By Gayle Bartos-Pool
Not all mysteries require vast amounts of page-turning events to keep the story moving along. If the main characters are interesting, intriguing, fun, clever… you know what I mean, the reader will keep reading to the end. There should be some drama and a little danger for the hero or heroine to overcome, but it can be parceled out gently. Cozy mysteries work in that manner and have done very well for the past hundred years.
Private detective stories and police procedural might have a few more cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, but they usually deal with more technical aspects of tracking down the bad guy rather than discussing the situation over a cup of tea in a cozy novel. Those gals in the cozies always get their man or woman, so their way works, too. But professionals do have access to information not available to Miss Marple in the Agatha Christie novels or Jessica Fletcher in all those Murder She Wrote TV shows. I’ve seen them all many, many times and loved every one.
We all know the Three-Act Structure of writing. Act One introduces the main characters and a problem. Act Two has the hero assembling his resources and trying to understand what’s really going on while the bad guy is setting more traps for our hero. Act Three has that do-or-die moment when the hero asks himself if he can handle the job, then he calls up all his resources and goes to battle the villain in the last chapter.
But how do writers construct those “page-turner” events at the end of every chapter? Here are some of those moments in my stand-alone novel Closer. I recently reread the book and was surprised how many of these little hints were strategically placed throughout the story, some even within the chapter and not necessarily at the end of one. And something else I noticed, sometimes my main character would have a thought she posed on the page. Sometimes it was another character thinking to themselves about things that were happening. Those are good ways to let the reader know what those characters are reacting to or plotting, after all, they are moving the story along with those thoughts. They let the reader know there are things that have to be discovered.
But several times the third-person teller of the story (the author) throws in a thought or two himself. These are shared between the reader and the writer. It’s up to the characters in the book to not only ask the questions himself, but discover the answers in order to solve the puzzle. Closer has numerous hints, thoughts, and questions posed by the characters as well as the writer. Here are a few from the beginning of the book:
As she turned off the car’s engine, Shelby noticed her tank was nearly empty. She thought she had nearly a full tank. As one of the two lieutenants with the Santa Isabel Police Department and one of the two officers who had to be on call for anything that happened in town because the higher-ups always managed to find an excuse not to show up, she always kept a full tank just in case something important did happen.
She was surprised she hadn’t noticed the low gas gauge when she drove home the evening before. But then, she hadn’t noticed the sedan sitting on the street opposite the police station either. It was an unremarkable vehicle, gray and nondescript, invisible in weather like this. Since the weather made the roads slippery, she spent more time trying not to hydroplane into parked cars along the street rather than notice somebody watching her.
Or how about this part?
Harry wasn’t good at small talk. The cop in him had to either ask questions or formulate an hypothesis. He came right to the point after several miles down that dark country road.
“Maybe the shooter was aiming at me.”
“What makes you think that?” she asked.
“I’m up here from Los Angeles. I knew the poor woman who got shot. Maybe the killer wanted to get rid of anybody who might recognize him.”
Shelby studied Harry’s face. His eyes never left the road. He was taking this pretty well, considering the ramifications. And here she had thought the shooter might have been after her since this was her turf. Now they could share the worry, if that made it easier. But two dead people wasn’t good no matter what, and she didn’t want any more additions to the body count.
“I’ll put out some feelers back in L.A.,” added Harry, “to see if anybody was interested in the fact I was sent up here to investigate the commander’s wife’s death.”
“Do you think somebody down in LA would want Mrs. Wright dead?” Shelby tossed that one out as another hypothesis.
He turned and looked at her this time. Something about her question made him think of other possibilities. She could tell there was something on his mind, but he wasn’t ready to share that bit of information. Instead, he answered her with, “I’ll think about that one. Let me change the subject for a while. Let our brains relax. You worked in Los Angeles. What was it like for you?”
Now it was her turn to avoid the subject. She gazed out the window and then spoke. “I guess I’m better in a small town. Too much happens in the big, bad city that you don’t see coming.”
“Tell me about it.” His voice was calming. He sounded truly interested in her response, but she wasn’t quite ready to open up.
“Nothing to tell,” she said back to him. Her words clipped. Then she added in a friendlier tone, “Didn’t get along with a few of my fellow officers in L.A., so I asked for a transfer. Best thing all around.”
Harry gave her another look. “If you ever want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”
She breathed a small sigh. She dodged that bullet. Maybe some other time the two would open up. Not today. “How about you tell me why you decided to transfer to LAPD.” She turned slightly in her seat and watched him drive. “L.A.’s bigger and hairier and the publicity can be brutal.”
“You got that right,” he admitted. “As for me, the drug busts up in the Foothills had started to clean out that cesspool. I worked on a few of those babies. A couple of my cases took me out of the country when I was after a drug dealer wanted by several countries. All I could do was gather evidence and hand it over to the local constabulary and then hope we had extradition privileges with that country.”
“We’ve had the same problem up here with major art thefts. If the fugitive heads to some countries in Africa, we’re screwed unless we can hogtie them, stuff them in a trunk, and spirit them out of the country.”
“Would you do that?” He took another glance in her direction.
She thought about her answer for a second. “Maybe. It depends on what painting he stole and from whom.” She said that with a slight chuckle in her voice. “But don’t quote me. How about you?”
“I always wonder what someone would do if the circumstances were right.”
“It would take mighty big circumstances for me to go too far out of bounds.”
“What if someone you cared about did something totally wrong? Would you lie for them?”
“Sometimes you don’t really know people.” She turned away from him and gazed out into the dark. “They can disappoint you,” she said this mostly to her reflection in the window as she watched the black trees crowd that section of highway.
Harry didn’t look over at her this time. The road was not lighted and the curves were too sharp to take his eyes away, but he did hear her. Now he had more to think about.
He dropped her off at the station. He said he had a lot of phone calls to make and that he would get together with her for dinner the next evening. She waved as he drove away. Her thoughts were on the case as well as on the guy from L.A. There was something about him that grabbed her attention.
A few paragraphs more and we have this…
She opened her car door and saw her sunglasses hanging over the steering wheel.
“Rats,” she said out loud. She needed gas. That’s when she remembered it was odd that she had run out of “petrol.” She never ran out of gas.
She grabbed the flashlight from the shelf under the dashboard and aimed it under her car. No sign of a leak. This older model vehicle didn’t have all the new fangled bells and whistles that opened and locked the doors with an electronic device. Even a third-rate carjacker could get into her car with little effort, but everybody in town knew who owned the boxy beauty, so stealing it wouldn’t get them very far. And if anybody wanted to siphon gas, all they had to do was undo the gas cap.
She thought about who in town might pull a stunt like that as she drove to the nearest gas station and filled up. She also thought she’d find a mechanic who could put a lock on the gas cap.
She thought that would be her only concern except for that body on the pier and poor Earl Riley, but that wasn’t the half of it.
More questions for Shelby to get answers to. But they are trying to solve a murder, so the young officer working with Shelby is out with Harry Davenport’s young officer sidekick, Frances Lynton, and getting some information and some questions, too.
“How long have you worked with Davenport?” Not that he wanted to know, but maybe she would finally run out of “Harry the Magnificent” stories.
“Ever since he came back to L.A. He actually asked for me as a partner.” Her eyes widened like a kid on Christmas morning. “He interviewed almost everybody in the division, but he liked me best. I’d do anything for him.”
“My boss is like that, too, but sometimes she goes places I don’t want to go.”
“I know what you mean. Harry was checking on your boss—”
Afraid she said too much, Frances went into damage control mode. She reached over and took Marcus’s hand and then gave him a smile that aroused his libido. “He wanted to make sure you guys put the best person on the case. The death of his boss’s wife meant a lot to Harry. He had to make sure Shelby was up to the job. The fact he spends so much time with her, says he trusts her.”
And remember, you can always begin a chapter with a page-turner…
The next day was a game changer on more than one level. It was around eight o’clock in the morning when the team met in the larger conference room where they had set up a whiteboard for notes and a long table with the evidence from the crime scene laid out. Other than the flashlight, the old map, the passports, and those now wilted flowers and fern, there wasn’t any new tangible, solid evidence. But there are different kinds of evidence.
Or what about when our police detective is checking on a vehicle that was driven by the now dead wife of the high-ranking police officer in Los Angeles and Shelby wonders if the car rental place rented a particular vehicle that nearly ran her off the road a few days earlier.
“Did you rent a big gray Volvo a few days ago? Maybe one that came back with a ding on the front bumper?”
“Yeah. I worked on the repair job the day it happened. Only needed a little tapping with a rubber mallet to straighten her out. I can do those in my sleep.”
“You probably clean them up pretty thoroughly when they’re returned, right?”
“You bet. I get that job, too. Why?”
“Fingerprints. Can you tell me who rented it?”
He gave her a questioning look and then said, “Sure.”
Back inside the office, Kirby looked up the vehicle and found the information.
“Frances Lynton. If I remember right, I think she’s a cop,” said the young man.
Frances Lynton is Harry’s sidekick…
Here is Shelby’s thought on the matter.
The drive back to the station gave her time to think. From what Marcus had told her, Shelby knew Frances had a thing about her boss, but trying to run them off the road because she might be jealous was a bit extreme. Or was there something else driving that woman?
So now we have tension from another cause… Jealousy, perhaps? Some new truths are going to be revealed from Harry, Shelby, and Frances. But there are more players in this story and their connection to the dead body found at the dock in this small town is revealed one layer at a time.
I use the word “layer” because it’s the old “peel the onion” method of writing a page-turner one layer or revelation at a time. Set up a question or drop a hint early on and then answer it or expose a truth later to make sure your reader stays happy. Just remember to answer those questions somewhere before the end of the story. You never want to disappoint your readers. You want them to come back for more. Write On!