As part of the Wild Boy blog tour, I am pleased to welcome Rob Lloyd Jones on the blog today, to tell us how not to write a detective story.
There are always rules aren’t there?
Everything we do, everywhere we go: rules, rules, rules. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t run in the corridor. Never juggle raw eggs. We are bound by mean spirited, fun-sapping rules.
What’s worse is that I’ve always been a bit of a stickler for them. I’d love to describe myself as a law breaking, risk taking rebellious spirit. But the fact is I break out in cold sweats whenever the speedometer nudges 75 on a motorway.
That’s why I love writing. Sometimes – when it’s going well – I feel like the Incredible Hulk, tearing free of his shackles and smashing enemy soldiers away with mighty sweeps of his arms.
Sort of, anyway.
Fiction offers us a world without rules, with infinite possibilities. We can do anything, go anywhere, behave however we like.
But I had a problem.
I wanted my first novel – Wild Boy – to be a mystery story. The hero is both a freak show performer and a master detective. There are murders, clues, red herrings and a masked killer lurking in a fairground. I wanted it to be melodramatic, over the top, in the style of classic detective stories of the 1920s and 1930s; the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction.
And those stories had rules.
There are lists of these things; commandments that fans of the genre insist you must follow. I wont guide you to them because I dislike them, but they aren’t hard to find with a little Googling. Mainly they are based on a single original list, set down in the 1928 by the mystery writer Willard Huntington Wright, but they’ve been refined, lengthened and debated ever since. They state things like:
No secret passages are allowed!
Secret societies have no place in a detective story!
You may not include any ciphers or code letters!
Avoid any scenes not directly linked to the central mystery of the plot!
Of course, as soon as I read these rules, I thought:
I mean, didn’t realize.
I’ll stop telling this story immediately.
I’ll have the rules tattooed behind my eyelids, so that each time I blink I am reminded of them.
I understand why these rules exist. Classic detective tales are presented as puzzles – brain games rather than stories. And all games need rules to keep them fair. The players need to know that, if they get involved, they stand a chance of winning.
Also, some of these books are brilliant. I adore John Dickson Carr’s intricately devised ‘impossible crimes’ – murders in locked rooms, knifed or strangled corpses discovered in snow or on muddy tennis courts with no footprints.
They are gripping, and often superbly written. But I don’t recommend them as stories. They are not stories, not really. Because they are not about people. I suspect – although I don’t know this for sure – that their authors began with the crime and the clues, and wove their characters around it. Every good detective story needs a fiendishly baffling mystery to drive its plot. But too often in classic detective fiction, the plot is all that matters.
I wanted to write about someone. I wanted to let him guide the story, and see where it took him. So I chose to ignore the rules, and I wrote my detective story exactly the wrong way, according to the list makers. The puzzling crimes do not just happen for Wild Boy to solve - they happen because of him, although he doesn’t know why. That is the mystery he must solve, using his incredible detective skills and a lot of help from his circus-star friend
Did it work? I’m not sure. Some people have said they guessed the killer before it’s revealed, while others were surprised. To be honest I’m happy either way – as long as they were moved by Wild Boy’s story, and not just turning the pages only to find out whodunit.
And those rules I listed as examples above? I can happily report that I broke every one of them.
Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones is published by Walker Books in April. To read a review, please click here.
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