Third meeting review

We are now past the half-way mark for the St Helens Detective Club!
The third meeting focused on motive and methods, and we had a pretty productive meeting, delving further into our characters and building up the world they live (and die) in. We started fleshing them out and looked into the hows and whys of crime to create a crime connection chart. The above is a deconstruction of Agatha Christie’s first murder mystery attempt – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Started to win a bet, Christie drew on her experience during World War 1 working as a volunteer dispenser at Torquay hospital to bring in a clever poison plot twist into the story.

We delved more into the community of St Helens to create biographies and back stories of our fictional characters. We thought about the basics, such as age, gender, occupation and then added more life history. Why would they be in the library? What drives them? What sort of experiences would they have had, and how would it effect their behaviour now?

We also thought about our own amateur detectives and have a slight twist on the Holmes/Watson pairing.

Can’t fill you in too much yet about where we are getting up to in the story, but we had fun creating our own crime connection chart with post-it notes.


Motives and Methods

The how and why of crime is one of the key factors in creating a good whodunnit. The St Helens Detective Club will be grappling with methods and motives of the crime in the next workshop. What drives a person to commit the unlawful killing of a human by another human with malice aforethought? It’s a serious question, one that shouldn’t be taken too lightly. However, we are in the blissfully ignorant world of the Golden Age(GA), where crime, and the detective process is used to tell a story. The story we are writing is about the community of St Helens, so let’s keep that in mind while we consider some creative MO’s.

Let’s consider methods first. Creativity in crafting the ‘perfect murder’ is a challenge that many GA writers rose up to and dived into with vigour. Two writers to highlight here are John Dickson Carr, master of the locked-room mystery, and Dorothy L. Sayer’s meticulously researched methods of murder (Strong Poison, The Nine Tailors). Carr’s The Hollow Man is considered the best locked room mystery of all time. The methods used by the killer in Strong Poison shows Sayers used up-to-date scientific (up to 1930’s) knowledge to fashion a crafty whodunnit (the method wouldn’t seem plausible now though).

Considering most GA authors swore to mostly abide by the Ten Commandments, supernatural elements, unexplained magic, exotic weapons or fortunate accidents can’t take place. So we are mostly left with the usual blunt instrument, guns, poison and pushing off of high places. A quick tally of Poirot’s cases (32 novels only) shows that 14 were poisoned, 7 shot, 6 stabbed with a few strangulations and ‘accidents’ to round it off. This is not surprising, as Christie use to work as both a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during both World Wars. We should stick mostly with what we know though, and I’m looking forward to finding out what sort of backgrounds, qualifications and hobbies of the Detective Club we can tap into!

As for the motives, this is what gives the characters life-blood, figuring out the pre-occupations of our puppets. How a person would react in a given situation…
From my tally of Poirot, the most common motive for murder is MONEY, with killing to hide a secret a very close second. There are more complications than this, but it boils down to wanting things, and wanting to appear a certain way to others.

What will our Detective Club come up with?

scene of the crime

Second meeting review

The second day of the St Helens Detective Club meeting day started off very early, with a radio interview at Radio Merseyside’s Tony Snell in the Morning. If you were up and about at 7:30 in the morning you might have caught our chat about the club’s plans to put a body in the library. Hope the listeners were intrigued, and they come along later when we present our mystery to the public. Photo to prove it happened!

Later in the afternoon our members welcomed a few new recruits and we started getting down to the business of detection. Our focus was the scene of the crime.

We know the body will be found in the library, but where specifically? Armed with a floor plan the group spread out to explore the nooks and crannies of the library and the particulars of the building. We wanted to get to know the space, to convey the attributes of a location and start crafting a mood and atmosphere to the environment. Many Golden Age (GA) novels often had maps and diagrams to help the reader solve the crime, all in the name of ‘fair play’.

Here is an example from Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where we are introduced to the Belgian Hercule Poirot. It can be seen as a gimmick, but where’s it’s crucial to the plot point, it’s nice to have a visual interpretation to look at the mystery from different angles.

Some thoughts to consider when ‘scouting a location’ are –

  • Where do the people congregate?
  • How do they move about?
  • What kind of security systems are in place?
  • Are there blind spots?
  • What access levels are there?
  • What would it be like when it’s closed?
  • Are there any secret hiding places or chambers?

We thought about these questions, but also largely of St Helens, the community as a location. As we are using the format of a detective novel to explore life in St Helens and the people who live and work in it, we started thinking about the history of St Helens, the make up of the community and started imagining the back stories of library users.

This brought up some very interesting discussions. The Detective Club is a good mixture of long time St Heleners and recent arrivals. The born and bred can show us the area the way only locals can, and the new comers can give a fresh insight into differences that the natives might take from granted. Some observations that were made, and we hope to use in the stories are

  • The three main industries that made St Helens a leader world wide (Pharmaceuticals, Glass, Mining) are now all gone.
  • There are many different accents in the area.
  • 93% of the population say they are Christians.
  • Ethnically very homogeneous (white).
  • Rugby is a big deal.

There were some other idiomatic sayings that were mentioned, rivalry with neighbouring areas (Newton – we’re looking at you!) and local scandals from years back.

All this will feed into our detective and side-kick, who are now starting to take shape. I’d like to keep that one under wraps for the moment. You’ll just have to wait till our big event in September, or if you want to take part – come along to the third meeting on the 16th, where will discuss Motives and Methods.