Laura Lippman’s latest novel Hush Hush sees her ballsy Baltimore private detective Tess Monaghan as a flustered new parent plunged into a disturbing case involving the death of an infant and a venomous stalker. She shares her tips on maintaining suspense in crime fiction by keeping readers sympathetic, engaged and always on the alert.
1. Don’t be so clever. Have you ever watched Columbo? All the villains work so hard to make their dastardly plans perfect, and they always get caught. They overthink it, they try to be the smartest person in the room. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t work for you.
2. Don’t forget that someone has died. I know, that sounds really obvious, but in a lot of modern crime fiction, someone’s death ends up serving as a living person’s self-improvement campaign. Death trumps everything. I don’t care if the investigator learns to be a better person. I need to care about the person who died.
3. Pay close attention to your characters. If you try to force them to do something that is untrue to their natures, your book will never work.
4. Think about how you handle characters whose backgrounds, race, sexual orientation, etc. are different from yours. Writers should avoid the trap of clichés whenever possible, but it’s especially important when it comes to stereotypes we might not even realise we’ve adopted.
5. Don’t fall in love with your research. Research is fantastic. I highly recommend it. But when you bake a cake, you don’t regale your guests with 30-minute anecdotes on where your sourced the vanilla. (Please tell me you don’t do that.) A little research goes a long way.
6. Be as ruthless with your prose as you are with victims, which means, yes, kill your darlings.
7. Play fair. Those big twists have to be earned.
8. Don’t pad, expand. There’s a difference.
9. Respect your readers. Crime readers are smart, they’ve seen it all. Some of them treat novels as interactive experiences, in which they are engaged in figuring out the mysteries and anticipating the surprises. Accept that some of your readers will be a few steps ahead of you – then think about how to keep them reading. (Hint: If they care about the characters, readers will keep going because they want to see how these characters handle the story the readers have already guessed the end of.)
10. (To paraphrase Orwell) Break any of these rules rather than do something barbarous. Feel free to break any rule, including Elmore Leonard’s edict not to write about the weather. The weather is a perfectly fine thing to write about. People are crazy about weather. In interest of full disclosure, I like to write about the weather.
Laura Lippman has been awarded every major prize in crime fiction. Since the publication of 2007’s What the Dead Know, each of her hardcovers has hit the New York Times bestseller list. A recent recipient of the first-ever Mayor’s Prize, she lives in Baltimore, New Orleans and New York City with her family. Hush Hush, her twelfth Tess Monaghan novel, is published by Faber & Faber.
Author portrait © Jan Cobb