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Ten recommended reads for budding mystery writers

The coming of a new year is often times an opportunity for reflection and optimism. We consider the last twelve months, rate our success, and set new goals for the new year ahead. My own resolutions include reading and reviewing a book a month and completing book three in my Bow Street Society Mystery series. I also want to share the benefit of my writing experience with anyone whose New Year’s resolution is to write a book. In the spirit of this, then, here are my top reads for budding mystery writers.

WRITING CRIME FICTION Second Edition by HRF Keating

Those who follow my work will already be familiar with the fact this is my go-to for all things crime fiction related. I discovered it many, many years ago, and it gave me the foundation I needed to plan and write my first mystery story. It covers the classic blue print, e.g. Agatha Christie’s style, as well as more modern crime fiction formulas. For me, the chapter, Classical Blue Print, remains the most easy-to-follow and exhaustive guide to planning and writing a classic mystery story there is. It takes the reader through each element of the classic formula, explains its importance, and even gives examples on how they may be implemented in one’s own story.

Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner

Part of the Howdunnit Series, this book is an encyclopaedia covering all areas a crime writer would need to know about poisons. Over eleven chapters, it covers the classic poisons of Arsenic, Cyanide, and Strychnine—in addition to household poisons, poisonous plants, fungi, poisonous snakes and spiders etc., medical poisons, pesticides, industrial poisons, and street drugs. Each entry explains the toxicity of the poison, its physical symptoms, appearance, reaction time, and antidotes. Though a macabre subject matter, this book will be invaluable to any mystery writer regardless of which historical period their story is set in.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Widely regarded as the perfect mystery story of the classic blue print formula, this book is a must read for anyone wanting to emulate Agatha Christie’s style. I’d also recommend it to someone considering writing a modern-day mystery story. The active elements of all mysteries are their clues. The only difference between a classic blue print mystery and a gritty, modern detective story—at least, in terms of their clues—is the advancement of technology. The detective still must interpret the clues he/she are presented with, whether that clue is a footprint in the mud or a strand of DNA. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd uses clues to perfection and—alongside the other elements—presents the reader with a solution that has to be, even though, on the surface, it seems farfetched.

The Adventure of The Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First published in February of 1892, this short story follows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they investigate their client’s sister’s mysterious death. Though it’s not the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, it’s nonetheless a good introduction to the detective if you haven’t read any of Conan Doyle’s works. The Adventure of The Speckled Band is also one of the original examples of a detective story, told in third person, from the point of view of someone watching the detective’s work at close quarters. Agatha Christie was a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s influence may be seen in Christie’s choice to give her master detective, Hercule Poirot, an assistant in the form of Captain Arthur Hastings in her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. If you’re considering writing your mystery story from the point of view of the detective’s assistant, then The Adventure of The Speckled Band is a good place to start for the purposes of research.

Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin

Part of the Erast Fandorin series of mystery novels, and translated from Akunin’s native Russian, this book centers on a murder aboard a passenger ship. I chose this installment over the first (that being The Winter Queen) because it’s predominantly written from the point of view of someone with no personal connection to the detective—other than their mutual involvement in the mystery. The narrator is a passenger on board the ship and her narration of Erast Fandorin (the detective) and his investigation is done from a distance. Though a similar mechanic to the one used in the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s sufficiently different to warrant a closer look by anyone seeking to use a variant of the original mechanic in their own story.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Carrying on with the theme of which point of view to use, this book from 1939 is a perfect example of a mystery told, in first person, from the detective’s point of view. It follows hard-boiled private detective, Philip Marlowe, as he investigates a case on behalf of General Sternwood. Marlowe’s efforts take him through the sordid underbelly of Los Angeles at a time of gangsters and glamorous women. It’s full of memorable lines and has a riveting plot. A contemporary of Agatha Christie, Chandler placed more emphasis on violence and peril in his mysteries than on the puzzle. Nonetheless, the reader can still follow Marlowe’s thought processes, and lines of enquiries, and still feel satisfied with the book’s resolution. For a writer, successfully executing the first person point of view perspective is difficult at the best of times. Trying to do so in a mystery story is even worse. Yet, Chandler executes it perfectly in The Big Sleep, and his subsequent books. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is another great example of a mystery story told in first person. The perspective is not from the detective, however.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

With the subtitle of “or the Murder at Road Hill House”, this book focuses on the real-life murder of a young child in 1860 at the titular location. The named Mr Whicher is actually Inspector Jack Whicher, a highly respected Metropolitan Police officer who was sent, by Scotland Yard, to investigate the case.

Though the Metropolitan Police was formed in 1829 by the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the Detective Department wasn’t formed until 1842. The role of a police detective was therefore a relatively new thing in 1860. It was also a controversial aspect of the police; partly due to the fact these officers were usually plain-clothed. This more discreet approach was cited as being a threat to freedom on account of the officers not being easily identifiable. This accusation was at its strongest when detectives began working undercover. A famous example of this was a detective disguising himself as a statue to apprehend a criminal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Kate Summerscale’s book highlights, and explains, the public’s attitude toward the police while narrating the events of the Road Hill House murder. She also explores the depiction of the detective in contemporary literature, and the historical context of the case. Even if, for your mystery story, you don’t intend to base it in the Victorian era, Kate’s book is an excellent introduction to the origins of both the detective in literature and of British police detectives. I think it’s important to know the foundations of the genre as it helps to identify where your story slots into the wider picture. It also helps to cement one’s understanding of how police detectives came into existence, and why they operate the way they do.

The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard by Martin Fido and Keith Skinner

Carrying on from my point in the previous entry, I’m recommending this book for the same reasons. It was recommended to me by the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre in London during my visit there. It has been an invaluable source of research ever since, as it covers all aspects of Scotland Yard, including women police officers, fingerprints, riots, and explanations/origins of each police rank.

 The Private Investigator’s Handbook by Dr K Gavin

Written by a former Private Investigator, this book is aimed at those thinking of entering that field. Nonetheless, its explanatory approach is useful from a writing perspective, especially when it comes to practical elements like following someone on foot or in a car. The tips and advice it gives in these two elements may be applied to a mystery regardless of its historical setting.

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl

This short story isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense, for you know who committed the crime from the outset. Though some mystery stories employ this device to showcase the detective’s abilities, this reasoning isn’t applicable in Lamb to the Slaughter, as the detectives don’t solve the case. Nonetheless, it’s a great example of a short crime story with a twist ending. Unless you’re confident in your own writing ability, twist endings should be avoided. You run the risk of making your reader feel cheated—and therefore dissatisfied—with your story’s resolution. Dahl’s story is one of only a few that executes this plot device well.

Chance to WIN a Bow Street Society Bonanza: Simply subscribe to the FREE Bow Street Society newsletter HERE to be entered into a draw to win signed copies of The Case of The Curious Client, The Lonesome Lushington, and The Case of The Shrinking Shopkeeper & Other Stories. The winner will also receive EXCLUSIVE merchandise: a cup, keyring, magnet, bag, and three bookmarks. Visit for more information. Competition closes January 31, 2018.

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