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Hercule Poirot

Writing Tip — What Makes a Great Detective?

sherlock-holmesw1-462957_1280Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Philip Marlowe. Kurt Wallander. Kinsey Milhone.

When fans talk about their favorite mysteries, they usually name their favorite detective, then mention their favorite stories featuring that character.

Mysteries, more than thrillers or suspense stories, depend on the appeal of their detective hero to keep readers coming back for more. Below are the characteristics I find appealing in a detective and try to include these in the crime-solvers I’ve written about.

Friendship

As a reader, I want to feel like the detective is a friend I am accompanying on a case, someone I am excited to catch up with and learn about their latest adventures. The best description of how to create a detective, or any likable main character, I”ve heard comes from author Louise Penny, creator of Chief Inspector Armande Gamache, who works in the province of Quebec. You can watch the interview she did with CBS Sunday Morning.

Eccentricity

If a detective’s major qualities are “strong”, “brave”, “handsome”, “beautiful”, “charismatic”, or any other in a long list of positive characteristics, I am likely to get bored. The characters I am drawn to aren’t the straight up, forthright detectives. I like the ones with quirks that break the typical hero mold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brilliantly combined the heroic elements with eccentric habits in Sherlock Holmes, making him far more interesting. He also tempered Holmes’s superhuman qualities with quirks that brought him down to earth.

Fallibility

A detective should never be correct all the time. That’s not human. But she also can’t blow a clue or a case so badly that the reader thinks she should go into another line of work. It’s a fine line. Readers will accept a detective making minor mistakes, if in the end, he solves the mystery. If he doesn’t solve the mystery, the ending still has to have some kind of satisfying pay-off.

In your opinion, what makes a great detective? Who are your favorites?

Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?

 

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