My Approach to Writing a Detective Novel

Image of Raymond Chandler

Most contemporary authors I expect are influenced by writers of the past. Without a doubt, the author I have been most influenced by is the legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), known for his influential detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

Chandler didn’t invent the detective novel but arguably he certainly transformed hard-boiled detective fiction. Even though he wrote only seven novels in his lifetime, Chandler is perhaps second only to Dashiell Hammett as the most important writer in the genre. I think a 1945 article published in The Atlantic magazine says it best. “To the writing of his detective stories Raymond Chandler brings the experience and the skepticism of a newspaper reporter, the narrative gifts of a born storyteller, and a mastery of pungent American dialogue.”

To influence means to have an important effect on someone or something. If someone influences someone else, they are changing a person or thing in an indirect but important way. That is what I speak of when I say that Chandler influences me as a writer.

That doesn’t mean of course that I strive to copy his writing style. I’m working on establishing my own. In addition Chandler lived in a different era. If you read a Chandler novel today you will find the language quite dated because our language is in a constant state of change. Words and manners of speaking popular in Chandler’s day are out of fashion and antiquated by modern standards of usage. But I do try to emulate Chandler’s philosophies in writing crime fiction. Chandler made that very easy to do by leaving behind his ten commandments for writing a detective novel:

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10. It must be honest with the reader.

(Source: “Raymond Chandler.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2015)

I realize that readers have limited dollars to spend on books as well as limited time in which to read. Understandably book buyers want assurance that a book they are considering purchasing is a quality book worth their hard-earned money and time. Obviously a new or unknown author in this genre has no reputation and thus little credibility with those who enjoy crime fiction novels.

I feel one of the best ways to build credibility with potential readers is give them some insight into my philosophies and approach to writing. If you enjoy a good detective novel and decide to give me a chance by reading Come What May, you can be sure I have kept Chandler’s ten commandments firmly in my mind while writing it. My goal is that those who read it will consider it both money and time well spent.

The Deliberate Author

Image of notebook and penReading the author interviews at Goodreads is something I enjoy. Quite often in interviews of famous book authors you find examples of “the unintentional author,” someone who never had a plan or sometimes even any inkling that he or she would write a book. Then some catalyst came along that motivated them to write one or write several.

It didn’t happen that way for me. I purposefully chose to write. I even intentionally chose a profession quite early in life on the basis that it would allow me to retire early so that I would have the time to write.

I’d wanted to write a book since my childhood, mostly I think because my love for books instilled within me a deep admiration for authors. When you admire someone it is quite natural I think to desire to emulate them, to be like them, to in a sense be one of them. To this day, a good many of the people I truly admire are book authors. A few of them I even think of as friends even though I’ve never met them or even corresponded with them and perhaps never will.

Curiously it is far easier to identify the things that didn’t trigger within me the desire to write than the things that did. As an example, I’ve never had any intention to earn a substantial income from writing books. I’ve never had the ambition to become a famous author. Perhaps that is because I’ve always been more of a pragmatist than an idealist. While I like to think I can tell a reasonably good story, I’ve never had any illusion that I possess the talent and skill of a Steinbeck, a Faulkner, or a Hemingway. Not at all.

When I published my first book I had an ambition to sell a few hundred copies when I started, and then – when I sold the first thousand copies I was beyond thrilled. I never really expected to make any real money from it. But that part of it was just a bonus. What I found most meaningful was discovering that a good number of people were interested in reading something I’d written. That is what really motivated me to want to keep writing.

Perhaps I write for the same reasons that people like to read books. Recently I saw a poll that asked the question, “Why do you read books?” The top three reasons given were:

  • to learn something new,
  • to be entertained, delighted, and enchanted, and
  • to momentarily escape from reality.

American journalist, critic, and essayist Joe Queenan has written, “If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment.” That sentiment seems to square with the results from the poll I mentioned. It seems likely then that one reason I write books is because within the pages of a fictional story I too find temporary escape from a “reality” I find a bit of a disappointment.