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Detective and Suspense Fiction Guidelines

In a detective or mystery story, the reader’s sole interest and entertainment is in the last pages, and the kind of wild chase of anticipation that leads to them and the culprit. Here, the half-baked scenes, characters (other than the main), dialogs, etc., won’t much affect the reader as they would in other forms of stories. Hence, the mystery should be crafted with finesse to entertain the reader perfectly. Here we will see how.

About the Detective

My all time favorite fictional detective is Sherlock Holmes. Though I like other detectives, including even the modern era detectives, I have never been able to find one more appealing than Mr Holmes. Why is this craze for this man? There are two reasons. First, anyone can depend on Sherlock Holmes. He is a great companion, mature person, deeply knowledgeable in his trade, and most dependable. Second, Holmes is sure to give us a solution.

The basic characteristics of any central fictional character are these. In case of suspense and mystery fiction, the central character is not a detective, but anyone with intellectual power enough to bust the crime. G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are great mystery fiction works.

The Culprit

The most favorite culprits I have had include those who didn’t do the crime by accident. He should be a ruthless person in the disguise of a priest, who does malicious things with some design. He should be cunning enough to deceive all characters save of course the detective.


With these characters, you can easily add more characters and write a mind-blowing detective fiction. Here are the guidelines

1. Have Subsidiary Crimes or Decoys

One of the greatest differences of Agatha Christie from other writers is that in most of her works, she has subsidiary mysteries besides the main one. Usually these mysteries are capable of deviating the reader from the main culprit. You should add one or two or three subsidiary crimes which will form a complex well-knit web from which, spotting the real spider would be difficult.

2. Crime Should be Believable

The crime done accidentally or by inefficient people are acceptable, but they should be believable enough to get utmost user interaction. The greatest factor is motive. If the crime doesn’t involve a motive, then it’s no crime. A passer-by who goes to a nearby house requesting some water wouldn’t kill the owner of the house over some slight dispute.

3. The Nature of the Culprit

There is a basic nature for the culprit that shouldn’t be modified. Yesterday, I watched a regional language crime film, in which an ordinary woman kills a girl by sheer pressure of the circumstances. This woman is not a killer by nature. She is just another homemaker. Still, until the very end of the film, when the crime is unraveled, she is not budged by any development in investigation. She is always cool and composed. This is not natural for a woman like her who committed crime by accident.

Give your readers the real character of the culprit, and give them decoy in the form of subsidiary mysteries. Also, in the film, another woman (the daughter of the culprit) is shown with mysterious facial expressions and actions, which would convince a normal watcher that she may be the culprit. But the fact is that she is not even part of a subsidiary crime. Such a decoy is inept.

4. The Crime Should be Caught

Why is a detective there? To find out the real culprit. So, in case of detective stories, it is inevitable that the person behind the mystery should be caught. He should not come out all by himself with a clumsy confession.

5. Made-up Evidence

The crime should be natural and not made up. As there should be a strong motive, there shouldn’t be any made-to-awe-audience sort of crime. Though Michael Connelly is a good fiction writer, his The Poet was a letdown for me. In the end, when all circumstantial evidence pointed to Rachel, one of the investigators himself turns out to be the real doer of the crime. The evidences against him all were rather unnatural. So, I advise you to have a clear-cut plot in the first place. Hide the obvious culprit with decoys. No made-up evidence.

6. Character Entrances

When is the detective introduced in the novel? When is the culprit introduced? The time should be apt enough. The major letdown of The Invisible Man for me was the fact that I didn’t know who the invisible man was. Had he been someone I knew from the start of the story, it would have been more enjoyable. So, make sure you introduce the original crime-doer and the detective early in the novel.

7. Always Lead Your Readers to Surprises

A good detective fiction gives the readers space to think. At the same time, however well they think and arrive at a conclusion, they should be surprised to find that they went wrong. One of the Sherlock Holmes stories revolves around a man who was about to join an ordinary firm as a clerk. Another person approaches the clerk and gives him a better job, and asks him not to resign his new job as the clerk. Also this man fetches his handwriting. The whole plot was to personate the clerk in the first firm, while the clerk is going to the second firm. The mystery is easy for the readers to realize, and Holmes himself makes that point. But we readers are awed at what happens in the end, when the man who tricked the clerk is about to commit suicide. Such should be the surprise. Sir Doyle never failed to surprise me in his stories.

8. Methods of Detection

Sherlock Holmes employed inspection of the crime scene more and psychology less to detect the crime, while Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple depended almost entirely on the psychological detector. Whatever the methods are, there should be rational and scientific elements to it, and not supernatural elements. Supernatural form of crime detection puts people off. They are for horror stories and not detective stories. However, as in the Devil’s foot of Sherlock Holmes, the feeling of the presence of a supernatural being is great to have and detecting such crime and finding out the real cause is a wonderful quest.

9. Simpler, Elemental Scenes

In most crime stories, there are simple scenes, which the reader may read and forget, but which actually decide the end of the story. These scenes should be written with finesse not to give the crime away to the readers, at the same time making it memorable enough till the end. In Agatha Christie’s early mystery, The Secret Adversary, there is a scene in which a woman aide goes hysteric seeing the original committer of the crime in the same room. This particular scene told me instantly who the culprit was. Such scenes should be written more carefully not to let go of the suspense.

The trick of writing one such scene is by using contrast. If you plot a very normal scene, in which something out of ordinary happens, such as a saucer falls and breaks, someone behaves reservedly, someone tries to hide something, etc., it will confuse the reader and stay in his mind till the end.

10. Give Readers All Evidences

If your story hides from readers any important plot point not to give away the crime, then it is not a detective story. The reader and the detective should always get the same information about the crime and the characters. It is an intellectual game between the reader and the detective about who finds out the culprit first. If the reader doesn’t get enough information to capture the culprit, then his interest in the story will be potholed.


Whichever your way is, your story should be believable enough and should have enough research to awe the readers. The research is the backbone of a detective story. Crimes revolving around fragile research will alienate the readers easily.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


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