I never thought I’d write mysteries.
The only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is write, though, and I read mysteries from a very early age. I especially loved the U.K. authors: mid-century ones like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and Mary Stewart; more modern ones like Phil Rickman, Martha Grimes, Tana French. Clever writers with clever, twisting plots.
A lovely read, but not my—to stay on the British side of the pond—cup of tea really, not as a writer. I wrote (and still write) historical fiction, vast sprawling novels that followed families through generations or a country through its medieval crises. I focused on the characters, on making a century come alive for the reader through getting to know the people who lived in it.
And then I realized that my favorite mysteries, while well plotted, also brought the reader into lives and thoughts and emotions of people. As much as I wanted Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kinkaid to solve the murder, I also wanted to know what was going to happen next between him and Gemma. Just as Adam Dalgliesh made clever connections in his police procedural world, so too did I want to visualize his flat high above the Thames. And I’ll always want to know how Merrily Watson’s relationship with her daughter is coming along, even as she separates the spirit side of things from basic human evil.
At the end of the day, if we don’t care about people, how can we care about what happens to them? No matter how intricate the plot, the center of every mystery is still the people involved.
Once I realized that, I took to the genre with gusto. I’ve been creating characters whose lives are touched, accidentally or not, by mystery. A history professor in Murder Most Academic. The city’s PR director in Asylum and Deadly Jewels. And a poker-playing sleuth in the upcoming The Cambridge Effect. And the more I care about the characters, the more interesting the mystery becomes.
In fact, the greatest joy I feel is in giving these characters life, in getting to know them, in figuring out what is important to them and what they’d risk their lives for and why they make the decisions they do. Sure, the background is important, the plot is important, but as I write I tend to make changes in the storyline anyway, because as I get to know these people, as I create their backstory and listen to them talking, eavesdrop on their thoughts, figure out their motivations, more frequently than not they deviate from my plot outline and I generally choose to follow them rather than make them follow me.
Maybe there’s a lesson in all this. Maybe in the final analysis all literature, genre-based or not, is about people. We read for so many different reasons: for entertainment, for enlightenment, for inspiration; but in every case we read because we connect in some way with the characters on the page.
So I’ll continue to write historical fiction, and mysteries, and who knows where all this will take me in the future? Wherever it is, you can be sure that there will be some interesting people involved!
And now it’s your turn! Use the comments section to let me know what enchants you about heroes and heroines, why you’re interested in the people behind the stories, and email me (jeannettedebeauvoir at gmail dot com) when you’ve posted it; I’ll choose one respondent at random to receive a free copy of Deadly Jewels!
Jeannette de Beauvoir’s most recent book is Deadly Jewels from St. Martin’s/Minotaur:
When Martine LeDuc, publicity director for the city of Montréal, is summoned into the mayor’s office, she’s pleasantly surprised to find the city is due for a PR coup: A doctoral researcher at McGill University claims to have found proof that the British crown jewels were stored in Montréal during World War II.
Martine is thrilled to be part of the excavation project―until it turns out that the dig’s discoveries include the skeleton of a man with diamonds in his rib cage and a hole in his skull. Is this decades-old murder leading her too far into the dangerous world of Canada’s neo-Nazi networks, or is there something going on that makes the jewels themselves deadly? Is history ever really completely buried?
With pressing personal issues crowding into her professional life, Martine needs to solve not only the puzzle of the jewels, but some more recent crimes―including another murder, a kidnapping, and the operation of an ancient cult in Montréal―and do it before the past reaches out to silence her for good.