I recently read (and adored) Ben H. Winter's Last Policeman trilogy (see my reviews of The Last Policeman and Countdown City, as well as the final volume, World of Trouble, on sale this week). So when the publisher, Quirk Books, asked if I'd be interested in participating in a blog tour with Winters, I couldn't resist. Below, find Winters discussing his #fridayreads picks for aspiring mystery writers. And if you're interested, you can check out all of Winters' other tour stops over on the Quirk blog.
If you haven't already read the trilogy, you can also enter to win all three of the books, courtesy of Quirk Books, by filling out the form here.
YOU READ FOR A WHILE, AND THEN YOU WRITE, by Ben H. Winters
I frequently say that the best way to learn to write a book is to read a lot of books. It’s kind of a cheap and useless piece of advice, though, isn’t it—because first of all I think probably everybody who wants to write a book has already figured that out (although every once in a while you meet an aspiring writer who says something like “I don’t really like to read that much,” which is pretty astonishing).
And then also the obvious question is, “Any books in particular?”
So let me see if I can make some suggestions. Here are a bunch of books that will not in and of themselves teach you how to write a mystery, but which I know I am a better writer because I have read them.
The first thing you want to do, actually, is read this short opinion article by Lee Child, the guy who writes all those Jack Reacher novels. He will explain to you that your primary job is NOT to create interesting events and secrets, that’s the SECONDARY job. The PRIMARY job is is make the reader wait, so they are so eager to get to the interesting events and secrets that they fall into that intense feverish state we call the pleasure of reading.
Get that, and then read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, greatly and justly acclaimed as a Golden Age masterpiece; when you are done and have recovered from the shock of the final chapters, go back and read it again, noting those precise moments where information is omitted, or presented wrapped in veils or buried in a maze of misdirection.
Then you gotta read Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, by the French psychoanalyst and literature professor Pierre Bayard. Engaging with Bayard’s cerebral (and at times maddening) book-long dissection/celebration of Ackroyd isn’t fun, exactly, but the guy points to and explains all of Christie’s tricks—it’s like the part of a Penn & Teller show where they go, “Okay, here’s how we did it…”
Then go ahead and read Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which besides being the progenitor of a thousand hardboiled crime novels set on a thousand rainswept streets, is another wickedly deceptive piece of work. Details hide between sentences, they are flashed at us like the bottom card on a deck and then tucked away before we can process them.
Lots of brilliant books (not to mention lots of tedious parodies) can point to Falcon as a big influence; two to read, for sure, are James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Note how both of these guys, in very different ways, take the cool steely surface of the Falcon and pry it open, show how much is going on beneath, in the anxious minds and wild hearts of the detectives.
But the novel that can teach you the most—not only how to deceive and delay, but also how to give the reader real human characters with real human hearts—is Clockers, by Richard Price. For my money, that’s the finest crime novel out there, because it so successfully marries the imperatives of the genre (solve the puzzle! Trick the reader!) with the imperatives of all great art: make us believe, make us care, challenge our expectations about ourselves and about other people.
There are pieces of all these books, influences of all of them, in The Last Policeman and its sequels. But hopefully I absorbed the lessons of the genre and then I made it my own. That’s how you do it, ultimately, you take what you can, and you go. You read for a while, and then you write.
What are your go-to mystery reads? And what books would you recommend to aspiring writers?