The Golden Age of Crime Fiction and Home Schooling by Neil McGowan

 I've reached that sticky point around the middle of the book I'm writing that I always seem to hit, the one where I doubt anything I've written is any good and wonder how on earth everything will come together. I'm pretty sure it will - it has with every book so far - but right now writing is like wading through treacle. Every sentence seems to take an age to write, and at the moment 500 words seems like a good night.


So, I turned to other things in the hope of breaking the deadlock. The joys of home schooling means I'm having to revisit various topics with my children (some of which are a struggle -- I was never a fan of RE at school and only paid enough attention to get by in the lessons). My youngest was assigned a murder mystery theme to create, and immediately pounced on me as 'you'll be good at that.'


Turns out, what she needed to do was write a series of short documents to support the crime and the resolution -- character profiles, witness statements, and a denouement. However, as she pointed out, for that to make sense, she'd need at least the bones of a plot as a framing device.


When I looked at it in more detail, I started to get a sinking feeling. It was to be in the style of the golden age of crime, following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie et al.


First problem - I've only read a couple of Christie books, and I'm not massively familiar with the genre.


Second problem -- the reason I've not read much in this area is I find it nearly always has one massive flaw. Oh, the few I've read have been plotted well, and in most cases fairly well written, but to my mind, if you were planning on committing a murder in one of these novels then there are a couple of points to consider first.


Number one -- why would you plan to commit a murder when the famous detective is part of the group? Surely you'd wait for another opportunity?


Number two -- If you couldn't wait for a later opportunity, then wouldn't it make more sense to bump off Poirot or Marple in chapter two? They all tend to keep every bit of evidence to themselves until the last moment, where they lay everything out to dazzle the less brilliant (almost bumbling, in the bits I've read) police officers. No, get rid of them and chances are you'd get away with it!


But I digress. I was presented with some preliminary work on the setting, characters, and murder victim, created by my daughter and my wife, and asked if I could 'make something up, quickly, that to go with it.'


Sigh. Arguing that I'm a pantser rather than a plotter wasn't going to cut it, I reckoned, so I started to look through the notes and make suggestions. We had an Inspector Steve Hopkins who liked doughnuts and sherbet lemons (pointing out these would be unusual in 1947 was met with a shrug), Laird McPherson (the victim), and a small group of characters. The setting was the Laird's manor house, and the crime took place after a dinner party.

After some thought, I managed to come up with what I thought was a period-suitable plot -- the dinner party was to announce the engagement of the Laird's daughter; he was found dead afterwards, murdered with a letter opener. Next question: 'Who did it, and why?'


Back to the drawing board. My next suggestions involved creating various motives for each character, as well as alibis that were shaky enough to be suspicious. 


'Great,' she said. 'Now, can you show me how to write the end?'


After much bribery (I was promised beer that evening) I set to work. And here's the funny thing, after a few minutes of thought, the words just flowed, and half an hour later I'd written a complete scene where the inspector summed everything up and had the murderer arrested. And I enjoyed it. The hardest part was trying to write in the style of a twelve-year-old, but I wonder if this was part of what made it enjoyable -- I was allowing myself to break all the rules.


The end result was pretty good, and true to the spirit of the genre. (I couldn't bring myself to work in mention of doughnuts or sherbet lemons, though, even though I'd built a backstory where the Inspector was ex-forces and had spent time during the war in America, which was where he'd picked up these habits.)


And now I've got all these characters jostling in my head, demanding I write their story. Telling myself I don't write that genre makes no difference. Neither does telling myself I'm in the middle of another book, this one a gritty contemporary crime novel that tackles human trafficking. And the funny thing is, I quite fancy the idea of tackling it. I don't think it has enough to be a book, but a short story, perhaps a novella, is a definite possibility. Guess I might be coming to appreciate the golden age of crime fiction much more than I ever have before.


Peter Leyland said…
Hi Neil

What a great idea for home schooling! As a teacher of crime fiction, not just of 'the golden age', but from 1743 to the present day, I thoroughly approve of the idea. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I hope that the father/daughter story was well received by her school.
Ruth Leigh said…
Life really is copy! What a great blog

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