JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hallie's post earlier this week about "ruby slippers," ie, the Maltese Falcon, ie, the Macguffin got me thinking about the different types of mysteries I'd someday like to try. I don't mean hardboiled versus cozy - I'm talking about the gimmick, the particular plot device that fuels the story.
As a writer, I spend a great deal of time working on the structure of my books. I've produced a book written along two opposing timelines, one going past, one heading to the future. I wrote a book with framing scenes bracketing past and present episodes. The one I'm working on now, with three interlinked storylines in three different eras, is giving me the devil of a hard time.
But I don't tend to think in terms of the plot device, which is a shame, because just like writing haiku or sestinas instead of free verse poetry, adhering to a form can spur a writer on to greater heights. The mystery genre itself is a type of restricted style, with its requirements of crime and solution. But except for those two items, there really isn't anything that can't be shoehorned into A Mystery. Cozy, caper, romantic suspense, genre blending, hardboiled, noir...the list goes on and on.
I've used a couple of classic devices in my series so far. I've written The Detective Becomes The Suspect (All Mortal Flesh) and The Ticking Clock (Through the Evil Days). But like many crime fiction authors today, I start with characters, and where I want them to go, rather than the plot, which has led to (I humbly think) a rich, detailed tapestry of life in the imaginary town of Millers Kill, NY. Now, however, nine books in - okay, eight and a half - I'm beginning to feel the urge to challenge myself with a stricter form. Readers already know the characters in my books pretty well, right? So why not see if they work as well in a canon or fugue, instead of a symphony?
I'd love to do a Locked Room Mystery, which I think could translate very well in the modern age. With wifi, apps, and executable software around, as well as slightly futuristic - but already here - nanobots and genetically tailored medicine, there must be more ways to kill someone in an inaccessible room than ever.
I've also long loved the Country House Mystery exemplified by And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap. Updating the concept of a group of strangers trapped together without any means of communicating with the outside world would be a challenge in our always-connected present. Could I fit the form into Millers Kill? I don't know, but I'd love to try.
Dear Readers, what are some of the classic mystery devices you'd like to see updated into the modern world?