Review: ‘The Celtic Dagger’ – the making of mystery

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’.

Find “The Celtic Dagger” on Amazon here


Indie writing: Review ‘Heart’s Promise’

‘Heart’s Promise’ by Jeanette Hornby is a deceptively gentle book about pre-adolescent and early teenage romance.

Through a series of frames of ordinary life, we meet Milly when she is only eleven years old and already feeling the pangs of attraction and shyness with regard to the boy next door. The reader is taken on that old, familiar roller-coaster ride of first love awakening, and reminds us how these experiences are often the fundamental lessons in honesty, integrity and family values.

Set in Australia in the early seventies, this is a story of a small community, migrant labour, broken families, religious differences and racial prejudices, friendship and loyalty; and children struggling to find their own identity in the see-saw of adult relationships. We see everything through Milly’s eyes, becoming involved in her growing infatuation with the handsome Flynn – a seemingly insignificant and everyday scenario when played out against the broader backdrop of domestic dramas and winds of social change; but for Milly, in the tender teenage years, this is the driving focus in her life.

The novel skilfully portrays a young girl on the brink of sexual awareness and adult emotions; her conflicting feelings, her first kiss, the tumult of jealousy and betrayal, the reality of loss and grief.

What I liked about this book was the quiet, easy style of writing, cleverly introducing the more serious underlying issues of class, dysfunctional families, and the dangers faced when growing up – all within the framework of ordinary life. At the end of the book, I was loath to leave Milly and Flynn, they had built so strongly in my mind. This is a story for young and old, universal in appeal. A real trip down memory lane