Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Recipe For A Hard-Boiled Mystery

Mystery stories go back a long way. In fact, one could argue that Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex are, at their core, mysteries. Without the lead trying to get to the core of the situation, and the facts slowly unfolding to show the truth of the tale, there would be no story. There would also be no dramatic revelation at the end.

Bet you didn't see that coming, did you?
There are a lot of different flavors of mystery, too. There's the warm cup of cocoa that is the cozy mystery, the unlabeled box of chocolates that is the whodunnit, and the bowl of healthy wheat cereal that is the procedural. However, there's a certain, indulgent satisfaction to the hard-boiled mystery. It's that deviled egg with a little too much pepper that may not be good for you, but when you see it laying out, you just can't turn it down.

If you've been looking for a recipe to write your own hard-boiled mystery, with an extra dash of noir, then let The Literary Mercenary break it into bite-size chunks for you.

And if you'd like some hard-boiled steampunk, check out New Avalon!

Step One: Your Setup

As with any dish, the most important part of a hard-boiled story is your base. The environment your world takes place in needs to be a place of hard edges, and gritty corruption. The sort of place where the pavement is always cracked, and where no good deed goes unpunished. Your cast should draw inspiration from those surroundings. Detectives in hard-boiled stories aren't uninvolved geniuses, who treat the bloody bodies that come across their desks as interesting problems to be solved. These victims worm their way under the detective's skin, whether he (or she) wants them to or not. The horrors drive them, and make them refuse to let go.

If you've ever seen Chinatown, then you know the kind of moral sinkhole I'm talking about.

Sort of like this, if it was raining, and there was a body in the dumpster.

Step Two: The Case

Hard-boiled stories don't dick around with slice-of-life stuff. Every case that makes its way down into these gutters is awful, even if it's in some subtle way. Like how a cheap drink might taste fine at first, but it leaves an aftertaste that makes you regret it all night. A missing purse, or a strange stalker, will never turn out to be something simple, or mostly harmless. It is going to escalate, and people are going to get hurt. Your detective is probably on the list, but other people, especially if they're innocent, definitely will be.

And blood is always what it takes to pay for blood.
It's important to include a note about escalation here. In hard-boiled stories, particularly the private detective genre, there's a tradition that what you're investigating is not where the resistance is coming from. Or, at least, not completely. For example, a detective is hired to look into a young man's death on a college campus. He asks questions, and ascertains that the young man did, indeed, commit suicide. That's not the problem. The problem is that there's a secret, buried in his financial records that shows he's been paying someone off. Someone who has a tidy blackmail ring going, and who just wants all this attention to blow over so he can get back to business as usual.

Of course, when the detective starts poking around, and asking more questions than the cops, that's when the shadowy villain tries to run him off. Maybe he tries to buy his services, maybe he sends bully boys around to run him off, or maybe he pulls some strings to get cops, lawyers, or other people to try and stonewall the detective. Either way, the resistance means the detective has to push back, which leads to more resistance, which leads to a harder push back.

This is typically how cases get solved. Not through finding fibers at the scene, or by a brilliant deduction, but with gunfire, bloody knuckles, and pushing until the bad guy tips his hand, and gives away the game.

Step Three: Resolution

What makes hard-boiled stories different than so many other mystery flavors is the resolution. That final bite that leaves you drained and satisfied. In softer mysteries, the villain gives up when confronted with the facts, or the cops go off to get him. In hard-boiled stories, the mystery isn't just about solving the case; it's personal. It's about our lead facing the darkness in the world, staring into that abyss, and seeing if today is the day they succumb.

You can only wash it clean so many times, before the stains are permanent.
Generally, there are two ways a resolution goes; a heroic resolution, and a brutal resolution.

The Maltese Falcon stands as one of the most iconic of heroic resolutions. Sam Spade, a guy we think is more concerned with angles and money than with justice, reveals that despite the temptation, despite his rage, and his love, he's going to turn over the crooks to the cops. Even though one of them is the woman he's grown to love. In heroic endings, we realize that despite the drinking problem, and despite the hard man attitude, there is something noble, and good in our protagonist.

The brutal ending, on the other hand, is the opposite of that. The heroic resolution speaks to what's good in society. It speaks of sacrifice, and of doing what's right. The brutal resolution, though, is intensely personal, and visceral. Our hero knows the villain isn't beat, and that if he takes him in, he'll wriggle free. Maybe it's because the system is too corrupt, or because the villain has too much money, but our hero takes the role of judge, jury, and oftentimes executioner. Or, perhaps, it's because lethal injection after sitting in a cell for 20 years is too good for him, and our lead puts two in his head. Not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's what he wants to do. Even if it's clear that by doing so, our lead is taking one step closer to the shadows that lurk in his world, instead of walking in the light.

And, That's It!

Follow this simple recipe, my friends, and you'll have your very own hard-boiled tale. Just remember, you can make it as simple or as complex as you want, because it isn't the mystery that's the main focus. The mystery is important, but it's just the road we're walking on. What we really care about is the journey, and how it affects the lead characters you have walking it. You need to show how it changes them, or how they resist change, in order to really leave your readers salivating.

As always, thanks for stopping in and checking out this week's Craft of Writing post. As always, if you'd like to help me stay caffeinated, a tip in my jar over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page would be much appreciated. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

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