On the Make Mine Mystery blog, Marvin Wilson referred to an article on the Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing by Ginny Wiehardt, which you can find by clicking on the title. Marvin wrote about her number one rule: in mystery writing, plot is everything. I decided to comment on a couple of related rules a little farther on.
Her Rule 3 says to “introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.” She adds, “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.”
I agree that something criminal needs to take place up front or you won’t have much of a mystery. I’m not a big fan, though, of rules that say “you must do this by Chapter X.” In The Marathon Murders, my fourth Greg McKenzie mystery, the first body doesn’t show up until Chapter 8. But by the end of Chapter 3, it’s clear somebody is missing and not under auspicious circumstances.
This leads to Ginny Wiehardt’s Rule 4, “the crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.” I’ll accept that. After all, murder is so…final. It isn’t a reversible error, as a lawyer might say. She continues, “for many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective's powers.”
However, unless the book features a police detective pursuing a case, murder may not be the central crime, at least initially. Since private detectives aren’t normally involved with murders, unless it’s a cold case where the family wants to know what happened, our PIs are usually pursuing some other crime when they encounter the aftermath of a murder.
In my new book, The Surest Poison, my detective is investigating the origin of a massive toxic chemical dump. He is involved only peripherally with the murders until close to the end. There are kidnappings and assaults and explosions, but he isn’t looking for a murderer.
How do you feel about it? Should the actively-pursued crime be murder, and does it need to occur right at the first of the story?