Archive for Insights For The Curious Reader

Evil In Murder Mysteries

April 1, 2016

I recently read Henning Mankell’s novel The Man From Beijing. Mankell is the author of the Detective Kurt Wallander mysteries, which my wife and I discovered on PBS.
Mankell has a remarkable ability to imbue his mysteries with a palpable sense of evil. This is not easily done. I’ve read several current murder mysteries that try to do this but fail. Not all murder mysteries strive for this mood, of course. But for those that do, I was intrigued to see how, and examined the techniques authors used to cloak their stories in a foreboding sense of evil.
My first observation is that the examination of motive must go beyond a simple psychological explanation. It must raise moral and even philosophical questions.
Second, the murder must be horrific in some way.
Third, the protagonist’s attitude must match, not disrupt, the mood. Brooding silence seems to work quite well. And certainly, the protagonist has to show a level of moral gravitas that counter balances the evil in the villain.
What are your insights?

When Is A Question Not A Question

March 7, 2016

I recently had copy editing done, and an issue came up about what punctuation (a period, question mark, or an exclamation point) is appropriate when a question is used to make a point rather than elicit an answer?
For example, my protagonist was thinking My God! That’s a miracle. Who would have thought Ruthie survived running away. How is she? I ended the third sentence with a period, and the copy editor suggested I use a question mark. Fair enough.
But the sentence Who would have thought Ruthie survived running away. means I find it hard to believe Ruthie survived running away. The sentence is not meant to be answered by anyone, not even the protagonist. In writing the sentence in the form of Who would have thought, I intended to state the miracle of Ruthie’s survival more universally than stating it just in the singular opinion of the protagonist, giving the fact of her survival more dramatic punch.
Using a question to make a point rather than elicit an answer leads us into the half-world of rhetorical questions, of which there are many varieties, some of which, I suggest, deserve ending punctuation other than the question mark.
The insinuation question. “Can’t you do anything right?” implying a lack of ability. For me, this sentence could just as well end with an exclamation mark. “Can’t you do anything right!”
The challenge question. “What has he ever done for us?” meaning that he hasn’t done anything for us.
The metaphoric question, when a simple question is followed by a metaphoric question that’s clearly answered yes: meaning the preceding question stated the obvious. “Is he a good musician? Is the Pope Catholic?”
The tag question. “Jason committed the murder, didn’t he? This is a declarative phrase followed by a question raising doubt about the truth of the declarative phrase.
The concluding question. “Why not?” This question infers that the writer has set forth his argument and is asking the reader for her response.
The polite request question. “Would all the men please remove their hats.” To me, this type of rhetorical question should end with a period.
So, I come back to the specific issue of what types of rhetorical questions should be (or could be) punctuated by periods or exclamation points. What do you think?

How Important is a Book’s Cover

March 16, 2015

The old saw, don’t judge a book by its cover, is by-and-large wrong in today’s publishing environment. It’s true that you can’t tell the quality of a book, unless you know the author, but you can tell a lot else about a book by its packaging. A book’s cover can indicate its genre, its story premise, its setting, and its tone. Think of all of the components of a cover: the art, the dust jacket text, the promotional quotes, and even the title. In fact, the type of edition, hardback, trade paperback, mass market or eBook tells us something.

A cover for a Stephen King book is distinctly different from an Alan Furst cover. And authors beware, if your cover sends mixed messages that will confuse the reader and lead to disappointment. Imagine if a Stephen King cover were put on an Alan Furst novel, or vice versa.

Covers change over time, to be sure. Google The Great Gatsby and see how the cover art has evolved, but it’s always appropriate to the story, just updated in style.

I contend that a writer should be just as particular about a book’s packaging as about its contents. But the cover, except for self-published books, is usually the prerogative of the publisher. The conflict between author and publisher over covers, when it does come up, is usually between the publisher’s desire for the cover to make an immediate impact, and the author’s aim to have the cover make an appropriate impact. These are not necessarily conflicting goals, of course. Hopefully, whatever tension arises between author and publisher over a book’s cover is resolved to produce one that serves both ends, catching the buyer’s eye and reflecting the content.


First Chapters

March 10, 2015

Today, there is tremendous pressure on authors, particularly those aspiring to be published for the first time, to write a smashing first chapter; a chapter that sells an agent on reading the manuscript and convinces an editor to buy the novel.

While a fast moving, well written first chapter—suspense launched and tension crackling—is necessary, it’s not sufficient to ensure your novel will sell well, a key goal for most writers.

I would suggest that the climax chapter is at least as important, if not more important, than the first chapter. The climax pulls together all that has gone before it into a deeply satisfying moment of revelation and/or emotional release, making the novel memorable and recommendable, a word of mouth phenomenon driving rewarding sales.

What’s In A Title?

January 31, 2015

I’m fascinated by book titles, and the stories behind how authors come up with them. Some titles appear to be ironic—The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some are poetically descriptive—The Winter Journal, Paul Auster. Some explanatory—The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dicker. Some obscurely thematic—The Fourth Rule.

While doing research about secrets in preparation for writing The Fourth Rule, I stumbled across a quote that led me to think of the title. I was scanning through the index to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and reading entries that related to secrets, when I found the quote “Tell No Secrets”, attributed to King Charles I as the fourth of his twelve personal rules to live by. Tell no secrets is exactly the challenge my hero faces when the CIA pressures him to reveal what happened to his older brother after he returned from Vietnam and disappeared twenty-two years ago.

While “tell no secrets” would have been a good title, it didn’t quite convey the mystery I wanted for my suspense novel. In the next beat, though, when I recognized the phrase “the fourth rule” was as relevant, simple and strong, but its meaning wasn’t as immediately explicit, I had my title.

What are your favorite book titles? Why?

Suspense versus Tension

November 28, 2014

Suspense and tension are fundamentally different concepts, although they often work in tandem. Suspense is the emotion generated by questions such as: Who did it? And why? Suspense is the essence of mystery, and the protagonist’s primary objective is to solve the puzzle of what happened.


Tension, on the other hand, is emotion driven by someone being in jeopardy. Often, it’s the hero or a person close to her such as her husband or daughter. In thrillers, a stadium full of people, a city, a country, or even the whole world may be in jeopardy. Tension is the essence of the thriller, and the hero’s objective is to rescue the threatened.


Of course, suspense and tension often work together to heighten the total drama in a story. In a murder mystery, as suspense increases with red herrings piling up, tension escalates as well, as the hero is in jeopardy of failing to find out who the murder is. As well, when the danger of those threatened in a thriller becomes more immediate, the suspense of whether or not the hero will save the day drives the tension.


While mysteries and thrillers offer the clearest examples of suspense and tension, all most all stories from the most literate to the most basic genre-specific ones involve unanswered questions and threats. Readers who understand their preference for different amounts of suspense and tension can better pick the novels they’ll like.


What blend of suspense and tension do you prefer? What novel is an example?