How To Write A Detective Story

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Above: Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.
  1. Summon a raccoon. (By which I mean — just because the form of a detective story is tightly controlled doesn’t mean that the rest of the novel or story has to be controlled as well. If you want to summon a raccoon, then summon a raccoon.)
  2. Compare the opening paragraphs of a Sherlock Holmes story, a PD James story, a Jo Nesbø story, an Inspector Morse story, a Dashiell Hammett story, and a Raymond Chandler story. What is missing? Why is it missing? What can you add? What can you keep? What do you think that ultimately tells you?
  3. How would the crime in question appear 100 years ago? How do you think the crime in question will appear 100 years hence? Why do you think that is? How can you prove that?

4. Spend the day trying to talk like Edward G. Robinson. There is a world in which engaging with the the Edward G. Robinson voice is a bit like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon engaging with the Michael Caine voice: it’s not quite connected to anything in the way you’d expect it to be, and so it takes on this gauzy circus-like quality — but it’s also odd enough and distinct enough that different characters and voices can emerge from doing this voice as well.

5. What would happen if you tried to reduce your detective story to a single equation? How would you do that? What would it look like? To what degree would it be about accuracy and to what degree would it be about a creative rendering? To what degree would it be able to serve as implicit/explicit commentary on COMPSTAT and other such programs that have been used in recent years?

6. Flip the script: imagine yourself a character who is a crook. What sort of crime would they commit? Who would be the person leading the charge in response? (Will they be a Javert type? A Porfiry Petrovitch type? Straight-up Columbo?)

7. If Andrew Dubus III got the idea for House Of Sand And Fog by a clipping he found in the newspaper, it’s important to ask what stands out to you on police logs and what stands out to you — if anything — if you ever happen to listen to a police scanner. (Though, note: nothing has to stand out. There is no obligation here. This is advice.)

8. Who lives in the house where the detective lives? Who works in the buildings next to where the detective works? Draw a map.

9. Ask yourself, “Where is the soul?”

10. Get back to work.

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