Challenges of Writing Detective Fiction By Manjiri Prabhu
The moment you utter the word detective, the image of Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. And especially Sherlock with a magnifying glass in hand. Or Hercule Poirot with his twirled moustache and egg-shaped head. Or more on our home TV ground, Karamchand with a carrot in his hand. The impressions are so firmly imbedded in our heads that it takes time and effort to replace them with something more contemporary. And even original.
I have written mystery novels since I was a kid and I consider writing mystery fiction a skill. It is a complete art form which touches almost all emotions, stages and elements of life and encompasses other genres within itself. It can comment on socio-political issues and offer deep insights into the psyche of human beings – all under the guise of an entertaining mystery story. As such, I feel it’s the definition of a complete novel.
Sometimes, in mystery fiction, the main character is forced into such a situation that he has to take on the role of a detective. Then he sets out to untie puzzling knots that have entangled his life. Often the main character himself or herself is a professional detective charged with the task of solving a complicated case. In either situation, what is important is the systematic unearthing of clues, a motive for the crime that rings plausible, the gradual unraveling of the story like the unfurling of a rolled carpet and finally nabbing main culprit or criminal – all in one clean swoop.
But what makes detective fiction interesting and unputdownable? What are the challenges that one tackles when penning this unusual novel-form where ironically the reader’s satisfaction is rated in artfully deceiving the reader himself?
The biggest challenge of course is creating an original sleuth. Someone who has not been written about before. Someone who has a modus operandi which is different from his predecessors. Someone who can snatch your attention from the first page, sweep you into his or her world and keep you interested till he finishes solving his case. And not only the case, but also gets you as a reader totally curious and addicted to him as a person, to his issues and to his personal story.
One of the highlights of a successful mystery novel is the keeping of the surprise element intact and running throughout the novel
When I wrote my Stellar Investigations Series, I wanted to create a character who was modern, willing to experiment with the new, but with her roots firmly grounded in a traditional upbringing. So Sonia Samarth is a dynamic young girl – a detective – who uses an unusual modus operandi. She uses Vedic Horoscopes to solve crimes. Astrology, in the novels, is used not like a magic wand but as a scientific tool of exploration. When Sonia reaches a dead-end in her deductions, she uses horoscopes as a map which would point her in the right direction and like an X ray to probe into the minds of the criminals. Similarly in my latest thriller ‘The Trail of Four’ Re Parkar is an investigative journalist with a psychic bend. He gets visions of a place he has previously visited and knows that something terrible is going to transpire there. He also possesses a heightened sense of smell and imagination and sports a pony tail. He is, for me, satisfactorily different.
The other important feature of any detective novel is of course its plot. A story that is gripping, that keeps you guessing and in the end leaves you feeling satisfied. The story can move from any location to anywhere, swing from one emotion to another along with credible characters. ‘The Trail of Four’ takes place in 48 hours in a palace in Salzburg, The locale is fascinating. The Detective is fascinating. And the plot unfolds in 48 hours. A deadly mix. But that’s not enough. A good detective novel works with emotions, with people who need to rise above their problems, and resolve seemingly impossible situations. And herein enters the human element. That emotional touch which makes a novel immortal. Even a detective novel with its commercial angles. The challenge, of course, lies in how to spring over these fences and land on your feet.
And finally, what would keep the reader guessing? What would make him say ‘Aha!’ An element of surprise. One of the highlights of a successful mystery novel is the keeping of the surprise element intact and running throughout the novel like a flowing river, till the climax plunges from the top of the hill like a full-fledged waterfall and drenches you in surprise. Literally!
Dr. Manjiri Prabhu is a bestselling Author, a short film-maker and the Founder/ Director of the Pune International Literary Festival. She has directed over 200 children’s TV programmes, more than 50 short fiction and travel films and has authored 9 books. She is also the first female mystery Author to be published outside India and has been labelled as the ‘Desi Agatha Christie’.