The following article by Frank Gruber offering advice on plotting the detective novel first appeared in the January 1941 issue of Writer’s Digest. Thanks to John Locke for rummaging through his archives, digging this out and sending it along. As John elucidates further, “Gruber was usually pretty entertaining. And this article dates from maybe his most successful period.”
Improving the Detective Novel
By Frank Gruber
The manager of the Westover Hotel wrote a letter to Steve Fisher: “We have had several complaints about the large animal in your room and we regret we must request you, etc., etc.”
This “large animal” is the biggest, hungriest Great Dane you ever saw in your life. When Steve, who writes those yarns for Cosmopolitan, Liberty, The Post, etc., went to France a couple of years ago he took this small horse with him. He brought him back to New York and then traveled with him to Hollywood and back once more.
This far-traveled Great Dane can inhale three or four pounds of hamburger in a couple of gulps.
I am going to reveal to those readers of Writer’s Digest through an incident that came to me because of Steve’s Dane, the most important thing I have learned about writing a mystery novel.
I refer to the matter of invention. You may call it situation or incident.
The manager of a large book store gave me an advance copy of a mystery novel by a new author and asked me for my honest opinion of the story. I read it with more care than I usually read a book.
It started off swell. The detective was a colorful character. The writing had a vitality you seldom find, the dialog was crisp and the story moved. It lacked only two things, but those two things meant all the difference between an outstanding mystery and “just another mystery novel.”
The story lacked a theme and it lacked invention. All right, nine out of ten mystery novels lack those two very same things. That’s why they sell their 2000 to 3000 copies and are forgotten. A dozen or so mysteries stand out every year from five hundred that are published. In practically every case these outstanding mysteries have both theme and invention.
In a previous article in the Writer’s Digest I stated my opinion that a colorful theme was vital in a best selling mystery novel. I still hold that to be true, but now I add that without invention the theme falls flat.
My readers – both of them – know what I mean by a theme, so I’m not going to harp on that again. (A theme is simply the same tune running through your book ... for example my book, The Laughing Fox is all about silver foxes; the theme is silver foxes. My current mystery novel, The Talking Clock has to do with clocks.)
I am going to speak about invention, and refer again to the book by the new author, who shall remain nameless. The background of the story is a big city and the story shifts from office, to apartment dwelling, to a nightclub, and then makes the rounds again. Various murders are committed and there are several suspects. The hero moves through it all, is suspected of the murders and finally saves himself by pinning the rap on the real culprit. That is all there’s to the story and I will defy you to distinguish it from any one of a hundred mystery novels you’ve read.
That is exactly why this story falls flat on it’s appendix. It has nothing different in it, nothing unusual. It lacks both theme and invention.
To illustrate this thing I call invention I submit to you now the somewhat detailed plot of a mystery novel that contains invention in copious quantities.
Two itinerant book salesmen, named Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg are locked out of their hotel room for non-payment of rent. It is night and raining bulldogs and Siamese cats. Suspecting that such a thing might happen to them, the boys have supplied themselves with the key of an adjoining room and entering it step from the window ledge to the window of their own locked room. They force entrance and then discover a dead man on their bed. In his hand is a five dollar gold piece. While they are appropriating it a telephone rings and a voice warns them to leave the room immediately. Panic-stricken, they turn to the window and to their chagrin discover that the occupant of the adjoining room, through which they made ingress, has returned.
All this in the first chapter. Being locked out of a hotel room may not be particularly novel, but to make entrance to their room in the manner described gives a fresh twist to the situation. The discovery of the dead man in the locked room presents a problem. How did he get there? Certainly the hotel management looked inside before locking the room. Then the gold coin ... and the mysterious telephone call ... and their retreat cut off. That’s complication piled on complication and it adds up to invention.
Continue now with their escape, a forced one, over the protests of the occupant of the adjoining room and then safe, the discovery that the five dollar gold piece has the date 1822 on it and is the rarest gold coin in existence, worth ten thousand dollars.
In the morning they take the coin to a rare coin dealer, who reacts to it in a peculiar manner. Continue at a more moderate pace to the estate of a wealthy man, where there are three iron lawn monstrosities in the shape of bears. To demonstrate his strength, Sam Cragg lifts one of the bears, but he is unable to lift another of equal size.
That night one of the iron bears disappears. It is mysteriously returned later.
Pursued by the police, dodging several persons who have shown an extraordinary interest in the valuable gold piece and made fantastic offers for it, and on the verge of being arrested, Johnny Fletcher drops the coin into a telephone coinbox.
Apparently gone for good, another murder is committed and the gold coin reappears in the corpse’s hand. Why? How?
While all this is going on, Johnny Fletcher repairs his financial circumstances by a couple of rather startling bits of chicanery. Invention.
Turned away at the gates of an estate, Fletcher hires a colored orchestra, blacks his own face, then piles into a gaudily painted car with the musicians and an assortment of drums, bass viols, saxophones, etc. Could you pick out a black-faced white man from that conglomeration?
Fletcher needs a used car. His method of buying one is novel, to say the least.
I’ll stop here on this particular plot, lest I bore. I ’ll go back to Steve Fisher and his “large animal.” I mentioned that the sight of this dog consuming about four pounds of hamburger was something to behold. Watching him do this disappearing act one time an idea struck me. Suppose Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg, those two perpetually broke book salesmen should be burdened with not one big dog, but two hundred?
A mystery novel, The Hungry Dog, was the result.
Sam Cragg’s uncle has died and left him his entire estate. The estate consists of 200 St. Bernard dogs. The boys spend their last dollar getting to the place, not knowing what the inheritance consists of. The first thing they’re presented with is a bill for $1800 for dog food and a notice that unless it is paid no more dog meat will be forthcoming. A murder is committed and things begin to pop ... and all the time the dogs are getting hungrier and hungrier.
Don’t worry, dog lovers, we fed the 200 St. Bernards. How? By invention.
Hotel managers who lock out guests just because they can’t pay their rent are pretty nasty individuals. Things should happen to them. Johnny Fletcher’s main mission in life is to mete out justice to such hotel managers. He’s badly in need of a suit of clothes and by accident learns the name of the clothing store where the manager is accustomed to buying his suits.
Disguising his voice he telephones the store and tells them that he’s just spilled a bottle of ink on his new suit and to please rush over another, measurements of which they have. A messenger boy is naturally sent with the package and Johnny meets him in the lobby of the hotel. He is hatless and wearing a white carnation and since he accosts the messenger, the latter naturally assumes that he is the manager and hands over the parcel. The hotel manager will be surprised on the first of the month when he gets a bill for a suit of which he knows nothing.
However, to make things a little more interesting, the clothing store people in their haste, neglected to include the extra pair of trousers and they send it over at a time when Johnny isn’t in the lobby. The manager learns the awful truth ... and matches the extra pair of trousers with the brand new suit Fletcher is wearing.
Your detective sits around in a night club and drinks dry martinis and old fashioneds and double-Scotches and he makes smart cracks at sleek villains and gin-swizzling blondes and he goes out and gets cracked on the noggin and busts a few skulls himself. He jaws with the cops and asks questions. He does this for two hundred and some pages, going from penthouse to ginmill and back to the penthouse and on page 291 he finally says: “Bledsoe, you’re the lug who gave them the business and they’re warming up the hot seat for you.”
You write this story and I don’t care how clever your dialog is, how marvelous your writing, your book will get nice, polite reviews and sell between 2000 and 3000 copies and in a month no one will remember it.
All detective stories have the same basic plot. A murder plot is committed, perhaps two or three; questions are asked and answered and your detective makes certain deductions and eventually pins the guilt upon the culprit.
Every detective story writer has to work from his skeleton plot. The dressing he gives it is what makes his story different from other detective stories. But too often this dressing is commonplace. The jaded detective story reader has read essentially the same thing a hundred times. Murder in itself is no longer startling or unusual.
That is why the smart detective story writer gives his story invention.
In my own case, I try to have a minimum of six or seven inventions in a novel and I try to space them out so there’ll be one every two or three chapters.
In The Talking Clock, all the characters are introduced in the first two chapters. A murder is committed in the third and my detective heroes, Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg, become fugitives and are fervently pursued by John Law. This pursuit is rather a lengthy one – consuming altogether about three chapters. But after a chapter or so I could see that the reader might become somewhat impatient so I injected one of these things I call an invention.
Hungry and in desperate financial straits, the boys are walking past a theatre that is playing Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. A man steps out from under the marquee and asks them if they want to earn two dollars apiece for a day’s work. Naturally, they snatch at the opportunity. And then ... they discover that they are required to don Pinocchio outfits and dance and prance in front of the theatre. It’s a publicity stunt for the theatre, intended to attract crowds – and it worked very well in New York, where it was actually pulled through the lengthy run of the picture.
This Pinocchio episode was worked into my story as an integral part of the plot. It broke the monotony of the chase and it alleviated, to a certain extent, the financial condition of Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg.
There are other inventions in The Talking Clock. They come at proper intervals. Whenever the story is in danger of lagging through routine, although necessary, detective stuff, bang! comes an invention.
If you have a good theme and invention your book will sell a good many more than 3000 copies and it will be selling a year after publication. And when your second book comes out it’ll take up where the first one left off.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.
Material not reprinted from Writer’s Digest copyright © 2006 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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