Admit it! If you have the slightest interest in fiction, you love a murder mystery, especially on cold rainy nights. Imagine yourself in a warm woolen blanket with hot chocolate, cuddled up in your leather sofa near the window with rain pounding on glass panes and you engrossed in the puzzle that dead body left behind. I am particularly very fond of Scandinavian noir mysteries. Scandinavia has a proud history of great fiction on the murder mystery so much so that it created a genre in itself- Scandinavian Noir. Peter Høeg was probably the first notable author with this groundbreaking ” Miss Smilla is Feeling for Snow” in 1992 which created a sensation in the world. Since then, Scandinavia has kept the world gripped with its atmospheric, dark, and pscho-sinisters murder mystery plots one after another. One of the famous series from Denmark “Forbrydelsen” became such a cult in the UK that it created a fashion rage about woolen sweaters worn by the protagonist – ‘Sarah Lund’.
How does Scandinavia produce such fiction year after year, writer after writer? On a more general note, what goes into writing a good engaging noir murder mystery. This is the question, I have pondered over the years and tried to grasp how the writer imagines a story. This is my attempt to break down the process of what possibly might be a structure in writing up a good noir murder mystery.
a) Theme of the story
How do writers think up a 300-page story with multiple sub-plots and twists and numerous characters peeking into their lives? My guess is it starts with something very simple which is pretty much 50 words theme of the story. There is obviously a murder but what is the theme of the murder? Is it a murder where decades-old sin has caught up with the person? Is it a murder where a unthinkable secret was to exposed if the murdered person were to live? Or is it a murder hidden in lust, money or any other gain? This murder has to have either a complex, layererd and ancient explanation or it should be so simple that it blinds the reader with obviousness of it. If you are writing noir, advisable thing is to find a motive so layered and so obscure that you could fill pages connecting the dots and characters. There is one commonplace example of this layered plot where the writer encounters multiple characters of interest and it takes writer into their inner lives and hidden motives. One of the more difficult and stunning example of this layerism is when you keep encountering same person with different motives and everytime theories keeps proving wrong despite all the odds and circumstantial evidence stacked against the person. If you want to explore more about this theme, watch the Danish sensation “Forbrdydelsen” first season where the protagonist Sarah Lund’s keep encountering same minister with different circumstantial evidences.
The writer has to have this central theme or motive of the murder first thing in mind in order to write a noir thriller.
b) Strength of Characters
Noir fiction has very strong characters and almost always they are social anomalies. The protagonist has to have a complex, disheveled, and socially incompatible life himself/herself to be able to have a deep understanding of injustice, rage, lust, or depression. Their minds can go into dark places themselves which enables them to think like a murderer and seek his/her motives and Modus Operandi (MO). This Gothic character brings the mystic and eroticism which titillates the reader and endears it to him/her. The juicy details of his/her abnormal life which is rebellious, amorous and in a way reflection of reader’s dark suppressed desires, darkens the atmosphere. Lisbeth Salander of “The girl with Drago tattooo” with her Tattoos, unapologetic bi curious sex life, her illegal hacking semi profession and her rebelious ways are a perfect feed into the ordinary dull lives of an average reader.
c) Social commentary
This is the soul of the noir murder mystery. It is not about the murder which is a side effect but the societal ill or injustice that the writer feels so strongly about. This is the background story behind the motive of the murder which slays the upward decorum and nicety to expose ugly realities of life and society. This is the writer’s ‘raison d’etre’ for writing the story. This is also to jolt the audience into something uncomfortable, a confrontation to face the ugly truth. The trick is to find a real relatable inconvenient truth which the audience can’t run away from. Success lies in the torment that you can inflict momentarily in might be, on the audience with the force of that injustice, societal ill or persecution.
To be honest, this is the reason why stories can never exhaust themselves. Afterall it is not the core stories which change generations after generations but the background and packaging. This satiate our never ending desire to peek into other’s lives. Where do they live; how do their houses look like; what quirk do they have about their raiments; what brew intoxicate their minds. I would not have slightest idead about scotch had I not read about them in literature with my hero raving about the elixir quality of it. I could never tell sweater apart from jumper had I not obsessed about Sarah Lund in “Forbrydelsen” and her peculiar sweaters.
I started fancying parma ham after reading the sensuous description by Valerio Varesi in “River of Shadows”. Who can forget the foamy butterbeer from Harry Potter which actually does not exist or ‘boeuf bourguignon’ in ‘Julia and Julia’. In short, stories are nothing but dull and boring preaching without eccentricities and pieces of lives in form of clothes, food, routines, habits and quirks. I can read same story again and again if the writer can conjure up interesting backdrops and paint a life or lives which are worth pepeing into. This is also a rather less difficult job if you understand humans and respect their choices and naturally could empathize. A conservative mind can never be vivid enough to capture the beauty in the dirt, mist and the limitations of life. Only a true liberal can reach in the depths of his or her characters minds with world of sympathy and try to overlay beauty around it. This reminds me of a most memorable paragraph from “Love in the time of cholera” from legendary Garcia Marquez where he magically describes the sensuous and nervous anticipation of newly wed bride listening intently to the sound of the groom’s peeing. The rich volume and unbroken rhythm of his peeing frightens the bride of the monstrosity of the organ that is about to determine the terms of nuptial engagement and assign the roles between the two for the lives.
Readers do not fall in love with the characters and their lives unless some part of character’s lives develops a bond with them. The bond can by anything- aspiration, jealousy, admiration, antipathy, revulsion, joy, connectedness but there has to be an acknowlegement. You build the bond with sympathetic look with fellow human’s lives.
This is what I think are the 4 ingredients in writing a compelling noir murder mystery.