Standalone Mysteries by Barbara Paul


The Fourth Wall

Liars and Tyrants and People Who Turn Blue

First Gravedigger

Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy

Kill Fee

But He Was Already Dead When I Got There

In-laws and Outlaws

alone Mysteries

Writing Mysteries

When I was in my early teens, the thought occurred to me that one of the most difficult jobs in the world must be that of mystery writer. All those clues, all the detail work, all the minutiae of the plot that had to be kept straight -- and you couldn't make any mistakes! Whoo.

As I grew a little older, I started getting impatient with characters that sounded phony. Why couldn't they all be believable? And there was a sameness about some mysteries that had me yawning halfway through the book, while with others I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Why was that?

With the adolescent tendency to oversimplify everything, I put writers into two groups: 1) mystery writers, and 2) everybody else. Not that mystery writers were any better than other kinds of writers -- they were just otherwise. They followed different rules, they used different tools...and that set them apart. Like being born with the ability to wiggle your ears. You're either a wiggler or you aren't.

So you could say I approached the writing of mysteries with a great deal of respect for the genre. I could anticipate some of the pitfalls, and I knew what I liked to read in a mystery. I was still writing science fiction at the time, but what convinced me to take the plunge was a story idea rattling around in my head that could be told only as a mystery.

I'd been reading a lot of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies at the time; and by one of those fortuitous circumstances that spark ideas, I'd recently seen a number of movies and TV shows in which revenge was the motive behind the criminal action. In every case, someone exacted revenge by killing his enemy. Every case.

This particular acting-out of a desire for vengeance had long troubled me -- but as an issue of logic, not of morality. It seemed a less than perfect kind of revenge, to put one's enemy beyond the reach of further harm. (If you're going to be bloodthirsty, go all out, sez I.) I thought a better kind of revenge would be to keep one's enemy alive...and suffering.

So I started writing The Fourth Wall, in which the revenger sets out to destroy all those things that make his enemies' lives worth living. I gave the story a theater setting, which allowed me to draw parallels to the old revenge tragedies. And the characters' shared love of theater acted as a counterbalance to the grimness of what was happening to them.

The Fourth Wall was a satisfying book to write. By the time I'd finished, even before I had submitted the manuscript anywhere -- I knew the mystery field was where I belonged. I could wiggle my ears.

The first editor who read The Fourth Wall, bought it. This I considered to be a sign from Heaven. It was my first mystery...and also the last book I ever wrote on spec. The book was successful; and once that happens, getting subsequent work into print becomes a heckuva lot easier.

One question mystery writers get asked a lot is what other mystery writers have influenced our work. My sheepish answer is always: None. The biggest influence on my writing has to be plays and movies.

I've directed plays, I've designed sets, built costumes, sold tickets, worked lights, collected props, painted flats, swept the stage floor -- I've done every dirty theater job there is. I earned a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Criticism, and I've read plays until they were running out of my ears. Whatever ear for spoken language I have now must have come from that saturation in written dialogue. And I try to write scenes that "play" -- that could be acted out on a stage or in front of a camera. All my books tell their stories more in scenes than in straight narration.

On another matter, I've long made the claim that people who read mysteries hate mysteries. What we like are solutions. The mystery novel is the only kind of book a reader can pick up knowing ahead of time that questions will be answered, that problems will be solved. Every mystery writer makes a promise to the reader that order will be restored by the final page. It's that guarantee, from writer to reader, that I think accounts for the mystery's continuing popularity.

And yet, that traditional ending of tying everything up neatly has been showing signs of change. Occasionally a mystery writer will deliberately leave some minor thread untied (because some questions simply don't have answers) and thus runs the risk of seeing a reviewer denounce the book for leaving a problem unsolved. Or once in a while we see a book in which all the loose ends are tied up, but not in quite the way we might want them to be. Order is restored, as promised, but sometimes this restoration comes at a price that is perhaps too high.

These changes are good in that they add a more realistic touch to the conclusions. They do away with the old-fashioned parlor-game aspect of earlier mysteries, an aspect that keeps the horror of violent death at a safe distance and is appropriate for comic mysteries (but for little else). Instead, we're seeing more and more mystery novels that ask the reader to recognize the sheer ugliness of the act of murder -- a development that can only benefit the genre. And all these changes demonstrate one significant fact, that the rules governing mystery writing aren't nearly so rigid as they might appear.

Page created June 28, 1995; last updated August 1, 1999. Home