I’ve been reading detective novels for many more years than I’ve been writing them. In fact, if I hadn’t been reading them—and loving them—I’m sure I’d never have had the motivation to write one. But there was more to that motivation than the pleasure
those novels provided. It was the realization that they shared a common structure. And it was coming to understand how that structure worked, and envisioning the possibilities it offered for storytelling, that finally captivated me. What structure? The simple thing that had occurred to me was that every detective story is really two stories.There is the story of the criminal activity: the story of the characters, motivations, and actions involved in the crime. This aspect of the novel I think of as the buried city, all or most of which is hidden from our view at the outset. And then there is the story of the detective’s excavation of the buried city: a story of progressive digging, probing, discovering.
The root of the crime, which typically involves murder, is almost always some excessive or warped desire—greed, lust, envy, revenge. The criminal or his allies may attempt to thwart the process of discovery through concealment, misdirection, intimidation, or more murders. The essential nature of the discovery process, on the other hand, is the step-by-step accumulation of facts and the rational evaluation of the patterns emerging from those facts.
In a sense, all detective stories are alike. However, within that common structure, tremendous variation is possible, and not just in the details of the crimes or in the idiosyncrasies of the detectives. For me, the great opportunity in this genre is to explore, in the course of a fast-moving, high-stakes story, some of the more interesting ironies of human nature—for example, our conflicting desires both to conceal the truth and to know the truth.
Where do I start?
I start with a conflict, because without a conflict there is no story. Sometimes I hear people talk about a great idea they have for a crime novel when, in fact, what they have is an idea for a colorfully quirky hero or a bizarre villain or an ingenious murder technique. To the question, “And what happens then?” they have no answer.
When I say I start with an interesting conflict, I don’t mean that the first scene reveals that conflict in its true nature. Quite the opposite. In fact, my four novels all begin with an event that isn’t what it appears to be. From the apparent mind-reading at the beginning of Think of a Number to the assassination of the political candidate that initiates the action in Peter Pan Must Die, each precipitating event is the deceptive surface of something else. Yet each one is a product of the story’s core conflict.
How much do I know at the start, and how much do I make up as I go along?
From the very beginning, I have to know a great deal about the buried city. I have to know the physical and psychological details of the crime, the criminals involved, their histories, their motivations, what they did to conceal their actions—because it is the bits and pieces of that hidden reality that my detective will slowly uncover.
I also need to know what my detective’s various discoveries along the way will be—as well as the false leads and dead ends—so I can arrange them in an appropriate dramatic sequence. I also need to know how various characters will embody necessary story functions such as providing emotional and practical support to the protagonist, obstructing or undermining his goals, questioning and doubting everything, and so forth.
I need to know what the principal issues are in the lives of my characters and how those issues might play out in their relationships. I need to be able to hear their voices, their intonations, because so much of a person’s approach to life is revealed in speech patterns.
All that may sound as if I know a lot before I start writing, but most of what makes my stories come alive actually occurs to me as I go along.
Once I know who my characters are, I let them speak for themselves. I often get the feeling that I’m not so much creating dialogue as I am listening to it and writing it down. Characters sometimes get their own ideas about what they want to do, and I just follow along and jot down what’s happening.
Maybe one of the reasons that my novels are longer than most mystery-thrillers is that I like giving my characters plenty of room to be themselves.
What about those impossible crimes and baffling puzzles?
The ways my characters think and maneuver are based on aspects of my own inner life. There is a streak of paranoia running through my own thinking that has a way of constructing, with no effort on my part, frightening “what if” scenarios. I’m also fascinated by the role of deception in our lives: our deception of ourselves as much as our deception of others. So it feels quite natural to me that the impressions created by people, relationships, and situations in general might be totally false.
Years ago, I knew a wise person who was fond of saying, “Take a careful look at your motives. Then look under them for your real motives. Then look under those for your real real motives.” The notion that progressive layers of deception are built into human nature appeals to me.
And complex deception is what my criminal puzzles are all about.
By John Verdon, author of the international bestsellers Think of a Number, Shut Your Eyes Tight, Let the Devil Sleep, and the forthcoming Peter Pan Must Die (Crown; July 1, 2014)