Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

murder at the vicarageOne of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries.  Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery.  So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels.  The basic plot is:  dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips.  Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away.  Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.

Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does.  Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:

  • Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away.  For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
  • There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense.  A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
  • The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
  • It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.”  For bonus points:  Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.

In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well.  Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…

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2 thoughts on “Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

  1. I love everything by Agatha Christie, but my absolute favorite mysteries of hers are the ones not starring her two most prolific detectives – Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. (I still like them, but after Miss Marple has solved a few dozen crimes, she’s not that much of an unlikely heroine.)
    My all time favorite Christie book is Destination Unknown and her books starring the bumbling couple Tommy and Tuppence.

  2. While I was reading Murder at the Vicarage, I actually did wonder how Miss Marple would work as a protagonist in later books in the series … I figured she might lose a bit of her underdog appeal after solving quite a few murder cases. The bumbling couple of detectives sounds great – I’ll have to check those books out too!

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