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In a lot of detective or mystery novels, the detective is the POV character and the protagonist, but the initial hook has little to do with him. Some crime has been committed, and the detective is brought in to investigate. Though he may develop high stakes in the case as the story proceeds, he doesn't have any major connection to the case at its start.

In the book itself, I don't see any problem with Interesting Detective A investigating Interesting Case B, even if there's no immediate connection. But how should I write a query about this type of book? Whichever one I start with, moving on to the other feels like an unrelated jump:

Kirk Klondike is a seashore detective; he claims the seashells whisper their secrets right in his ear. MEANWHILE, a nefarious serial killer is leaving a steady flow of bodies bobbing among the waves, each strung up and stung to death by jellyfish.

-- the two are bound to collide, but that "MEANWHILE" really bothers me. It just screams out to me that I've changed the subject within the first few lines. I have the same problem with other re-phrasings I've come up with, like Little does he know he's about to encounter... or Until he happens to come across....

Is this expected? Is this considered "par for the course"? Or is there some more elegant way to structure queries like this, so that they can flow naturally from a single starting point?

  • Note: This isn't for a book I've written myself. This question came up when I was commenting on other people's query letters, e.g. here , and from my own mystery reading. – Standback Nov 23 '14 at 10:46
  • related: Is my serial-killer novel horror or crime? (actually, the question you ask is the answer to that one and vice versa). – SF. Nov 24 '14 at 11:54
  • @SF. : Hmmm. Why do you feel like one question answers the other? I'm not seeing it. – Standback Nov 24 '14 at 12:07
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    The answer: "The crime story focuses on the investigation, the horror story focuses on the crime." You're asking which to focus on, while that one asks how to recognize the genre. Depending on which genre is your story meant to be, that's your choice of focus. – SF. Nov 24 '14 at 12:10
  • I disagree. Almost any mystery is some mix of detective, and investigation. I'm not asking about the edge cases, where we're clearly focused on one or the other near-exclusively. I'm asking about cases (the majority, IMHO) which essentially have a double focus. – Standback Nov 24 '14 at 12:34
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A query or cover blurb for a murder mystery must contain three elements: the detective, the crime, and the element connecting them both. The weight of each element is variable, and the first and second can easily switch places. For a character-driven psychological study of a 'defective detective' archtype, lead with the protagonist. In almost all other cases, lead with the crime. Tying them together can be very meaningful, or it can just be a short line establishing plot urgency.

For example: Detective Alice is a [series of qualifications] who [series of emotional events]. When a serial killer in [location] [incredibly grisly description], can she overcome [obvious emotional issues] in order to catch the killer on time?

Second example: A killer is stalking [location], hunting [specific victim profile] and [incredibly grisly description]. Detective Alice, a [series of qualifications], is charged with catching the murderer. Can she overcome [external obstacle] and catch the killer on time?

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  • Terrific answer. This is clear, straightforward, and it makes good sense :) – Standback Dec 3 '14 at 9:06
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I think you can vary the structure depending on the story.

By way of example, mystery writer Jennifer Moss splits her descriptions: of her three novels and one short story, two start with the detective, Ryan Doherty, and two start with the crime.

For example, the first one starts with the detective, and segues into the case:

After his partner is killed and girlfriend takes off, Detective Ryan Doherty has one last chance to save his career with the double murder of ad execs Scott and Carly Redding. Ryan quickly learns that life wasn’t so lush at the Reddings’ agency, Town Red Media, where the list of ex-employees runs fifteen pages long.

And a later book dives right into the case, and the detective is more incidental to the description:

When rapper Terrico James claimed to be “mightier than Jesus,” nobody took him seriously…until someone did. Terrico’s dead body ends up nailed to a cross and Chicago Detective Ryan Doherty is on the case. Was it a fringe religious sect making a statement? Or Terrico’s protégé, Mandy Ross, a petulant pop star who sheds hearts like glitter in her path? With the help of his partner, Matt Di Santo, and the spirit of his dead partner, Jon, Ryan fights his way through cultural divides to find the murderer.

My feeling is this: If the crime is personal, or the detective is going through something which is as important as the case, you can start with the detective smoothly. If it's "just a crime," and the detective happens to get that case, start with the crime.

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  • I added the examples you linked into the body of the text. Obviously, I'm talking about cases which aren't directly personal; those won't have the problem (at least not so acutely). – Standback Nov 23 '14 at 16:31
  • These are good examples. I guess I am still wondering, though: are these good queries for mystery fiction? Or, at least, representative of what's considered "standard"? Because in each of them I still feel like the detective, as a character, is fairly minor to the query at large. – Standback Nov 23 '14 at 16:34
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I think that your question looks at the task of writing the logline to a detective novel from the wrong perspective.

A scholar might find that a detective novel has a parallel structure of the detective and his life and job, and the crime or the criminal. But that is not necessarily how detective novels are read. The reader will have a clear, single focus of interest, and that is whatever drives the plot.

To write a logline, literary theory with its focus on the protagonist is not very helpful. Look at Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express as an example:

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man's enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again . . .

Now, who is the protagonist here? Poirot, of course. But what is driving the plot and grabbing the interest of the reader? The riddle! This detective novel is not about Poirot. He is only the personification of the attempt to solve the riddle. Of course Poirot is equipped with an interesting character, but he is a side character actually. The true "protagonist" is the riddle itself. The riddle is described like a person, with similar complexity, and it is the development of the solution of the riddle that we are interested in. Not Poirot. Therefore the logline must focus on the riddle (as it does).

In a Jack Reacher novel, Jack Reacher will be the focus, because those novels are not about riddles being solved, but about Reacher and how he blows through the town like a crime-destroying force of nature. Reacher is revenge personified and the stakes are justice. Which crime Reacher solves is secondary, and the logline does not focus on that, as you can see from the logline to the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor:

Ex-military policeman Jack Reacher is a drifter. He’s just passing through Margrave, Georgia, and in less than an hour, he’s arrested for murder. Not much of a welcome. All Reacher knows is that he didn’t kill anybody. At least not here. Not lately. But he doesn’t stand a chance of convincing anyone. Not in Margrave, Georgia. Not a chance in hell.

All detective novels are different, some will focus on the sleuth, others on the victim, still others on the criminal.

When you write a logline, you must identify

  • what drives the plot
  • what is at stake

and focus your logline on this. Then add the setting and, if he is not what drives the plot, the detective, the victims, and whatever else emphasizes the main plot elements.

Note how the Christie logline even fools the reader, thus helping build the illusion that the plot is based upon. As we know, the other passengers communally killed Ratchett and no one else is in danger.

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I think this may be a Heisenbug. I've linked to the wiki, but basically this is a problem that appears only when looked at too closely. I just came across this in my programming studies, and like many, I fall in love with new words and want to use them.

In this instance, you may have bugged the perception by highlighting "meanwhile." In the normal flow of reading quickly, this may have been inconsequential.

Somewhere (sorry for the completely unscholarly reference) I read an essay by Orson Scott Card explaining why he became, er, less than enamoured by writing workshops. It was this tendency to look too closely at things. If you have won the reader's attention, and he or she is engaged in the material, things like "his eyes rolled down the front of her blouse" are perfectly grasped. The literal meaning of the words, though hilarious, are not perceived at all. [I got that from Stephen King, er somewhere].

Now, to do something I learned from Japanese stylists, an essay should always be concluded with "What's wrong with what I said."

Here's one thing that might be wrong with the foregoing thesis. The excerpt does not read like a chunk of story. It reads like a precis, a synopsis, and abstract, or a blurb.

Now, if that's the case, then it should be polished to critical perfection--if such a thing exists.

For a blurb, I don't like the "meanwhile" either. I would favor a harsh, contrasty jump. This way we have the jarring effect of going from the protagonist's to the antagonist's viewpoint. Since this is a story with a definite "good guy" and a definite "bad guy." It's appropriate to put in a shock bang! First, we have a detective who gets clues by listening to seashells? OK. I'm in the story. That's a great opener. Now, give me something about the killer, oh, stung to death by jellyfish? Hah. Lead with that. That's the counter to the seashell listening. It's equally weird, and... enticing. The object of the blurb is to make you want to read the story.

So...

"....in his ear, but/however/suddenly! the seashells are silent/strange/frightened about what appear to be jellyfish marks on the first body."

[Edit] What's really wrong with this thesis.

As Standback points out in the comment below, I have misused the term "Heisenbug."

I reproduce his comment here because I do not wish to misinform people.

A Heisenbug isn't a problem that wouldn't exist if you weren't looking for it; it's a problem that clearly exists, but which changes its behavior in reponse to seemingly-trivial attempts to investigate it, making it infuriatingly difficult to track down to a root cause.

Evidently, there's a looser definition that rolls around physics departments at the colleges I've been associated with; that is, "a problem that is actually caused by looking at it." That was what I meant. Calling that a "Heisenbug" was a new twist.

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  • Mmmm. I don't know that I agree. I ask this question because this problem bothered me in a bunch of queries I read; in response to querying advice I've read ("start with the protagonist") which is difficult to interpret here; and also in response to summaries and reviews I've read of mystery books. It might be a problem that everybody's resigned to living with; I don't think it's not a problem at all. – Standback Nov 24 '14 at 7:50
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    Also, [pedantry]a Heisenbug isn't a problem that wouldn't exist if you weren't looking for it; it's a problem that clearly exists, but which changes its behavior in response to seemingly-trivial attempts to investigate it, making it infuriatingly difficult to track down to a root cause[/pedantry]. A terrific, colorful concept, but not very pertinent here - I'd check those put-to-use urges :P – Standback Nov 24 '14 at 7:54
  • Yes. I hear you, I am not sure I agree with myself! I would point up the fact that this detective listens to seashells means open with that. It's a great attention getter. – Richard G. Crockett Nov 24 '14 at 8:02
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    I would trip over "his eyes rolled down the front of her blouse" and the "MEANWHILE" transitions too, so I don't think this is a "it only appears when you're looking too closely" problem. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 24 '14 at 11:47

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