Writing Whodunnits

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.

Scherzo is set in Venice in the eighteenth century. The narrator is Ludovico, a young castrato opera singer living by his wits who becomes involved in what appears to be the ritual murder of a Venetian nobleman. The investigation is led by Monsieur Arouet, a visiting Frenchman and friend of Ludovico’s patron, Sr. Morosini. It takes the two men through the Venetian underworld and involves them in encounters with religious fanatics and a Masonic conspiracy before the murderer is discovered. So far, so ordinary – though witty and engaging, I hope. But behind this surface mystery is one that is never finally resolved, namely the identity of”Monsieur Arouet”. Is he the philosopher and writer Voltaire, or is he simply a fraudster passing himself off as the Frenchman? Scherzo was proposed by the publisher for the Booker Prize.

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.

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Recherché is unusual in having a contemporary setting. The narrator is a middle aged lawyer who has left his wife and fled to a small village in France with his young secretary Lucy. During their stay they meet Harry Haze, an old man whose origins are mysterious and who has a strange tale to tell. During the course of events Lucy disappears. No body is found and a cloud of suspicion gathers round the narrator, who is suspected of her murder. There are two stories in Recherché: that of the narrator, which on its surface is a realistic account of events as they happen, and secondly the tale of his life told by Harry Haze. But Harry’s tale is fantastic, an account of his history as a vampire, a war criminal and a Jewish stand-up comedian among other things. The significance of Harry’s stories is lost on the narrator. Do they convey a lesson, or reveal a hidden truth? And did the murder that occurs at their climax in fact ever take place in the real world? Recherché is a about the unreliability of memory and of stories themselves. The narrator’s account cannot be relied on because he is deeply implicated in whatever it is that has happened and it could all be an elaborate deceit to both disguise and yet confess to the murder of Lucy. In this book there is an uncertainty over the fundamental”given” of the classic murder mystery, namely that a murder has actually occurred.

A skilful exercise, bizarre and dangerous in a lineage that includes Fowles’ The Magus.The Guardian

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In The Strange Death of a Romantic, Captain Guy Parrot, a doctor, finds himself at the end of the War at La Spezia in Italy, setting up a small military hospital in a commandeered villa. It is the same villa in which he spent the summer of 1930 with some high society friends, and the same town where the poet Shelley had been staying when he died by drowning in 1822. During their time at the villa, Guy and his friends had entertained themselves by treating Shelley’s death as a murder mystery and coming up with solutions as to whodunit. At the climax of his stay however, Guy made a terrible discovery which caused him to have a nervous breakdown. Now, in 1945, he retreads his footsteps to rediscover the memories he has lost. The novel contains a conventional murder that is ultimately solved. The novelty lies in the supposed murder of Shelley. There is general agreement – which Guy and his friends share – that Shelley’s death was a simple accident. Nevertheless they are able to”prove” by undisputed evidence that the poet was murdered and name the killer. In short, in this instance we have a solution but without an actual crime.

This is an extraordinarily witty and assured novel
T J Binyon in The Evening Standard
Seriously good…Technically brilliant.
The Times Literary Supplement

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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.