We’ve all read this type of mystery before. Great plot, very entertaining, capable detective–but there were not enough suspects, making the question of who done it far less satisfying than it should have been. In this regard, having too many suspects (while not ideal) is better than having too few.
I’m thinking about suspects a lot at the moment. My character list for the fourth book keeps growing and shrinking. The amount is trickier than one might assume. You see, as the plot comes together, it’s my job to figure the number of characters necessary for the narrative. In other genres, this is no big deal, and (indeed) I experience similar relief upon realizing that two characters can easily be combined.
Instead of having a separate character visit Aunt Martha, why not have Ellen do it? She’s the main character, so we should be following her anyway. And…(yes!) now she can witness the murder. Why did I even make up that other character. He has nothing to do but check on Aunt Martha and then vanish.
And then you run into that paucity-of-suspects problem. What happens next is fascinating? I’m sure it only happens in the mystery genre. You type this into your character list:
Man 34 suspect
Woman 27 suspect
These entries will last a good 2-6 months, during which you become convinced you are the worst writer of all time. This is an unnatural way to write. Sometimes the characters will integrate nicely. Sometimes they are such obvious suspect-filler, they only last about 3 chapters before even the most lame-brained reader will cross them off the suspect list.
A similar thing happens to the plot — it will be an idiot plot (a plot which would end if all the characters didn’t behave like idiots) for a while, at least in spots.
I think this is one of the main reasons writers give up on their mysteries. They can’t stand those 6 months when a character exists only to be a suspect or when Tom has every reason in the world to call the police but doesn’t because it would ruin the plot if the police came.
Some of the stuff gets fixed. Some of it gets hidden and the writer hopes to god no one notices. but the most important thing is outlasting those months of vagueness.
I feel like writers of other genres can talk more about their stuff earlier.
Hi, Margaret. I hear you’re working on a book. What’s it about?
“A cowboy widower meets a city girl with a checkered past. He teaches her how to ride a bull and she teaches him how to love again.”
Cool. Hi, James. I hear you’re working on a book. What’s it about?
“There’s a man at the top of a tower. He gets stabbed in the back, even though the only entrance to the tower was constantly watched. There is a pipe going into the tower but it’s too small for a person. And it’s rusty. That’s important.”
Yeah, but what’s it about?
“I have no idea.”
How long have you been working on it?
Anyway…My fourth book is about a curse that causes people to take their own life. Gloria Grahame is the head of a whodunit book club in 1947 Maine, but she’ll have to play the part of amateur sleuth to find out why her friends and family are killing themselves…or why the killer is murdering them…and how…because they look an awful lot like suicides.
Hopefully, I’ll settle on a title soon. The working titles (Bay of Blood/Murder of the Month) will not be around for long.
4 thoughts on “Unnatural Suspects”
I look forward to reading your take on The Case of the Constant Suicides (The Case of the Fictitious Suicides?).
I hadn’t even thought of that.
The Case of the Uncertain Suicides, surely?
That’s an interesting insight into a problem that I never realized mystery writers have, but yeah, it makes sense.
Christianna Brand was magic at juggling an incredibly tight cast of suspects (and making them all feel integral to the story), and of course John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Green Capsule is a masterwork of the tiny list of suspects. And man, when it is done well, it is amazing. “I’ve spent hours reading your book, and hours not reading your book. And during that time, I’ve carefully contemplated each of your characters as being the murderer. And despite that, you still shocked me.” That’s it, right? The fact that you thought specifically about the killer being the killer, and you were still surprised when they were revealed to be the killer.
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