I have some new Lawrence Pinkley mysteries coming out next year, so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the rules for writing a fictional detective.
1. The detective must always be memorable. Whether he (or she) is funny, misguided, inept or super intelligent, these traits have to endear the detective to the audience.
2. Fictional detectives are expected to be slightly out of the ordinary. They must have some small habit, mannerism, eccentricity, interest or talent – something that sets them apart from their comrades.
3. The crime, or crimes, committed in the book must be significant.
4. Traditionally, the detective novel is constructed around a murder or an ingenious theft. Murder is a crime that cannot be reversed or made amends for, therefore, it is a crime worth the detective’s (and the reader’s) time and effort to solve.
5. The criminal must be a worthy opponent. He can be smarter than the detective—but can never be more likeable.
6. In real life, crimes are committed by ordinary, everyday, sometimes dull and stupid people. However, if fictional detectives are to show off their considerable skills, they must match wits with adversaries of equal cleverness. The mind of the criminal is often the intellectual equal of the detective’s. The conflict becomes a battle of intellects between the detective, his/her opponent, and the reader.
7. All the suspects, including the criminal, must be presented early in the story.
8. Half the fun of reading a good detective story comes from the mental contest between the reader and the detective in a race to solve the crime. The reader must be able to safely assume that the perpetrator of the crime is one of the main characters in the story, not someone whom the author is going to slip in on the unsuspecting reader in the next-to-the-last chapter.
9. All clues discovered by the detective must be made available to the reader.
10. The reader must be given the same opportunity to solve the crime as the detective, and this means getting the same evidence at the same time it is made available to the detective. Of course, an author may deliberately mislead the reader through red herrings as long as his fictional detective is similarly deceived.
11. The solution must appear logical and obvious when the detective explains, in detail, how the crime was committed and how it was solved.
12. The reader must be convinced that he could have come to exactly the same conclusion as the detective. In the end, the reader must see how all the little tidbits of information fit together like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It is for this reason that detective stories are so appealing.