Jolly Foul Play: How to Construct the Perfect Mystery

Posted on 24th March 2016 by Robin Stevens
Author Robin Stevens, creator of the Murder Most Unladylike series, shares all the ingredients needed to create the perfect mystery. Stevens new children's novel, Jolly Foul Play, is released today.

The perfect mystery is something that I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about. Jolly Foul Play is the fourth murder mystery I’ve plotted, and although I’ve got a better idea of how to write a mystery than I did when I started, the quest for perfection is just as tough as it ever was. My readers are getting smarter, and I’ve used some of my favourite plots already. I have more and more respect for Agatha Christie, who somehow managed to publish 77 books without anyone noticing the tricks she was playing.

Because that’s what a good murder mystery novel is made of: tricks. It’s a string of clever plays, like a literary chess match, designed to outfox the reader. That’s what Agatha was so great at, and what I’m trying to do in all of my books as well.

Jolly Foul Play has a set-up that’s one of my favourites so far. The whole school is out on the sports fields on the night of the 5th of November for a fireworks display. There are hundreds of girls there, all potential witnesses – but the fireworks are so loud and distracting that everyone stares up at them, totally missing the murder happening just behind them. Not a single person sees it happen.

What happens next? Whodunit? I’m not going to tell you. But I am going to lift the curtain just a little bit, and explain some of the tricks mystery writers use …

A perfect mystery must contain misdirection. Imagine the mystery writer as a magician, dazzling you with brightly-coloured scarves in one hand while they’re slipping coins into their pocket with the other. Both the readers and the characters should be equally tricked by the logic puzzle the writer has set – in Jolly Foul Play, no one sees the murder taking place because they are literally looking the other way.

At the same time, though, a perfect mystery must play fair. Every clue to the solution must be present in the story, perfectly visible to both detectives and reader – but if the writer is doing their job properly, the true importance of those objects are overlooked at first. I want my readers to close each book feeling as though they could have worked it out, if only they’d paid more attention. Daisy and Hazel are great detectives, but just like any human being they’re flawed, and sometimes their minds are on other things. In Jolly Foul Play they’ve got a lot to deal with apart from the murder, and that makes it more difficult for them to detect the crime.

A perfect mystery must be full of suspicious characters. Everyone must have good reason to kill the victim, and at first, everyone must seem to have equal opportunity. It’s only after diligent investigation that the detectives begin to unravel the clues and rule out suspects. I made all of my suspects in Jolly Foul Play in the right place, at the right time – working out whodunit is one of the toughest problems Daisy and Hazel have ever faced.

A perfect mystery must have part of its solution be seemingly impossible. Whether it’s a locked room, a misleading alibi or a hidden motive, the path to the revelation must be full of twists and turns, and the detectives (and the reader) must have their assumptions challenged several times during the course of the investigation. I love leading Hazel and Daisy down a road that seems plausible, and is really anything but – Jolly Foul Play is full of red herrings and surprise dead ends!

A perfect mystery must take place in an enclosed setting. This is something that I stress whenever I talk about mystery writing – the kind of stories I tell must always happen in a place separate from the rest of the world. All of the randomness of real life is filtered out, leaving a set number of suspects, one or two clues and a single crime that can be solved. It was wonderful to go back to Deepdean School in Jolly Foul Play, a place that is so cut off from the rest of the world, and so full of strange rules and unusual slang. In a way, although my books don’t have any dragons or elves in them, they’re fantasies.

But finally, for all that mystery stories are full of things that would never happen in real life, a perfect mystery must contain characters who feel real. I want my readers to be able to imagine Daisy, Hazel and the rest of Deepdean as people who they might meet in real life. My series is about relationships as well as murder, and this is especially true of Jolly Foul Play. Daisy and Hazel are investigating a group of so-called friends, and they enlist the help of the rest of their dorm to do it. I loved developing Beanie, Kitty and Lavinia’s characters, and playing with Daisy and Hazel’s friendship.

I hope you enjoy reading Jolly Foul Play – and I hope that my latest magic trick of a book manages to puzzle you in the most satisfactory way. I’m already planning out my next one …

Robin Stevens is the writer of the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries. Jolly Foul Play is available in paperback now.


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