Since I began my blog, I’ve written about the mysteries that influenced my writing. Although I’m still on the hunt for good mysteries, I find the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties have had the most impact and not just because I was more impressionable when I first discovered them. When I reread my favorites, I still learn techniques I can use in my storytelling.
My First Mysteries
In the seventies, my mystery education started with Scooby Doo and continued with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. In seventh grade, I read my first adult book, which was a mystery written in 1975 by Dorothy Gilman, entitled A Nun in the Closet. Balancing mystery and humor, the novel relates the investigation of Sister John and Sister Hyacinth into a mysterious bequest to their abbey.
It had to be shortly after that that I plowed my way through every Agatha Christie story I could get my hands on. Now I reread her books first, for fun, and second, to learn plotting techniques. That was always Mrs. Christie’s strength. Although her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have achieved immortality, in many books, her other characters aren’t as well-developed. Death on the Nile and A Holiday for Murder are my favorite novels because the rest of the characters are more complicated and more human, and therefore, more interesting.
At seventeen, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and there was no stopping me. I read all 60 of Sir Arthur’s stories and have read a huge amount of pastiches written by contemporary authors. The lesson I learned: my detective must be a character people want to spend time with. For more about my love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, click here.
When I was in college, I took a class called “Detective Film and Fiction.” (When you’re an English major, you can take classes like that and earn credit). I was assigned to read Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout and couldn’t get enough of the world Mr. Stout created for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although Nero Wolfe is the detective, it was Archie’s unique voice that hooked me. The lesson I learned: the Watson character can be as interesting and more relatable than the detective character. For more on Archie Goodwin, click here.
Mysteries in Middle Age
I was twenty-one when I tried a collection of Father Brown short stories and didn’t like them at all. They weren’t fair-play mysteries. In some cases, they didn’t seem like mysteries at all. Fast forward twenty years. I tried them again, and they lit up my mind like few stories ever have. I realized that Mr. Chesterton wasn’t trying to write realistic fiction, although his stories highlight realities of life.
His favorite device is paradox, like in the short story, “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” When Sir Claude Champion is found stabbed to death, the police assume the killer is John Boulnois because Sir Claude was pursuing his wife. But Mrs. Boulnois insists her husband is innocent. He was never jealous of Sir Claude, a childhood friend, although Sir Claude was wealthy, aristocratic, accomplished, and celebrated. Father Brown understands and quotes from the book of Esther. “And Haman began to tell them … of all the things wherein the king had honored him; and he said: ‘All these things profit me nothing while I see Mordecait the Jew sitting in the gate.”
I learned that if I can make a character, clue, or plot point appear one way but then reveal that it indicates the exact opposite, it surprises the reader and gives that part of my story greater weight.
Around this same point in my life, I dove into the mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner. These short stories, set in West Virginia before the Civil War, have some of the best descriptions of settings I’ve read. I feel like I’ve entered the world that existed in the Appalachian mountains more than 150 years ago. For more on the Uncle Abner mysteries, click here. I learned not to overlook my setting. Settings can perform certain literary tasks, like setting the mood, much more easily than character or plot.
Now it’s your turn. What stories have influenced your writing? Or what stories have stayed with your through the years?