On Writing Mysteries

I wrote this essay a lifetime ago, and after re-reading it, I think it passes the test of time. These writers helped mold the Neil Marshall mysteries, but their influence didn’t end there. It continues to this day.

Sadly Robert B. Parker’s pen is silenced . . . yet the genre lives on.



In recent years, I’ve heard talk about the rise of standards in the mystery genre. I find this curious, to say the least.

Granted, there is plenty of good writing stocking bookshelves today, but there has always been good writing. (All one has to do is turn to the masters who toiled in crime fiction when crime fiction wasn’t cool.)

Well, I’ve done the trip down academic lane and smelled the roses of a well-respected creative writing program, and I am a mystery writer. If, at the end of my career, I’m judged half the writer Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Ross Macdonald were, I’ll figure myself a success.

When beginning a new project, I often reread the first chapters of Hammett’s The Thin Man. It is all of two and a half pages, sparsely written, but it characterizes Nick and Nora Charles with deft humor. Consider the following exchange:

We found a table. Nora said, “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

Playful, minimalist, setting the tone of a wonderful novel. Great repartee like that could have been written expressly in their heyday for William Powell and Myrna Loy, who were, in fact, the screen incarnations of Nick and Nora.

Good writing is often enhanced by creative metaphors. Ross Macdonald, with his Lew Archer series, was a supreme metaphor maker. In The Underground Man, a character is described in the following way: “His hairy head seemed enormous and grotesque on his boy’s body, like a papier-mâché saint’s head on a stick.”

The prolific John D. MacDonald showed repeatedly how to weave a great plot, often beginning with a killer first line, as in Darker Than Amber: “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

Rebel hero Travis McGee goes on to relate how he and his friend Meyer save a woman who has been bound, weighted, and dropped to face a watery death.

There is never a dull moment with MacDonald, including diatribes that range from the state of the automobile industry to race relations. It is perhaps MacDonald’s social commentary that places him as a heavyweight in the literary ring. For example, in Darker Than Amber, an African American housemaid states:

We’re after our share of the power structure of this civilization, Mr. McGee, because, when we get it, a crime will merit the same punishment whether the victim is black or white, and hoods will get the same share of municipal services, based on zoning, not color. And a good man will be thought a credit to the human race.

Not a strikingly new sentiment, but written by MacDonald in 1965 as civil rights legislation was in its infancy.

Raymond Chandler, my literary grandfather, once said, “The story of our time . . . is the marriage of an idealist to a gangster and how their home life and children turned out.” And he spent his writer’s life exploring the harsher side of human existence. In The Lady in the Lake, private investigator Philip Marlowe searches for the missing wife of a prominent executive. Chris Lavery has apparently been having an affair with her. However, Marlowe discovers . . .

No police cars stood in front of Lavery’s house, nobody hung on the sidewalk and when I pushed the front door open there was no smell of cigar or cigarette smoke inside. The sun had gone away from the windows and a fly buzzed softly over one of the liquor glasses. I went down to the end and hung over the railing that led downstairs. Nothing made sound except very faintly down below in the bathroom the quiet trickle of water dripping on a dead man’s shoulder.

The detail in this excerpt passes the jealousy test—i.e., I wish I’d written it. No smell of cigars or cigarettes; the buzz of a fly and the quiet trickle of water; the sight of a dead man’s shoulder—Chandler tapped three of the five senses. Furthermore, equally important is what isn’t in the scene: no police cars, no one on the sidewalk, no tobacco odor. It’s a seemingly simple passage leading into Chapter Twenty of an exceptional novel.

This is merely a collage of writers who have influenced me—a brief appreciation, if you will, of the leading practitioners of the hardboiled school. To my mind, you don’t get any better than Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, and Macdonald. They attacked the darker side of life, turning it into light, and they entertained as they made cogent observations on the human condition. Today their work is reborn and reimagined by such writers as Robert B. Parker, Earl Emerson, and Sue Grafton. My own work is not as dark, not as hardboiled; but my pursuit for literary excellence is just as strong.

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