By Jim Williams
I have no general theory about writing murder mysteries, but however one divides the genre, there seem to be three possible foci for the narrative. The first is the identification of the murderer along with resolution of ancillary mysteries such as the exact method, place and timing of the murder. The second is the process of detection itself, whether through exploration of the character of the detective, or police procedures and forensic science. The third is the background leading to the murder, which means an investigation of the psychology of the murderer or the dynamics of a set of relationships that will lead to the murder.
These three approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, but any novel will tend to emphasize one of them. Agatha Christie, for example, is the premier exponent of the first. Her writing concentrates heavily on the circumstances of the murder, surrounding them with misdirection, usually contrived by the murderer, which the detective has to penetrate. Ian Rankin, on the other hand, is an exponent of the second: our interest is in the gritty realism of Inspector Rebus and his world, and the murder is of only secondary importance. Ruth Rendall’s psychological thrillers demonstrate the third approach. In them we find ourselves fascinated by insights into the psychopathology of the killer, or by feelings of entrapment within a family or other social environment from which murder offers some form of relief.
My own approach to writing murder mysteries has tended to downplay the murder itself, particularly the highly contrived puzzles favoured by the Agatha Christie school. I have also, except in Scherzo, done without a detective in the conventional sense, whether a policeman, private eye or talented amateur, and therefore the police procedural and forensic element is largely absent. My murders are solved by people of ordinary intelligence who find themselves embroiled in a mysterious death and forced by circumstances to try to understand it. Whether my novels can be considered as being of the psychological type can be answered with a tentative yes. Scherzo doesn’t fall into this category but the others to some degree do.
What the books have in common – which I consider distinctive though I can’t say if it’s unique – is a displacement of the murder from its central position as the object of the mystery. To be sure each of my four novels offers a conventional murder to be resolved, but on examination there is a further mystery that is even more intriguing or surprising. This is best explained by a brief synopsis of the novels.
18th Century Venice is the setting for this sparkling and utterly charming novel, which twists and turns with the ease of a gondola. Narration is shared by several voices, each contributing to the devilishly clever plot and deceitful finale. This is grand opera.
Frances Fyfield in The Mail on Sunday.
A skilful exercise, bizarre and dangerous in a lineage that includes Fowles’ The Magus.The Guardian
This is an extraordinarily witty and assured novel
T J Binyon in The Evening Standard
Seriously good…Technically brilliant.
The Times Literary Supplement
My novel, The Argentinian Virgin, has to be seen against this line of development. I shan’t repeat the details, which can be reviewed here The Argentinian Virgin. As with the others, it contains a conventional murder that can be solved in the usual way. The central mystery, however, is something quite different, to which the murder of the Spaniard, Alvírez, contributes only a part of the solution. It concerns the destruction of the principal character, Tom Rensselaer, who is reduced from the status of hero to a derelict alcoholic whose fate is ultimately unknown. In this instance we have a purely psychological death: a murder mystery without a corpse.