Monday, October 5, 2009


A well-written mystery novel centers around the main event – a murder, in most cases. Murders, though, are not isolated events. They are almost always the result of a series of events, and they lead to another series of events. For instance, if one character is in line for a coveted promotion, a rival might want to do anything to prevent the character from getting that promotion. Those events would result in the murder. The murder itself then leads to the series of events related to its investigation. The way in which the author manipulates time while describing those events gives a good mystery its distinctive flavor.

Some authors take a more or less chronological approach; they use a linear progression of events. Those novels begin with an introduction to the victim and the other characters, including the murderer. Then, the murder occurs. Then, the novel focuses on the investigation of that murder. Several (but certainly not all) of the Ellery Queen novels use time in this linear way. For instance, in The Last Woman in his Life, Queen visits the very wealthy John Levering Benedict III. Also visiting are Benedict’s three beautiful ex-wives. Benedict is murdered one night, and Queen searches for the murderer among a group of possible suspects. In the novel, we get to meet Benedict and his guests, and we get the chance to get to know them a little before the murder occurs. Queen uses what he’s learned about them, as well as the other clues he finds, to figure out who Benedict’s murderer is. The same thing happens in The King is Dead, Calamity Town and The Roman Hat Mystery, among others. In all of those cases, the reader learns who the victim and the suspects are before the murder occurs.

Agatha Christie sometimes used this approach. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, a group of people, including Hercule Poirot, are taking a holiday at Leathercomb Bay, off the Devon coast. When one of the guests, rich, beautiful Arlena Marshall, is murdered, Poirot and the local police investigate her death. The first part of the novel is focused on the various guests and their personalities and relationships. After the murder occurs, the emphasis is changed to the investigation.

The same thing happens in more modern novels, too. For instance, in Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End, Chief Inspector Banks is prepared for trouble when an anti-nuke demonstration takes place in the quiet town of Eastvale. At the end of the demonstration, a constable whose job was to help keep the peace is murdered. Banks and visiting C.I.D. Superintendent Burgess then uncover several town secrets (not to mention a few secrets the demonstrators are also keeping) as they investigate the murder. The novel begins with the preparation for the demonstration, and we then meet some of the other main characters before the investigation really gets underway.

This sort of linear approach to manipulating time has a lot of advantages. When it’s done well, it allows the reader to get to know the victim and other characters. That gives the reader the chance to match wits with the author and decide who’s committed the murder. That’s one reason I use this aproach in my own Joel Williams series.

It’s by no means the only approach to manipulating time, though. Many authors work backwards. They begin their novels with the murder or the finding of the victim, and through the investigation, go back to the events of the day of the murder. A good example of this “flashback” approach is in Michael Robotham’s Lost, which begins with Detective Inspector Ruiz being pulled out of the Thames with a bullet wound in his leg. He himself has no memory of what happened, but it soon comes out that he was working on the case of the disappearance of a young girl on the night he was shot. He’s accused of faking amnesia and being involved in the young girl’s murder, and is under investigation. For that reason, and because he’s obsessed with finding the young girl, whom he believes is alive, Ruiz works backwards to uncover his memories and solve the case.

Agatha Christie sometimes used the “flashback” approach, too. For instance, Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses A Client) begins with this sentence: Miss Arundell died on May 1. Poirot gets involved with Miss Emily Arundell’s death when he receives a letter from her asking for his help - two months after she wrote it. By the time he and Captain Arthur Hastings get to the village of Market Basing to investigate, Miss Arundell has already been buried. Poirot and Hastings have to piece together the past to find out who killed Miss Arundell and why.

The “flashback” approach to mannipulating time can be extremely suspenseful. It gets the reader involved in a mystery right away, and it can be very authentic when it’s done well. Often, the first part of a novel will “hook” a reader or make the reader lose interest too quickly. A “flashback” approach gives the reader a reason to start reading and keep reading.

Some authors can combine the approaches. Agatha Christie does that in And Then There Were None. In that novel, there’s a linear approach in that ten people go to an island and the events on that island happen in chronological order. Yet, as the novel progresses, Christie uses “flashbacks” to tell each character’s story. Each character’s personally history is told that way, so that the reader understands why each one is there. As Uriah from Crime Scraps
mentioned, Philip Kerr uses this kind of manipulation of time in the Bernie Gunther series, too. I have a lot of respect for authors who use both linear and “flashback” time in the same novel while still maintaining a cohesive sense of plot.

What do you think? Do you find yourself drawn to novels that move in a linear way? A “flashback" way? Both?


  1. I sometimes think that novels manipulate time in order to be clever - I have the impression it is much more common for authors to use "time tricks/switches" now than it was 20 years and more ago.
    What I like very much are books in which the events of the present are rooted in the past, and the reader gradually becomes aware of how the two have affected each other - all is not what it seems. A lot of mystery novels make use of this device - one I read this year that I think was very effective is Shadow by Karin Altvegen. A little boy goes missing (in the past), a Nobel-prizewinning author lies old and (probably) dying in hospital (in the present) and we gradually realise the relationship between these two events, as many family secrets become uncovered. It's a brilliant book, but very dark and bleak. (Also, incidentally, translated by Steven T. Murray, using the name McKinley Burnett - translator of Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Henning Mankell and others.)

  2. PS when I write "in order to be clever", I don't mean in a good way, I mean in a forced way. Sometimes it works really well, other times one feels it is just there for effect, and it feels somewhat artificial - one spends all one's time trying to work out time shifts instead of getting absorbed in the story. Very often with this type of "for effect" book, one finds it was a substitute for there not being very much story - style over substance.

  3. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean about "in order to be clever." When an effect (whether it's manipulation of time, manipulation of setting, whatever) naturally falls out from a good plot, then it can really add to a mystery. When it's done for the sake of manipulation, then it detracts from the plot. Although this blog post doesn't deal with elements like violence, particular characters or plot twists, I feel the same way about them. The core of a good mystery is - the mystery. Anything that's done gratuitously, and just for effect takes away from that mystery and, for me anyway, takes away from the book.

  4. I don't mind either approach as long as it is very clear where we are in the narrative. As long as it is very clear whose POV we are with.

  5. Good point, Patti - Whichever way the author decides to handle the passage of time, it's important that the reader know what's happening and to whom, and that the reader can organize the events in the story so that they make sense. Your comment about POV is well-said, too. It's hard to make sense of a mystery if one doesn't know whose POV is being described.

  6. I like both approaches, although flashbacks--done well--are fun to read, I think. I don't want any POV confusion, but I like the extra layer flashbacks provide.

    "Memento" is a film, not a book, but I was fascinated at the technique it used. The entire film was backwards. Have you seen it?

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Elizabeth - Thanks for the mention of "Memento." I haven't seen it, but I'll have to find it and watch it. "Backwards" is a really compelling idea for a film technique....

    You're right, too, that flashbacks can add a nice dimension to a novel if they're done well. They're also an interesting way to get to know the characters better.

  8. I use the linear approach; although the reader is aware from my first sentence who is going to die. My current WIP is centered around an event; the eventual victim's birthday party. All the characters and their various agendas are introduced and the weekend continues. The story takes places over 4 days with the murder happening the second night. I find this kind of structure easier to write. I've got 12 different characters (11 once the murder happens) milling around. Anything that helps me keep them (and their plots) in line is helpful!


  9. Elspeth - The linear approach really does help the reader (and the author ; )) keep track of the plot and the characters. That's especially true where there are several characters and where the plot's centered on an event, as it is in your WIP. When it's done well, the linear approach also is very authentic; that's how things happen in real life. There are events leading up to an event, there's the event, and there are events that follow from that event.