I’ve just finished reading ‘The Celtic Dagger’ by Jill Paterson – a conventional detective whodunit murder mystery set in Australia where the author lives. I’m not a great fan of detective novels but I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The style of writing was clean and crisp, no waste of words or pointless conversations – everything was pertinent. The plot was carefully structured with some intriguing twists and turns along the way. I liked the characters – all appearing upright, decent citizens. Who among them could be a murderer? The plot development was well-thought out and there was just the right amount of witnesses and suspects. And for those who love a cosy mystery, minimal violence. It is a gentle book in this genre and I wouldn’t describe it as a thriller – and for that reason it may not appeal to those who prefer a renegade detective on the blood-splattered trail of a lunatic psychopath.
But for me what was most interesting from an analytical point of view, is that in creating this story, the author touched on all the key points of writing a mystery. I do think that mysteries are the most difficult genre because no matter how much information the writer gives away as the story progresses, there must always be that final card up the sleeve. This is done by what I call the ‘give but add’ plan: for every bit of new information the reader gleans, there must be an extra problem added. Thus the mystery deepens even though some knowledge has come to light. Characters come and go in the revolving doors of interviews and investigation. More is learned but the puzzle is greater. Suspicion hops from person to person.
Red herrings are one thing – but don’t waste the reader’s time with elements that ultimately have nothing to do with the murder – because that’s cheating. The mystery must genuinely involve everybody. Reasons must be unraveled in the context of the murder and may lead along many threads – but ultimately those threads must all tie up in a way that makes sense. And the writer has to control those threads with a steady hand. I often liken writing mysteries to driving a six-horse carriage over rocky terrain – you cannot let go for a second. One thread out of place leaves a flaw in the picture.
I think Jill Paterson has done a tidy job with ‘The Celtic Dagger’.