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Alexis Hall on the elements of a good mystery novel

By Alexis Hall • November 14, 2021Author Interviews

Murder Most Actual is a modern-day cozy mystery featuring a couple whose vacation in the Scottish highlands is interrupted by a surprising number of murders—and an irresistible compulsion to solve them.

Here author Alexis Hall explains what he finds interesting about mysteries (spoiler: murder) and offers examples of classic books (+1 new-ish book) that embody the key elements of a good mystery.

I like murders.

I also like tropes.

It is for these reasons that I have recently written a book full of murders and tropes. It’s called Murder Most Actual. You can buy it if you want. That’d be super cool of you. It’ll be fun I promise.

Because I love murders and tropes, I thought a fun way to put this listicle (please take a moment to reflect on the fact that we live in a world where listicle is a word) together would be to look at some of the fabulous mystery tropes that inspired me when I was working on Murder Most Actual and the books that I think either best embody those tropes or play with them in interesting ways.

The tropes in question are the Gentleman Detective, the Femme Fatale, the Locked-Room Mystery the Country House Mystery and, since we live in the podcasting age, True Crime.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Maybe it’s because of the Ian Carmichael adaptations that played on the radio when I was younger (and on audiobook right now) but Sayers’ Sir Peter Wimsey has always been my favourite of the Gentleman Detectives. He’s just so much more fun and irreverent than a lot of his peers. Whose Body involves a mysterious body being found in a bath and, fun trivia point, in an early draft the fact that the body of a particular missing person would have been circumcised was a key plot detail, but Sayers’ editors made her take it out because it was deemed too scandalous.

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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

You’ve probably seen the film but I really recommend reading the book as well. I picked this one because Brigid O'Shaughnessy is my absolute go-to example of the perfect femme fatale. I think it’s the fact that Sam Spade blatantly knows she’s playing him the whole time but he can’t quite stop himself anyway. I should probably also add that I have very… ambivalent feelings about my love of the femme fatale archetype, because it’s grounded in some really misogynistic ideas and fear of women’s sexuality. And one of the things I like about Brigid in The Maltese Falcon is that she comes across as more a survivor than anything else, and I find that genuinely admirable. She’s in a crappy situation, she has no power, she does what she has to and the book kind of acknowledges that. Of course it is still from the 1930s so its handling of gender and sexuality is … of its time, but I think it’s still worth a look if you’re okay with that.

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Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

I’m cheating a bit here because I said this was going to be a list of tropes that inspired my recent book and I didn’t quite manage to work a locked room mystery in because they’re actually surprisingly hard to write. Far From the Light of Heaven is a locked room mystery … in spaaaaaace. And everything is better when it’s in spaaaaace. Like most locked room mysteries it’s less a “whodunit” than a “howdunit” or a “whydunit” and like most hybrid mysteries (that is, mysteries that cross into another genre) working out what went on means understanding its SF concepts as well as its more ordinary dynamics. It has great worldbuilding, cool characters and, I repeat, it’s a locked room mystery in spaaaaaaace. (Also, bonus rec, the author cites Murders on the Rue Morgue as an inspiration, you could check that out too).

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Agatha had to be on here somewhere. I’ve picked And Then There Were None because it’s somehow managed to become a genre staple despite being completely standalone and weird. In the 2006 video game Oblivion there’s a famous (amongst nerds) questline where you’re working for the setting’s Assassin’s Guild and you’re required to infiltrate a party in a country house and kill all the guests one at a time, and it’s, like, the best quest in the whole game. But what’s interesting to me is that people talk about that quest as if “you’re in a country house and somebody is killing the guests one at a time” is a common trope in the mystery genre. And it’s not. It’s in And Then There Were None and basically nowhere else. But it’s so profoundly archetypal and so well executed that it’s practically become a trope on its own. Fair play.

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The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

So this one is … different. The Five isn’t a mystery, it’s arguably not even strictly True Crime, but I wanted to give it a shout-out here because it’s sort of a book that’s a hundred and forty years overdue. One of the problems with the True Crime genre is that it can, in some contexts, depending on how its presented, be kind of victim-erasing (partly for very valid reasons, you don’t want to be invading the privacy of murder victims or their families, so talking about the killer is a lot safer in some ways). The Five is a biography of the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly) and its aim is to be about their lives rather than their deaths. Because sure, Victorian London is cool and serial killers are spooky, and the whole century-old-unsolved-mystery angle is endlessly compelling. But it really is important to remember that Jack the Ripper’s victims were real human beings who don’t deserve to be remembered as nothing more than corpses in a penny dreadful. ◼

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Alexis Hall is the author of the series Boyfriend Material, Spires, and Kate Kane, Paranormal Investigator.

Murder Most Actual by Alexis Hall

When up-and-coming true crime podcaster Liza and her corporate financier wife Hanna head to a luxurious hotel in the Scottish Highlands, they're hoping for a chance to rekindle their marriage - not to find themselves trapped in the middle of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery with no way home. But who better to take on the case than someone whose entire profession relies on an obsession with all things mysterious and macabre? Though some of her fellow guests may consider her an interfering new media hack, Liza knows a thing or two about crime and – despite Hanna’s preference for waiting out the chaos behind a locked door – might be the only one capable of discovering the killer. As the bodies rack up and the stakes rise, can they save their marriage -- and their lives?

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