What Makes a Great Detective Story?
I’m going to keep this really simple. The answer is the attractiveness of the characters, their magnetism.
Recently, I flicked through Wednesday’s Child, by Peter Robinson. The synopsis is a treat: two social workers arrive at Brenda’s house and take her daughter into care. They weren’t real social workers. If that doesn’t send chills through you, you’re not a parent.
I’m near the end now, and a difficult path it has been. That’s because the characters are all salt of the earth, self effacing, polite but with an edge, boring nothings and nobodies. With a terrible name for the lead like Gristhorpe, how could I have expected differently? Think Sam Allardyce. Think David Moyes. Think past a synopsis before you commit to a read.
Contrast this claptrap with greats of detective fiction, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poirot’s insane ego, stupendous deductions and long running little grey cells metaphor keep the reader hooked not just to the end of the story, but through book after book. Holmes’ arrogance is astonishing, his magnificence obvious. Love them or not, these are characters that live in the memory.
This brings me to Edward Marston, author of a few different collections of linked stories, mostly set during the 1850s, or around World War One. The plots themselves are usually most engaging, yet the characters are too engaged with a genuinely pathetic level of virtue signalling. It’s nauseating at most points, perhaps an out of control wet dream of how Marston saw himself throughout his career in law enforcement?
I wrote 80% of a detective novel twelve years ago. It lacked research, a convincing ending, and marked the end of the floppy disk era. More than that, the lead character is introduced in a moment of flashback, like me at the time, as a somewhat jaded, if well-meaning, primary teacher. I can finally translate my feeling of unease about the writing into words, the main character lacked any kind of charisma that so stokes the imagination.
With the authors of Poirot, Marple and Holmes sadly long departed, who is out there?