - finding out the guilty person is the one we trusted, realizing the flaws in our own judgement. This is another opportunity to learn about ourselves and improve our analytical skills.

Fictional mysteries bring readers together to discuss, imagine, compare, and to recommend. I hang out in various online mystery groups to share my thoughts and look for suggested great reads. Fictional mysteries become more and more sophisticated and the challenges get harder. Techno thrillers give us a glimpse into a possible future world and stretch our imaginations.

To finish, here are a couple of my favorite mystery reads from 2012:

Chalk Valley by D.L. Johnstone: Excellent suspense told from several viewpoints.
The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch: Well plotted with a maze of riddles and clues
Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham: harrowing story of corruption, perversion, abuse of power, and murder.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Mysteries are good for the mind! They also help us process our fears and experience the triumph of good over evil. And mystery series give us characters that we identify with and care about and enjoy coming back too.

  2. Great post, Jenny. This is perfect timing for me, as I'm plotting a new book (is it terrible that I can't wait for my daughter to go back to school?!) and need the reminder of great mystery must haves.

  3. I think the other thing that can appeal is the fact that the guilty part is almost always brought to justice (almost). Crime fiction books offers a finality that real life often can't - and the satisfaction that the criminal is made to pay for his/her actions.

    Usually. =)

  4. What a fun post, Jen! I agree, I love the puzzle-solving nature of mysteries and I'm always aware of whether I'm putting out just the right amount of clues when I'm writing. The nice thing about fictional crime is that there is a motive. In real life, it's often the big unanswered question - why?

  5. Great post, Jenny.
    Other commenters have already said what I was going to, particularly about the guilty getting their just desserts, and motives, so "thank you" to L.J., Mary and Gayle!

  6. Interesting, well-written analysis, Jenny! Thanks for all your thoughtful, right-on points. I think violent movies and TV shows could inspire some lunatics to do awful things, but I can't see novels having that effect.

  7. Interesting post Jenny. I also think that fictional crime helps us think about how we would act in the face of real-life crime situations.

  8. I love secrets and clues and surprises. I love reading about incredibly brave individuals who walk into dark alleys or haunted houses because that's where the story takes them. And I love the way, in the end, it all makes perfect sense.

    Here's to mysteries, whatever flavor we give them, for a very long time to come!

  9. Great to meet you, Jenny.

    Thanks for your end-list of Good Reads, too. I've found the best authors to add to my must-read list by following recommendations from the writers here.

    As for real-life crime stories...

    We had one here, just up the road, that I doubt any author would want to tackle (at least without making some serious changes).

    Imagine pitching this novel:

    Eccentric loner murders his grandmother with a hammer and pleads to manslaughter, goes to prison for about 18 years and is released.
    He moves in with his momma (whom he loves) and his sister (whom he hates). Momma dies.
    The old coot, a convicted felon, conspires with a young female neighbor to acquire an assault weapon and two other guns. The neighbor handles the paperwork, to bypass the no-guns-for-felons laws.
    Old bastard goes off the deep end, kills his sister in their home, sets house and car on fire, then lies in wait for the firemen who show up to put out the blaze.
    He murders two firemen and wounds two others, managing to hold off police for 3 hours before taking his own life.
    Seven houses burn to the ground. Everyone in the close-knit village is traumatized, and thousands of first-responders make their way there to pay their respects to the fallen firemen.

    Yeah, it really did happen something like that on Christmas Eve in Webster, NY (10 miles up the road from my home). Motive? Who knows? Resolution? Well, yes, for the most part.

    I can't imagine trying to fictionalize that nightmare. Perhaps a more accomplished writer than I am could produce something of value from it. For the rest of us, the reality of it leaves us deeply saddened but filled with respect for the men and women who truly do put their lives on the line for us every day.

    The truth is indeed stranger than fiction sometimes, isn't it?

  10. Wow, Jim. How dreadful. When the truth is stranger than fiction, it's sometimes best to leave it alone. Great to meet you and Happy New Year to you.

  11. The second paragraph offers a concise synopsis of the genre and types within the genre. In one sense all stories are mysteries: even in a romance the plot depends on revealing or discovering some truth - a how, what or why. Christopher Booker in his The Seven Basic Plots disparages mysteries, particularly the serial (Holmes, Christie) because the protagonist (Holmes, Poirot, etc.) doesn't change. He cites Edmund Wilson's screed.

    Of course, they do change. The Holmes of "A Study in Scarlet" is not the same as the Holmes of the "Bruce Partington Plans," to use one example But I think Booker misses the critical point: the central character isn't the protagonist. The central character is the moralist. Characters do undergo moral transformations; Holmes is the catalyst and our gyroscope.

    We can look at the "Wagon Train" type stories - in all their permutations, or really any of the recurring dramas. By challenging the intellect - "make the guilty appear innocent…" as you cogently put it - we are forced to examine our minds and thought processes (end of your 4th paragraph) and question the finality of our judgment, moral or otherwise.

    Like a combination in chess, a good mystery (and again, mystery is not limited to Mystery) forces a re-evaluation. We must always question and analyze.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post! I enjoyed it.


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