Something Wicked This Way Comes
Russell Peters, an Indian-Canadian comedian, spoke about how people of African descent are always talking about “The Motherland.” He jokes that Indian people have their own Motherland: England.
I hold this responsible for my obsession with Masterpiece Theater. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said this, but that has to be the least cool thing about me. I’ve no clue what’s happening on “Gossip Girl” or “Mad Men” or whatever, but next week Miss Marple will be vacationing on the Isle of Wight! Just imagine the evil that shall ensue…
My obsession has been longstanding. I uncovered a short story I wrote in the fourth grade, where the plot involved a piano tutor from Suffolk, his beautiful student who is suddenly overtaken by mysterious headaches, and the sinister appearance of a strange man in a broken top hat. Really, Suffolk? To this day I have no idea where Suffolk even is.
Now, nearly two decades later, I consider myself something of a connoisseur of the post-war, “locked room,” three-pages-from-the-end-denouement-over-tea murder mystery, and other related genres besides. So when Robert Altman’s film “Gosford Park” came out in 2001, it was an agonizing disappointment. I mean, it came so close. This was the tagline: “Tea At Four. Dinner At Eight. Murder At Midnight.” And it had nearly all of the key ingredients: an English country house, gossiping servants, a weekend shooting party, fucking Dame Maggie Smith…
And then there was nothing. The plot had all the resilience of an overly-soaked scone. Years later, it still rankles. So, for therapeutic purposes, I’ve decided to present this brief primer:
How To Write The Perfect Murder Mystery
The Premise: Ten strangers invited to an island are killed off according to a children’s poem. The host of a bridge party is found dead; four suspects sat at one table, four detectives sat at the other. A strange notice appears in the morning paper, announcing a murder will be taking place at a specified location later that day.
A lot of attention is given to the premise, but in truth, it’s not terribly important. Jasper Fforde, in his irreverent satire of Golden Era Crime Fiction, “The Big Over Easy,” has this as his premise: Humpty Dumpty falls off a wall. Whodunit? Yes, it’s just that easy.
The Clue: In both Agatha Christie’s “The Mirror Crack’d” and Louise Penny’s “Still Life,” a series of murders is set off in small towns when the characters look at an apparently unremarkable painting. Something they see in the painting leaves at least one of the viewers horrified and frightened. But what exactly did they see?
“The painting” is a perfect example of the irresistible clue, because the answer hangs there from the beginning, static, literally staring everyone in the face. Because the key piece of information seems to be presented upfront, the reader thinks they are on equal footing as the detectives in solving the crime.
The Motive: Though not a traditional murder mystery, Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil” has one of my favorite motive discussions. Here is the riddle: Several decades after World War II, a college professor discovers that a number of civil servants around the world are being killed off as part of a plot to relaunch the holocaust. The only thing the victims have in common is that they are all 65 year old men, married to younger women, with an adopted son aged thirteen. At a loss, the professor asks his students in class one day, how could taking such action possibly relaunch the holocaust? The answer can’t be guessed, but the students, and the reader, certainly give it a try.
The Method: The method of solving the crime is most often overlooked. British cops on “Inspector Lewis” and “Midsommer Murders” are apparently no different than their “Law and Order” counterparts; they seem to think that it takes nothing more to solve a mystery that just rote questioning of suspects and the following of an occasional hunch.
But the method can be the best part: in Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone,” murder occurs following the theft of a valuable diamond on the night of a young woman’s birthday party, where the key witness was drugged and has no recollection of his movements. So one year later, they decide to re-enact the party, invite all of the suspects, take drugs again, and then follow everyone around to see who does what. What could possibly go wrong, right? The absurdity is overwhelming and impressive. One cannot look away.
The Solution: Regardless of how neatly the puzzle fits together, a murder mystery is wholly unsatisfactory if the outcome doesn’t leave you with a deep sense of unease. Murder for monetary gain is well and good, but there is rarely anything chilling about an overly-developed sense of avarice. When the list of suspects is short, you must find other ways of slashing at people’s expectations in the final moments – by tapping into their subconscious fears.
For example, when it comes to murder, there is nothing so creepy as children, and no one understood that better than Agatha Christie. Hence her compulsive use of nursery rhymes, and “Crooked House” remains one of her best. We see children as being without motive; on one hand, this imbues them with innocence, but there is something soulless about that, too. And in a fictitious world where death and gore are politely discussed at fancy dinner parties, soullessness is at the very heart of the genre, as fundamentally English as Earl Grey.
And Indian people, of course.