Every crime novel is like a forest. You take your reader gently by the hand and lead them through the trees along a twisted path of clues and plenty of red herrings until they are lost only to reveal the way out in the final chapters.
But I have a problem. There’s a cliché that goes ‘Can’t see the wood for the trees’ and that’s where I am right now. Stuck in the middle of the forest with no idea of the way out.
I am not a plotter. Like all my travel mysteries, with my latest work in progress – Peril in Persia – I started with a location. Based on our last holiday, my starting point was Iran. Then I needed a theme. Iran is full of ancient Persian treasures – precious gems, jewellery and antique craft items and valuable ancient miniatures – but I was never very happy with the idea of smuggling – Far too hackneyed a theme. Then, thanks to a friend who knew something of the country’s history in the last days of the Shah, I had another idea. Now I had to have a victim. At this point, I would normally start writing and, as my various characters developed, my suspects including the eventual murderer, would sort themselves out in my mind.
After a couple of weeks, I reached the end of Chapter 3. I’d established a bit of background and just introduced the main players, but I had no idea where to go next. I couldn’t find a valid reason to kill off my victim (my initial idea was far too weak) and my chief suspect didn’t have sufficient motive. Time for a complete rethink.
It’s not unusual for me to change the murderer in the final chapters. Like Minette Walters who famously makes her half dozen suspects credible killers and never makes the final decision until the penultimate chapter, I enjoy solving the mystery – just as I hope my readers do – when one of my characters eventually sticks up a hand and admits – ‘You’ve got me Gov, I did it!’.
After a bit of umming and ahhing, I decided to make a complete about turn – new victim, new motive, new suspect. An idea came one morning as I was cleaning my teeth, the victim would become the murderer and the murderer the victim.
Although I had made no decision about how I was going to kill off my victim, I do like to find a method that I haven’t used before. As this is my fourteenth crime novel, this gets increasingly tricky. I quite fancied running him down in a hit-and-run, but how would any of my suspects, who have to be part of the tour group, accomplish that in a foreign country where they have only just arrived?
Yesterday, I reached Chapter 10. Problems. My intended murderer is just too nice a person and simply refuses to put their hand up. Major rethink needed. I have a couple of vague ideas, but the details just won’t fall into place. Given that the Aunt Jessica and Harry Mysteries are all written in the first person from Harry’s perspective, there can be no scenes that he can’t observe or have reported to him. He can misinterpret what he sees, make false assumptions but ultimately, he and Jessica must unmask the villain.
I’ve ended up with no real idea who might want to kill my victim or how it can be related to one of my cast of characters. All I have are questions. Why was my victim lured on this particular tour in the first place? How did the killer arrange for the victim to be in the right place at the right time to be killed in the way that he was? And – most important of all – how can Harry and Jessica solve the mystery? Believe me, given the story’s underlying theme, there are no simple answers to these questions and unless I can come up with something credible, the whole thing won’t work.
This calls for a great deal more research into life in the last days of the Shah, the CIA involvement in Iranian politics and with Savak – the Shah’s secret police. None of which is easy to find.
I’m back where I started – lost in the middle of a dense forest, the light is beginning to fade and no idea how I can find my way out.