“The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.”
When staring at a blank sheet of paper, write down this timeless advice from G. K Chesterton’s detective story, The Blue Cross. Notice how the criminal comes first, then the detective. Given the truckloads of crime novels cramming every bookshop, it’s easy to fall back on tried and tested templates, even clichés. We forget why crime fiction has become a timeless genre – not because of our dishevelled detectives, but because someone is driven to crime. That should be our focus.
Hence why the legendary TV detective series Columbo always showcased the suspect from the beginning. The pleasure came from watching Columbo unpick the murderer’s creative art by exposing every flaw in the plan until they crumbled and confessed. Even if you prefer whodunits, pick up some Columbo DVDs sometime. You cannot learn enough from that series.
Speaking of learning, here are some other methods to make your crime fiction stand out:
Method #1- Unusual Locations
Back alleys and abandoned warehouses are old hat. Save that for horror. As far as crime is concerned, the villain could be in Santa Fe before the police arrive. And then what?
Many assume that weapons are the most important consideration. Few consider location. I would argue that location has a greater impact, providing resources and limitations that the villain must consider and conquer in order to commit the crime. Likewise, the detective must use their location to solve it.
To increase tension, choose a location that limits the villain’s chances of an easy escape. This forces a confined game of cat and mouse. Agatha Christie, often known as the Queen of Crime, mastered this concept, setting many of her murder mysteries in isolated houses. Read Peril At End House as a classic example.
Clues reflect the chosen location. Poisoned syringes won’t be found on a construction site unless you can explain how. That in itself increases a sense of mystery. Perhaps someone left the construction site without signing out. Or maybe no one left at all, so how did the poisoned syringe get there? The more limitations in your chosen location, the more unique your clues.
Unusual locations are often ordinary. Offices, cottages, hospitals, chemical plants, museums, submarines, and schools all present obstacles and advantages. Consider using irony. Imagine someone gets kidnapped near a police station, or an arson attack occurs during a fire safety lecture. Your art thief could strike after a new security system is installed, whilst your murderer poisons their victim’s coffee at the office.
The location is the canvas upon which your criminal paints the crime.
Method #2- Untrustworthy Characters
So you think that if one person is the murderer, everyone else must have a heart of gold? Wrong.
Everyone lies. This is why the police are trained to assume nothing. I’m compiling a list of books on police procedure, and I’d recommend you do the same. The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael Byrne is a great place to start.
Why do your characters lie? To answer this question, plan the crime like a creative artist. Does the criminal have an accomplice? Does someone unwittingly aid and abet them, only to realize they’ve made a huge mistake? If so, they’d lie to protect themselves from suspicion, or from the criminal targeting them. Other characters might lie in order to cover their own actions, which may or may not be criminal, but should be intriguing enough to propel the story and confuse your detective.
Blackmail makes a great subplot, creating additional motives (revenge) and tension. It adds another reason for characters to lie, despite knowing essential information.
Consider theft of important objects before and after the crime. Does a secondary character realize one of their possessions has gone missing? You see this often in Agatha Christie novels. Or, does a secondary character realize that one of their possessions might incriminate them, even though they didn’t commit the crime? In that case, they may need to steal it back before the police come after them with an arrest warrant.
Most importantly, the “good guys” should also be untrustworthy, even if their reasons have nothing to do with the crime. If their reasons are connected to the crime, so much the better. Consider ways in which they could operate, unbeknownst to your detective. How are they discovered?
Don’t allow your reader to trust anyone.
Method #3- Reduce Clues
How is a detective supposed to solve a crime with so few clues?
The fewer clues available, the more watertight the crime, the more confident the criminal. And the more confident the criminal, the more likely your detective will find a mistake.
That sounds counterintuitive, but read a couple crime fiction novels as well as real crime narratives, and you’ll find it’s true. The notion of the detective as a grand chess master might be clichéd, but a criminal will do anything to conceal their identity. Investigation threatens their cover, so police will often wait for the criminal to make a move that will expose them somehow. This is why police will often put out radio messages for vehicle license plates, or place a whole area on lockdown, which goes back to the importance of using a watertight location.
Reducing clues means the remainder must be unique and cryptic. Most crime writers have abandoned cigarette butts, footprints, and fingerprints, which Hercule Poirot famously mocked. DNA sampling and CCTV renders such clues childish. But are they? Not if you use them in an unexpected manner, such as diverging attention from an important fact, incriminating someone else, or putting the villain under scrutiny for a different reason. Michael Connelly does this brilliantly in The Last Coyote, where LAPD Detective Bosch investigates the murder of his mother, combining fingerprint analysis with simple items and plain observation.
And what if there are no clues? That in itself reveals a great deal, particularly when the criminal disguises one crime as something else (i.e. murder portrayed as accidental death). Detectives looking for key signs and finding none will consider this suspicious in and of itself. Everything leaves a trace of some kind, so if nothing is available, what does that mean?
Make mind-maps of predictable clues, and see how you can turn them upside down.
Method #4- Invert the structure
In short, break the rules– but only after having learned them.
Often, a crime novel begins with the investigation of another crime before the main one is introduced. You see this with the archetypal unwilling detective thrust into danger. Another obvious inversion involves setting up a dummy suspect, only for the detective to discover someone else is responsible.
Personally, I favour the Columbo method, called a howdunnit. The famous Lieutenant proves his case by unpicking the crime and alibi, always considering how he can build a solid case. Even if you don’t want to reveal your murderer at the beginning, you can still do so. Just don’t mention the name. Writing from the victim’s viewpoint helps conceal their identity, whilst also leaving the necessary clues your reader can absorb for later.
Another method involves mentioning a seemingly innocuous occurrence, camouflaging it with an important event, then revealing the first as a crime when it’s too late. I like this method because it reflects how people often miss the obvious, too preoccupied in their day-to-day lives. For example, your detective curses at a speeding driver, only to discover later that this vehicle was hijacked by kidnappers. Or perhaps a newsreader announces traffic delays on a major road, frustrating your detective. Later on, we discover those delays were caused by a drive-by shooting.
Have your crime “solved” halfway through the novel, only for your detective to realize that a key clue undermines the whole case. Arthur Conan Doyle used this tactic in The Valley of Fear, as have others.
Present two crimes that seem worlds apart, only for your detective to discover they are one and the same. Writers like Martina Cole and Patricia Cornwell often use this tactic, which works well with forensic investigation. Often, the criminal leaves only one signature clue. DNA, fingerprinting, CCTV, and other scientific methods come into their own here, but don’t be afraid to use traditional clues as well.
Have clues, but no suspects. Conversely, have suspects, but no clues.
Breaking other rules risks arousing your editor’s fury. For example, bodies should appear within the first chapter. Some say the first page. Agatha Christie argued that this prevented a proper setup of events beforehand. That notwithstanding, it’s a risk in our television-driven world unless you can put a spin on it. Cold case novels handle this by having their detective occupied with another case, only to be sidetracked by a present day murder. Often, clues from the cold case help them solve the modern case and vice versa.
On that note, I’d like you to think of a recent crime novel you read. What hooked you throughout? Also consider what didn’t work and why. Can you think of any other methods to improve your crime fiction? Feel free to share them below!
Deborah blogs at Story Scribes. She loves Victorian murder mysteries, steak, and Mathematics. Not all at the same time.