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
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
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.
3. A Closed Circle
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
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.
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?
6. A Locked Room Murder
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
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
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…?
9. Gather the Suspects
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.
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.
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?