by Kevin R. Doyle
Released from prison for one murder, only to be arrested for a second, Sheila Hampton has no one to turn to save Sam Quinton, local private eye, who sets out to prove her innocence and uncover the knot of corruption that entangled its victim for over two decades.
The do-gooder organization must have found something because they somehow managed to get an emergency hearing in front of the state appeals court and, not too long after, the appellate court overturned her conviction and ordered a new trial, at least nominally setting Sheila free after over two decades of incarceration.
Exactly six days later, Bernie Lyman sauntered into my gym and offered me some work.
“What news?” I asked.
“You’ve heard of Robert Harris, right?”
“Sure. The DA who prosecuted Hampton back when. So what?”
“Former prosecutor.” Bernie’s eyes were practically dancing in their sockets. “He got quite the splash for the Hampton trial, eventually made it up to Executive Assistant, then retired a few years back.”
“Wasn’t he a sure thing for the top job at some point?” I asked.
Bernie shrugged. “Everyone thought so, but he never went for it.”
“So what’s your point?”
“The point, my boy, is that six days ago Sheila’s conviction was overturned, the conviction brought about, primarily, through the efforts of former ADA Harris.”
“Uh huh.” I felt a sinking feeling in my gut that I was about to hear something bad.
“And this morning, Sheila was arrested for Harris’s murder.”
What’s the best way to keep a reader engaged in a mystery?
Well, I’m tackling this question, but please forgive if this post seems rather rambling. The first thing I thought of, honestly, when I saw the question was “how should I know? I’m not much of a mystery writer.” And I don’t mean that in any kind of self-effacing manner. It’s still kind of odd to think of myself as a mystery writer, primarily because such was never my intention, all the way back in 1983, when I first sat down with my mother’s electric typewriter looking for a way to fill up a boring afternoon.
I mean, sure, I’ve written some mystery novels. Eight of them, in fact. Six published and two more coming out soon. Actually, I’ve written a total of eleven mystery novels, but the first three have never seen the light of day, which in hindsight is probably just as well.
And if I wanted to get really self-aggrandizing, I could point out that I’ve not only written eight mystery novels, but that seven of them make up two different series. Then I could really thump my chest and point out that those two series are comprised of two different sub-genres. Kind of like one of my literary idols, Lawrence Block.
But please do not for one minute that I place myself even remotely in the same galaxy of quality as Block. The man’s a force unto himself.
The point is, even with all this happening over the last decade or so, even during a two-year period where I managed, through Covid lockdown, to churn out four mystery novels, I’ve never really thought of myself as a mystery writer, let alone a mystery novelist.
So when given the question, what’s the best way to keep a reader engaged in a mystery, I’ve actually never thought about it before.
Guess I have to think about it now.
Looking back over my various works, and with a solid grounding of decades of reading in the genre, I think I can distill a couple of things. I’m not going to go so far as to say these are the “best” ways, so much as to point out that these ways tend to work best for me, both as a writer and a reader. And with that . . .
First, short chapters. By short, I don’t mean skimpy. Check out Robert B. Parker’s later books. (Again, a person I would never dream of putting myself anywhere near in the same hemisphere as.) I love his early and middle-range works, except for A Catskill Eagle, but if you look at his later productions, the chapters get almost ridiculously sparse. Sometimes with entire books having chapters of no more than two or three pages max. That’s a bit much.
No, what I mean is chapters that are fairly concise, focus on one particular event at a time, and don’t go rambling all over the place. This may more than anything have to do with our age and time. It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation to point out that folks are busy nowadays and our schedules are hectic. As such, with lots of folks reading in little snatches of time here and there, it’s probably best to have chapters of sufficient length that they move along the plot but at the same time a reader can digest them in fifteen to twenty minutes. The old pattern of stretching a chapter over twenty-five or thirty pages may still work, but it doesn’t quite fit for me.
This summer, I’ve been going through the works of Jeremiah Healy. (A shame that he had to die so soon.) And while I like his John Cuddy books and the plots are great, every now and then I’ll hit a chapter that stretches thirty pages or more, and I find myself flicking ahead to see where it ends. Fortunately, not all of his chapters are like that, and there’s enough variety in length in his books to keep things on track, but for me, overall, the modest-sized chapters the better.
Again, the best way to keep readers engaged? Darned if I know for sure, but it’s something I find myself starting to pay attention to more and more, and for me one clear answer is short, punchy chapters that are easy to finish in a sitting.It also helps to try to end each chapter with a “huh?” that keeps them coming back. But I’m probably not always as successful in that as I’d like to be.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
A high-school teacher, former college instructor, and fiction writer, Kevin R. Doyle is the author of numerous short horror stories. He’s also written three crime thrillers, The Group, When You Have to Go There, and And the Devil Walks Away, and one horror novel, The Litter. In the last few years, he’s begun working on the Sam Quinton private eye series, published by Camel Press. The first Quinton book, Squatter’s Rights, was nominated for the 2021 Shamus award for Best First PI Novel. The second book, Heel Turn, was released in March of 2021, while the third in the series, Double Frame, came out in March of 2022.
Web site: kevindoylefiction.com
Amazon buy link: https://www.amazon.com/Heel-Turn-Kevin-Doyle/dp/1603812954
Kevin R. Doyle will be awarding one physical copy of the book, U.S. only to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
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