#877: Give ‘Em Enough Tropes – Genre Conventions in Writing The Red Death Murders (2022)

I promise this blog isn’t going to devolve into me pushing my debut novel — The Red Death Murders (2022) by Jim Noy, now available at your local Amazon site — every weekend, but please bear with me while I talk about it from time to time. And given that it leans heavily into many of the tropes that betoken the Golden Age, I thought I’d discuss a few of them today — no spoilers, obvs.

A detective novel set in what is essentially a Fantasy/faux-Medieval universe could be confusing to readers seeing as it effectively straddles genres, and the expectation might be that I either make it a true Historical or move away from the detection altogether and lean more into wizards and…stuff. I maintain that the detection tropes far outnumber the Fantasy ones, though, and thought it might be fun to pick through some of the expectations we have when picking up books in a certain genre, and air some thoughts on my including them or otherwise.

Essentially, this is a long advert for my book, but hopefully you’ll find something interesting in here along the way.

1. A Character List

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Let’s start with one I didn’t use: opening the book with a page of character names and descriptions of the characteristics and/or relationships. It’s not specifically limited to novels of detection, but I want to talk about this for one simple reason — I hate it, and I wish it would vanish from the face of the Earth. Not only were practically all the character lists in the front of classic editions of detective novels not written by the authors, they also to my way of thinking ruin a lot of the work that goes into the writing of a book. Most authors will, I’m sure, have a reason for introducing characters when and how they do, and I’d rather observe, say, the dialogue and interactions George and Penelope share and figure out that they hate each other than opening the first page and see:

George……Our protagonist, somewhat marvellous and brilliant

Penelope…..George’s ex-wife; hates George

This way, before I know anything about the book or the setting, I know that Penelope hates George…when the author has doubtless done more than enough careful and subtle work — agonising over dialogue, for one thing — for me to learn that another, unarguably better, way. There’s also far more you can do with characters by having them interact in particular ways that, say, make them appear to be at loggerheads when they are in fact in sympathy (and vice versa), and so if you’re claiming one thing and then setting up another, you’re starting your book off with a lie. It just seems a waste to me to observe characters and their actions for 90,000 words, only to boil it down for the York’s Notes crowd before a single line of prose has passed before the reader’s eyes.

2. An Opening Crawl

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In a move that veers far more into Fantasy than detection, one of the people to read the novel pre-publication suggested that I include a preface of sorts setting up the world — telling the readers on page 1 about the Red Death and the fictional events surrounding it, like those opening paragraphs about trade disputes at the beginning of every Star Wars movie. I decided against this for pretty much the same reasons as above: I felt the book contained enough (carefully revealed, I might add) information introducing the key ideas of the world and the Red Death, and I wanted the readers paying attention, not entirely certain at first what sort of world they were getting into, as a way of drawing them in.

In the first and second drafts I did worry more about the reader recognising the technology and details of the setting, but then I remembered how John Dickson Carr really drew me in to the opening pages of The Bride of Newgate (1950) by simply relating events, not trying to spoon-feed me too much, and relying on me wanting to understand the world he had put on the page. I’m sorry to say that I intended for the reader to do a little of the work, because that way it feels like we’re building something together. And for anyone unwilling to attempt building for themselves, it’s mostly explained in chapter 4 anyway, so they don’t have long to wait.

As a complete side note, I also agree with Lee Child when he says that the inclusion of a preface or an introduction is little more than an admission that your book has a boring beginning, and you’re promising the reader that, if they’re willing to stick with it, something more exciting is on the way. Why not just make the opening chapters intriguing on their own? Asking the reader to fill in some gaps for a little while is definitely a part of this.

“Fine, trot us out to do your bidding again…”

3. A Closed Circle

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Part of the reason I was reluctant to include a character list is because I also don’t think the cast of The Red Death Murders really warrants one. There are nine men trapped in a castle, one of whom is discovered dead in the first chapter — if you can’t keep eight characters straight, then either I’ve done an atrocious job as the author and no list is going to help, or you’ve got bigger problems…and no list is going to help. It’s my belief that the names they have and the roles they occupy will keep them distinct — and that’s before you even get on to their individual attitudes and behaviours — and I would much rather you encounter them in the setting I have so painstakingly created and the plot I have taken over a year to construct.

Other people are talked about or discussed in the past tense (I think about sixteen named characters feature…), but I’m sure you’ll cope. And if I included in a character list at the front someone only mentioned a single time, and in passing — Lady Ardana, for instance — I don’t know what you’d expect to learn about her that, again, you won’t get from the brief, contextualised glorified cameo she gets. However, rest assured, the finger of suspicion has only the few people in the castle to point at, since the game is most fun when played with only a relatively few suspects to, er, suspect.

4. An Isolated Location

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The Red Death Murders takes place within a hexagonal castle standing in a hexagonal courtyard bounded by a high wall and secured by a moat outside the wall, where the characters are hiding from the plague that has devastated the land beyond. The reason they went there in the first place and the various features the castle possesses that make it unusual are all explained in the novel, and as soon as the idea for this story came to me I felt a great reluctance to ever move the action beyond the containing wall. Indeed, the first draft did feature an instance of the characters stepping outside the castle and…I didn’t like it. The press of a single location — and it’s not exactly a single location, since the castle is made up of over eighty rooms — is too much a part of the atmosphere to want to sacrifice it for a refreshing walk in the woods.

The lovely thing about the fixed series of rooms is how the familiarity of the setting contrasts with the repeated, hopefully surprising developments the plot brings up. When I think of a fixed-location mystery like Murder on the Orient Express (1934), the most exciting part of the whole thing is Poirot finding…something in his luggage that shouldn’t be there, the notion that within a space you know well it’s possible for anything to change. Some spaces in the castle become familiar in a way that is comforting, and some will spring surprises on you that are all the more surprising for how safe those places might have felt before.

5. Floorplans

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I bloody love a floorplan; one of these days I shall write several posts about my favourite floorplans in detective fiction and why I love them so much. With the geography of the setting being fixed, it’s tempting to want to provide floorplans to enable readers to “see” for themselves where the action is going to take place. When I first started writing the book, I agonised over the internal layout and drew a series of (terrible, terrible) maps to help illustrate where everything was. Of the six people who read the various drafts, four of them questioned the need for the maps since they felt the layout was clear from the text (see point 1 above…), and the more I read and reread and wrote and rewrote between drafts the more I came to agree with them — a word here, a subtle pointer of precise layout there…it was enough.

There’s also, in self-publishing, the small matter of cost to consider. Having put the effort I did into plotting and writing this, no way in hell were those deeply awful maps of mine going to make it into the finished book. The maps were so bad that when I first sent them to the lovely Felix Tindall who designed the cover, I felt the need to reassure him that the book I was asking him to be associated with was significantly more competent than some shapes overlayed in PowerPoint might make it appear. To get the maps spruced up, however, would have probably doubled the cost of the book — Felix did the cover for a good price, but that’s still money I have to make back — and the more I wrote, the more I convinced myself that I could save the expense.

As a sort of “here’s one I made earlier” for those of you who’d really, really like some floorplans, however, I have created these slightly less rubbish versions and scaled them to the size of the paperback book. So print them off and stick them in at your leisure. You don’t get traditionally-published authors doing this, eh? Ain’t self-publishing grand?

“You’re the best, Jim!”

6. A Locked Room Murder

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I shall talk about how the ideas for The Red Death Murders came together in next month’s episode of my In GAD We Trust podcast, but one of the few things I knew for sure going in was that it was going to feature an impossible crime. Edgar Allan Poe’s original story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), features what could be seen as impossible events, but these are explained away by his figure who represents the plague being a supernatural being out to highlight the folly of abandoning one’s responsibilities. There are what I would classify as four-and-a-half impossibilities in my novel, and each one came about by the simple expedient of having to develop naturally within the confines of the plot I was crafting.

To an extent, this feeds back into point 4 above: when the space is so familiar, and the cast small enough to seem familiar, the notion of an event occurring within that space and perpetrated by one of those people which seemingly has no rational explanation is the sort of clash that really gets the heart and the mind going. The plot must also support these events, otherwise it turns into a series of dull intellectual exercises (a reader of the fourth draft said afterwards that they read the opening chapter and were worried the entire book might just be working up to an explanation of the locked room murder discovered therein — worry not, more happens…!). And there’s the need to pause from time to time and make the people in the book seem like people, and ones it’s worth caring about, to boot.

And the fact that I’m pretty sure two of those impossibilities have never been devised before is merely the icing on the cake.

7. Nods ‘n’ Winks

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While I admittedly read a relatively narrow range of fiction these days, it’s my experience that little genre-wise was as self-referential as the classic detective story. Gervase Fen knew he was a character in murder mysteries, Clayton Rawson and Carr challenged each other to write a particular type of locked room murder to see who’d do it “best”, countless authors litter their works with sly asides on the conventions of the genre or the behaviour of famous characters within it. The admission that more is going on outside of any particular author’s individual work is part of the playfulness that precludes the self-importance which put me off most Epic Fantasy, say (or it could be that their jokes are just too subtle for my blunt mind).

So The Red Death Murders is sprinkled with some nods to favourite authors of mine, and even a wink of sorts in the direction of Ronald Knox’s Decalogue, which regular readers will know is something of an obsession of mine. These aren’t exactly deep cuts, and most people with a passing knowledge of the books being referenced will see them pretty quickly, but I wanted to put in something to recognise a) the authors who have helped enthuse me to the point of writing my own book and b) the above-mentioned convention of playfulness. Who says murders in an isolated setting with a closed set of suspects and an escalating list of impossible crimes can’t be fun??

Additionally, since ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is the direct inspiration for this novel, I lifted about twenty quotes verbatim from that story and put them into this one. Just for funsies, like.

8. A Challenge to the Reader

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Three things were going to happen in the book when I sat down to write it: it was going to open with a completely new locked room problem, someone dressed as the Red Death was going to be attacking people in the castle, and I was going to write a Challenge to the Reader. For those of you who don’t know, this last is essentially a point in the book where you go “Okay, you have all the information needed to solve the mystery…so what’s the solution?” before you then go on to reveal the solution and hopefully amaze everyone with how the information was indeed in front of them the whole time.

I also loved the convention — James Scott Byrnside has done it, so has Rupert Penny, so it puts me in good company — of not just telling the reader they had all the information, but of providing specific questions for them to ruminate on. That way, when they’ve finished the book, they can go back to and see how those answers were indeed there to be seen and did actually spell out the solution to most of what had unfolded by that point. As well as having to satisfy myself that I was indeed providing clues by promising they’d been provided, this tactic also stops people guessing one or two aspects of the solution and then claiming to have solved the mystery — come on, we all do it.

So, twenty-four chapters in, I challenge the reader. How do you think you’ll fare…?

“I hope you gather the suspects at the end!”

9. Gather the Suspects

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What, I ask you, is a classically-styled murder mystery without gathering together everyone who has avoided the axe (or noose or gun or drop or…) to that point, so that the detective can hold forth, assign guilt, and move on? And, having included the Challenge to the Reader as a guarantee that I was putting clues in the right places, you’re darn tootin’ that I was going to get everyone together in one room and then go through those clues to show how the answer had been reached and hopefully overlooked by the reader. It’s possibly the most enjoyable part of the book to write (I had a massive grin on my face at every stage of outlining the solution — to finally be at the end, tightening the noose of guilt, was just a complete thrill).

The tricky thing about clues, though, is that the detective must have the decisive clue which makes everything tumble into place — some event must finally tip over the dominoes they’ve been lining up in such a complex pattern to send them all falling. And then you have to explain it in a way that keeps events clear in the reader’s mind: no point offering a garbled chronological presentation of events if it’s not actually explaining anything. Plus, the shocks land better when seen in the correct context. Nevertheless, you cannot appreciate how difficult it is to sum up a detection plot until you’ve had to distil 80,000-odd words into a 3,000-some word explanation of how and why and who. There should be an Olympics for this sort of thing, let me tell you.

10. Sequel-Baiting

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One thing I promise you is that the questions raised in The Red Death Murders are all answered in The Red Death Murders. Yes, come the final page, there are some unresolved matters in the wider world, but the focus here was very much setting up a murder investigation and resolving it all in one book. The trope of throwing out 30 questions and leaving 24 of them for the sequels feels like more of a Fantasy move, setting up the epic journey that must now take place over another seven 800-page tomes. I’m concentrating on cases, not lore, so this is self-contained and any lingering questions in no way relate to the who, why, how, or any other central elements of a typical mystery plot.

That said…

Look, I sincerely doubt I’ll sell enough of these to make writing another one financially viable, but I have the first five chapters of a follow-up title planned out in my head, and I’m not ruling out finding some weird working schedule that would allow me to write more. I consider myself very lucky indeed to have found the time to write The Red Death Murders, and for it to have turned out exactly as I would have liked, and if I have to stop after one book, well, I’m pleased it’s this one and not the one I was writing a decade ago (over which a veil shall be drawn…). But there could be another one; never say never…

~

Hopefully that was interesting on its own merits, but if it’s made you curious about the book, well, you can buy that on Amazon. Yes, at time of writing, it has on that august site a single one-star rating, but on the other hand only yesterday commenter Fiftyonefaces praised the novel’s “relentless drive toward an every-firework-in-the-sky finish that left me, at least, thoroughly and happily surprised. And that’s a sometimes overlooked function of good writing in GAD in whatever year – it makes going back to examine the crafting and interlocking of a book’s gears a pleasure to be anticipated rather than endured”.

That’s quite a dichotomy of opinions, right? Aren’t you desperate to find out which polar stance you agree with?

26 thoughts on “#877: Give ‘Em Enough Tropes – Genre Conventions in Writing The Red Death Murders (2022)

  1. I am a sucker for almost all those tropes – isolated location, locked room, closed circle, challenge to the reader, gathering for the surprise reveal, etc. Tell me a book truly has some or all those and it goes to the top of my TBR.

    Re: character lists at the front of the book. My introduction as a teenager to GAD was a 1964 Pocket Books edition of And Then There Were None, which had the list of characters clearly not provided by Christie. Whilst I see Sergio’s point, are Queen’s Roman Hat and French Powder better books because of respective lists with 30+ people … I am not so sure. The real problem is why do those books need > 30 people in them? Too much as with all things in life is too much.

    For me it is better when the author lets me discover her/his creations with words, behaviours and actions. Don’t tell me someone is witty, charming, sly, cruel, etc., describe that. For example, let me imagine and experience that a woman is beautiful by what she wears, her grooming, how she carries herself, etc. versus just lazily saying she is beautiful. I hate spoilers of all types and a dramatis personae whether intended or not is a mild spoiler.

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    • I’m glad we agree; a well-written cast list can be helpful, but is a rare thing — they typically either give too much information and spoil something, or too little and tell you what is just stated in the text anyway and renders itself pointless.

      Good ones exist — Erle Stanley Gardner had a tendency to have good ones, though I have no idea if he wrote them — but in the main they’re a blight and/or a shortcut that allows bad characterisation or over-stuffed casts.

      Watch now as the follow-up to TRDM had a cast list at the front, and I’m forced to backtrack on all this…

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  2. With floorplans operating somewhere between the poles of pure text and video games, there may a generational dynamic at play in a reader’s ability to deal with narrative complexity. I know that even with its extensive floor plan and map, my non-gaming brain marveled at the tour de force perspective-shifting and exquisite writing of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle without a great deal of ongoing clarity.

    At the same time, I understand that video games tend to drop one into a new, unfamiliar world–like that of The Red Death Murders–without preamble, making the working out of characters and setting part of the challenge.

    So though I would have welcomed a preamble of a character list and opening crawl–with a floor plan and map actually less essential for me–I’m looking forward to heading back to the beginning of the book to experience once again how its isolated location, closed circle, tight time frame, and narrative momentum makes it a sort of a whirring, kinetic object. For me, its complexity is concentrated in a way that, even more than that of Evelyn Hardcastle, I am sure rereading will make only more impressive.

    Not to mention picking up on all the clues I missed the first time around!

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    • Haha, yeah one of the people who read this pre-publication said they finished it and then immediately started over to go through it all again — which is wonderful to hear.

      The hope was very much that people would immerse themselves in the world if required to do just a little bit of the work (pay attention to the internal geography, etc), but I appreciate that everyone reads books very differently. I’m learning just how different the responses to the same material can be, so I’ll be sure to bear this all in mind if another novel is forthcoming.

      But, knowing that people are also having a very enjoyable time with this is delightful; that’s all I want!

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    • Thanks, Caron, I hope you enjoy the book — whether or not the maps help seems to be up for debate!

      As to character names, it’s just fun giving someone a name and then slowly filling out their characteristics as the drafts progress. After a while, it becomes imposible to imagine Baldon Gregory as called anything besides Baldon Gregory. Indeed, the fourth-draft name change of one character was probably the hardest choice in the entire writing process 🙂

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  3. Don’t tell me someone is witty, charming, sly, cruel, etc., describe that. For example, let me imagine and experience that a woman is beautiful by what she wears, her grooming, how she carries herself, etc. versus just lazily saying she is beautiful << Disagree completely. The "show don't tell" trap ruined literature. How many more eight hundred pages of nothingness must be written? If someone is beautiful just say it and GTFO. The moment a writer spends ages just showing things like a freaking brainless tv camera, with no sense of pacing, I'm out. That device should be reserved for action sequences and tense, climactic moments.
    StoryTELLERS tell a story, That's the important part. When I see a third person narrative in which an author presents the setting with his omniscient skillful mastery, I'm all for it. I'm no Dickens fan, but if you start a novel with 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…" I know you are a capable writer.
    Showing all the time is generic writing at its most irksome. Worst of all, you end up replacing something like "nervous" with a plethora of scripted signs and movements like biting your nails, looking sideways…have you ever talked to a little kid who doesn't know many words and ends up overextending? Yeah, it's just like that. "The girl grabbed her belly, her lips were all white and cracked" The mom, wiser, would then say "yeah, she's hungry".
    Then there's exposition, the worst offender of all: since the author can't intrude, a character appears and goes on and on in order to explain the situation, the world and everything in between, destroying all the magical touches which should have permeated the story. No wonder I stopped reading modern literature back in the 90s…. I can't tell (wink, wink) any writer apart.

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    • The temptation to over-explain is strong, I can vouch for that now. Hell, I’m getting conflicting reports about the need for maps to explain the geography of the castle, so the background touches of my entirely fictional universe are automatically at risk of being under-explained to some people and dwelt on to excessive length to others.

      Lord alone knows where the balance sits — reading a book is that wonderfully mercurial process between words on the page and the brain reading them, a delightfully and yet infuriatingly individualistic experience that many can attempt to replicate but none can truly share. We can agree on what’s too much and what’s not enough, but the Golidlocks zone between the two…that’s where the magic happens!

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  4. I appreciate a character list. Not because of any information–I don’t really care what they say–but because it’s an admission straight away that (at least) one of the people listed in front of me is going to be the killer. In that respect, it goes into the game-playing (or illusion of game-playing) aspect that I enjoy so much.

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    • I’m torn on the character list. I love a dramatis personae and, as you said, a list adds to the game-play element of the detective story, but can see where Jim’s point. There certainly have been character lists that exposed too much of the plot or spoiled a surprise. A good example is the Rue Morgue Press edition of Stuart Palmer’s Miss Withers Regrets, which has an editorial note promising a crossover cameo, but they “wouldn’t dream of spoiling that surprise.” What did they do? They printed the name of the detective in the cast of characters complete with job description. So you have to be either a very casual mystery reader or new to the genre to miss it.

      Anyway, The Red Death Murders has arrived and is currently on the top of the pile. It better be good, Jim. It better be good. 😉

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      • I shall, between now and writing a second book in 15 years, fixate on character lists and find a happy medium. Too much (plot details) and too little (simply names, and probably too many of them) we can agree upon — so is there a way to make the list an intrinsic part of the narrative? Wait and see!

        As to TRDM, is it any good? Wait and see! 🙂

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        • I’ve given some thought on how to integrate a character list with the story and plot when it suddenly came to me. A stack of pancakes! A character list can be used to establish degrees of separation between the characters, before going right into the story.

          For example, A and B are on holiday (isolated ski resort?) where they meet acquaintances, C and D, who are there with friends of their own, E, F and G. G brought along two relatives (siblings or cousin?), H and I. So the trick would be finding a reason why someone from the top of the list would murder a stranger on the bottom of the list or vice versa. You can fill the character list with just nicknames, which prevents giving away who exactly they are and how they will be introduced until you read the story. Just nicknames and who they personally know.

          You can have fun with a murder like that, because, whatever the motive is going to be, it’s going to be a spur of the moment crime lacking any bells or whistles. But what if a complete outsider (hotel employee or guest) witnessed something? Foolishly giving the murderer an ultimatum or even tried a spot of blackmail, which ends in a second murder inside a locked room in which the victim left a dying message.

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          • I like the analogy, but I’m still not convinced that this is anything more than a way to shortcut bad writing. The relationships between people should be communicated in such a way that doesn’t require you to flip to the front of the book every time Celia is mentioned because you can’t remember if she’s Alan’s second cousin once removed or the friend of Hilary’s neighbour who swears she saw a UFO that one time.

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        • Have to admit that I love a well-written character list. I Think one of the paperback editions of a Helen McCloy novel had character descriptions that were direct quotes from text in the book. Can’t easily check as most of my books are in storage.

          How about that option for your next book 🙂

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    • Well, of course — Christianna Brand being the progenitor of this. I feel: that “Here are six people, by the end of the book one of them will have killed three others” thing she does is charming and, oddly, feels uniquely Brandian. Like, can you imagine anyone else making that work? And yet’s it’s so gosh-darned simple.

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