Thursday, October 7, 2010

Oh, Lord, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood*

Have you ever wondered what your favourite mystery novelists are like? Mystery novelists are, in reality, people, just like everyone else. But because crime fiction authors write about murder and mayhem, people often have the most unfortunate misconceptions about them. So let’s debunk some of those myths:

Mystery novelists crave the limelight.

Not true. Just ask Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie’s fictional detective story author. She dislikes being fussed over, and certainly doesn’t like being asked about how she writes her books. In Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, Oliver and Hercule Poirot are involved in the mystery of the strangling of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. Marlene was playing the part of the victim in a Murder Hunt (akin to a scavenger hunt) that Oliver designed for a fête held at the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. The game becomes all too real when Poirot and Oliver discover Marlene’s body. At one point in the investigation, Poirot telephones Oliver just as she is about to leave her home to give a talk on how she writes her books. When Poirot offers to end the conversation, Oliver says:

“I’d have made the most awful fool of myself. I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you've got to think of something, and when you've thought of it you've got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That's all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can't imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author's business to write, not talk."

Perhaps mystery novelists who shun the limelight have taken a lesson from the fate of Loretta Black. She’s a best-selling crime fiction writer whom we meet in P.D. Martin’s Fan Mail. She’s doing research for an upcoming novel, and as a part of that research, she and her assistant visit the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit, where they meet Sophie Anderson, an FBI profiler and Martin’s sleuth. Shortly after their visit, Anderson makes the decision to take a field position with the FBI’s Los Angeles office and moves west. Then, Loretta Black is murdered in an eerie imitation of the way one of her victims dies in her latest novel. Black’s assistant contacts Anderson, and she works with the Los Angeles police to try to solve the murder. But before she and the police are able to find the killer, another mystery author is found murdered – also in the same way as a fictional victim. And then another dies. The only real clues Anderson has are terrifying fan letters sent just before each killing. She also sometimes gets clues from psychic visions she has that help her get “into the minds” of killers and their victims. In this case, Anderson has to use this ability – and the fan letters – to trace the obsessed fan who’s bent on killing murder mystery authors.

Mystery novelists are nosey.

OK, that one is a little bit closer to the truth. Mystery novelists are curious by nature, but that makes sense. After all, solving a mystery means that one has to want to find out the truth. So mystery novelists have to be a little nosey – well, curious, anyway. Just ask Ellery Queen, the fictional Harvard graduate-turned-author. He’s a naturally curious person and frequently, that gets him involved in solving crime. That and the fact that his father, Inspector Richard Queen, is a police detective.

Of course, that curiosity can get a mystery novelist into a lot of trouble. That’s what happens to Mildred Cameron, the aspiring mystery novelist we meet in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. Mildred’s inspired to write a mystery novel when Rebecca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned after a visit to one of Mildred’s haunts, Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. But Mildred’s curiosity puts her directly in harm’s way when she gets a clue to the killer. In fact, the killer later says that Mildred

“…was acting like she was a detective, trying to solve the case. Nosy.”

Mystery novelists are dangerous.

This myth is probably the most unfair myth of all about crime fiction writers. Just because mystery novelists have murder, mayhem and alibis on their minds doesn’t mean they are really dangerous people. But that stereotype often causes problems for them.

For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and charged with the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. It’s true that they had quarreled and she’d broken off their relationship. It’s also true that she had arsenic in her possession; she was conducting research for a new novel. It’s also true that Harriet gave the victim a cup of coffee on the day he was poisoned. But Lord Peter Wimsey doesn’t think she’s guilty. In fact, he’s infatuated with her and determined to clear her name. So he investigates the case with the help of several friends. In the end, he’s able to prove that Harriet was innocent, and finds the real killer.

And then there’s Mr. Clancy, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s a mystery novelist who’s traveling on the same plane as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender, on the day she’s murdered with a poisoned dart. Mr. Clancy is an immediate suspect. Not only is he extremely curious about the murder, but he happens to have a blowpipe, the kind that’s suspected of having been the murder weapon. Not only that, but one night, two fellow passengers decide to follow Clancy and see whether he might be guilty. He behaves quite suspiciously, and they believe he could be the murderer. So, in fact, does Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp. Hercule Poirot, though, sees things differently. He’s able to discover who Madame Giselle’s real killer is, and clear Mr. Clancy’s name.

See? We mystery novelists are only dangerous when we write ;-).

Ever thought about trying your hand at writing a mystery novel? Check these signs to find out if you are made for crime fiction writing….

You might be a mystery novelist if…..

…you have ever passed a balcony and wondered how high it would have to be for a fall from it to kill someone.

…you explain those trips to the police station as “conducting research.”

…you brush people off with, “Not now, please – I’m killing someone.”

…you take very suspicious-looking notes while watching television shows such as Forensics Files.

…you get concerned about the number of watch lists you may be on because of the Internet research you do.

…every conversation you have with other writers seems to involve dead bodies.

…you don’t get mad – you just make ‘em the victim in your next story.

Any additions to this list?

Really. I promise. We’re only dangerous when we write…

Note: The title of this post is a line from The Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.


  1. First, where did you get that t-shirt? It's brilliant. I want one.

    All of those 'You might be a mystery novelist if...' apply to me. As you know, I do my forensic blog posts every Tuesday and you won't believe what I've had to type into my Google search bar. However, what's even more disturbing is all the dead body pictures I've come across on the internet. Kinda disturbing.

    As a writer, I've killed about eight people. That technically makes me a 'Serial Killer Writer...'

    Great post. As usual.


  2. LOL

    I am not nosey when it comes to people´s love lives or banal things like that, but I am when they have a story to tell.

    You might be a mystery novelist if ... someone burgles your cottage, leaves blood smears all over the house, and instead of worrying about aids and the white sofa, you call the police and insist that they take DNA-samples while you snoop around, watching every step to see how it is done.

  3. You might be a mystery novelist if you examine every cane for a hidden stiletto.

  4. I have met a few and most are pretty darn nice. I have one or two exceptions but it might have been a bad day.

  5. Clarissa - Glad you like the t-shirt. I had it as a gift, so I'm not sure whether it was ordered, bought in a store, or something else.

    And I can just imagine the kinds of searches you've done and the kinds of things you've found on the internet. Folks, do check out Clarissa's blog for her great posts on forensics. She really has informative, interesting posts. Even if she is a "Serial Killer writer" ;-)

    Dorte - LOL! I love your contribution! Thanks! Yes, I can just see the police wondering at behaviour like that, and then saying "Oh, you're a mystery novelist - that explains it!"

    And I know what you mean about nosiness, too. There are something I'm not overly curious about, and other things intrigue me...

    Alan - Absolutely!! Mystery novelists are the bane of rehabilitation centers and medical supply stores for that reason.

    José Ignacio - Thank you :-).

    Patti - Yeah, I have to agree. Most of us mystery writers really are nice people. We're just very nasty to our characters ;-).

  6. We take out most of our aggression on our characters. Maybe that's what makes us 'nice' to the people we meet.

  7. I like the T shirt as I did end up in a crime fiction novel! It served me right and the author Aly Monroe was very kind making me a policeman in Washington Shadow.
    The crime writers I have met have all been very kind even to annoying old bloggers.

  8. John - LOL! Yes, I think you are right. We're nice to real people because we have a much healthier outlet ;-).

    Norman - Oh, I think that's very cool that you appear in Washington Shadow. I shall now have to get a copy of that book. And bloggers like yourself are pretty terrific, so little wonder crime writers are nice to you.

  9. Awwww *blush*, thanks :-). That's very kind of you.

  10. How about you might be a mystery novelist if when you hear of a murder on the radio you automatically begin plotting what happened to cause the killing - what the victim did, if the killer was justified, how the killing could or couldn't be in self-defense.

    Love the post. Even though I don't write, I do find myself thinking more about how different settings would play out in a murder mystery.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Glad you liked this post. And just because you don't write murder mysteries doesn't mean you are not a writer.

    I loved your contribution, too! The mystery novelist as detective - very cool! Thank you :-)

  12. This post is a riot. :) And as for the t-shirt, I bought my daughter one with the same saying but no picture. I found it in a catalog, but I'm sure Google could hook you up!

  13. I think I am an aspiring mystery writer, because the last time I got really mad at someone, I plotted his death (in a story).

    Great post, this.

  14. Biblioden - Thanks :-). I'm glad that you liked the post. How neat that you got your daughter a similar T-shirt. I think companies like Cafe Press do that sort of thing, too.

    Rayna - Thank you :-). LOL! It certainly sounds as though you're a mystery writer if you let your anger out by plotting someone's fictional death. I'd love to read that story :-).

  15. You occasionally wonder how many agencies 'out there' might have you on a list because of your rather interesting search history on the internet. Also, when every a tv show or book makes mention of an untraceable poison you mentally note "remember that".

  16. You know you're a mystery novelist when you go on holiday and you idea of sightseeing is pointing out the really cool places to dump a body.

    You know you're a mystery novelist when your kids, if people ask them what Mummy does, tell them 'Mummy kills people for a living.'

    You know you're a mystery novelist when your friends start asking you to kill off people who are annoying them in your next novel. One even asked me to ceremoniously kill off an annoying dog who barks at her when she goes on a run.

    You know you're a mystery novelist when your friends are cringing back about some grizzly, half rotten discovery and you're eagerly edging forward thinking cool, how can I use that!

  17. Elspeth - Thank you for those wonderful contributions! I have to admit, I do think about that rather - er - interesting search history of mine... And yes, I find untraceable poisons to be disturbingly interesting. Pad and pen are handy when I watch one of those shows...

    Vanda - Those are absolutely wonderful contributions! Thank you :-). They made me laugh out loud. I can just imagine you planning the details of a cathartic murder that a friend has asked you to "commit." Oh, how funny!! And when I read your contribution about what kids say. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my daughter once. When I was writing my first novel, she asked me to name a character after her, which I did. Then she said, "Can I be a b****?" So that's the kind of personality I gave the character.

  18. I love this post, especially the part about mystery writers being nosy. I used to be just a people watcher, but now I have to admit I'm an eavesdropper as well. Of course, that's much easier in this day of cell phones. :)

  19. Patricia - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I think mystery novelists do tend to be curious about other people. And yes, cell phones in public places have made people-watching and people-listening very much easier :-).

  20. Great, great post, one of your best, and that's saying something!

  21. Martin - Oh, that is so kind of you :-)! I appreciate it very much, especially coming from someone whose blog is as superlative as yours is. I'm glad you enjoyed it.