Book Recipes: How to Write a Country House Mystery

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at the country house murder mystery. Let’s hope we live through all twenty steps.

 

Ingredients:

  • A big old spooky house
  • An assorted group of debonair guests. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The Ingénue
    • A crusty old man
    • A prim and proper widow
    • A bounder and a cad
    • The Femme Fatale
    • Loveable newlyweds
    • The idle rich
  • A sinister butler
  • Storms
  • So much alcohol
  • Unreliable phone lines/roads/Wi-Fi
  • Dark yet slightly sexy secrets
  • MURRRDERRRR.

 

Method:

  1. All your characters have been invited to a big country house, for plot reasons. They make small talk like they aren’t going to die.
  2. There’s a big storm! Better gather everyone in one room. It’s not important. I’m sure it’ll be fine – oh, all the lights have gone out.
  3. AND THERE’S A MURDER.
  4. Some of your guests try and leave, but they can’t! Those unreliable phone lines are down, or the road is flooded, or maybe someone has just Lemonade-ed over all the cars.

  1. Gather your guests in one big room, along with any servants you might have lying about the place. One of them is a MURDERER.
  2. Decide that the best thing to do is wait until morning in one big group. That way no-one will –
  3. JUST KIDDING GUYS LET’S SPLIT UP!
  4. Pick a character who will survive until at least step 18 and follow them around for a bit. This one is almost certainly not the murderer, but you never know.
  5. Pick your first suspect. You’re going to want to choose someone who is ridiculously suspicious because –
  6. Oh, no, looks like they’re dead. Never mind.
  7. Okay, obviously it wasn’t suspect number one. Who else could it be? Have your main POV character ponder this for a bit while they wander spooky corridors.
  8. Have another big meeting with the remaining characters. Someone is acting suspicious…
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Hmmm… (image: gifimage.net)
  1. Settle on suspect number two. This should be less obvious than suspect number one, but still not something you’d really have to reach for. Someone who your main character has seen sneaking off down a corridor, or having a –
  2. Oh, no, they’re dead too. My bad.
  3. Some more murders happen and everyone is very distressed. First to go is anyone who decides to leave and get help, so your best bet is to keep your main character hidden behind the sofa.
  4. You have found A Clue. Oh boy! This sure takes your mind off all those murders.
  5. We’ve narrowed it down to our third and final suspect. All the clues point to them. There’s no-one else it could be. Gird your loins and get ready to confront the –
  6. Oh, they’re dead as well. Huh. So the real murderer must be…
  7. IT WAS THE BUTLER DID IT ALL ALONG MY GOSH
  8. The butler explains his evil plan for the readers’ convenience and advances on the main character. But just when he’s about to do another murder, we reach the end of our twenty-step guide and he’s arrested.

THE END. Serve with tea and flickering lights.
 

Tips:

  • This one comes with an alternate ending! If you’re feeling especially bleak, just have your butler kill everybody and waltz off into the sunset with all their stuff. Make sure he still explains his plan though, that part’s important.
  • Detectives are optional. Feel free to invite one along, but just be aware that in steps 1 and 2 they’re going to have to earn their keep by deducing where people went on their holidays.
  • Make sure to choose the right kind of dark secrets. They can’t be too dark or you’ll put the guests off their champagne. The best ones are sexy and melodramatic.
  • Always include at least one hysterical woman, and one man who thinks the first murder is an elaborate prank.
  • No-one ever, ever suspects the butler.
giphy spanish inquisition
You all knew I was going to make this joke. (image: giphy.com)
  • Choose your setting carefully. The past is your best bet, because Wi-Fi and working phone lines can really ruin a good murder mystery. Nobody likes a detective who relies on Google.
  • Don’t make your creepy house too creepy or the genres will get muddled. Also, don’t make it gross. Nobody wants to bleed to death on a grubby floor.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“I expect you’re all wondering why I called you here.”

The guests were in the drawing room, settling into chairs with coffee. The butler, Stabbington, moved discreetly round the room, topping up glasses of port. Alice Sinclair placed a hand over her glass and sat up straight. It was awfully fun to be asked to join the adults.

Her host, Sir Jeffrey Spishous-Mann, had got to his feet. The room fell silent. Apart from the howling wind the house was quiet. Crumbleigh Place was on top of a mountain, swathed in snow, and was only accessible after a three-day journey through a dark and creeping forest. Alice thought it was jolly exciting. The house reminded her of a Gothic novel, or one of those perfectly thrilling horror pictures she and the girls had snuck out to see at Bletherleys. If Bunty could have seen her now, she would have thought her terribly sophisticated.

Stabbington took a discreet step forward and murmured in his master’s ear. Sir Jeffrey frowned. “What? Now?”

“I’m afraid it cannot wait, sir.”

“Very good.” He turned back to his guests. “Do serve yourselves, gentlemen, ladies. Stabbington will be in the kitchen sharpening his knives. Where was I?”

An old man who’d been introduced to Alice as Major Edmund Blakely-Smythe spluttered in his chair. “Eh? What?”

His aged sister leaned over and patted his knee. “Sir Jeffrey was just about to tell us something, Edmund.”

“What? Speak up! Get him to speak up, Agnes.”

Sir Jeffrey cleared his throat again. “As I was saying. I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here…”

There was a sudden bang. Alice flinched. Her neighbour – a tall young man wearing an ascot and a predatory expression – laid a hand on her arm.

“No need to be afraid,” he murmured, offering her his hand, “I shall protect you. Jonty Framlingham-Piggott, at your service.”

Alice shook it, blushing. She wished she was wearing lipstick. “Alice Sinclair. Absolutely super to meet you.”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Isn’t it just. Cigarette, Miss Sinclair?”

“Oh, I –”

Stabbington came back into the room, smoothing his hair back into place and brushing snow off his shoulders. “I do apologise, sir. The cleaning gun went off.”

Major Blakeley-Smythe squinted at him. “Eh? What’d the butler chap say?”

“He says the cleaning gun went off, Edmund,” Agnes yelled into his ear.

“Damn shame,” the Major said. “Happened in India once. Chap never did get it back. Last saw the damn thing swimming in the Ganges.”

Sir Jeffrey took a deep breath. “Anyway. Now that you’re all here, I shall reveal to you…”

Jonty leaned forward and whispered in Alice’s ear. “Frightfully dull, isn’t it? Let’s slip away for a moment. I’ve picked up a few things on my travels I’d be delighted to show you.”

Alice blushed. Matron hadn’t said anything about this. “Souvenirs, do you mean?”

He flicked the ash off his cigarette and smirked. “Of course, dear girl.”

Sir Jeffrey was counting to ten. “As I was saying…”

Stabbington bustled over to the drinks cabinet. He knelt down, fussing with a little packet of powder, and saw Alice looking. “I beg your pardon, Miss.”

“Is that…rat poison?”

Stabbington shoved the powder into his pocket. “Yes. For the rats.”

“In the drinks cabinet?”

“…Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose they can be very clever little fellows.”

Stabbington straightened up, and Alice saw a flash of brass by every one of his knuckles. He had an awful lot of rings, for a butler. “Very clever indeed, Miss. Do excuse me.”

He left the room. Sir Jeffrey set down his glass. “As I was saying…”

“Eh? What?”

“He’s about to tell us something, Edmund…”

Sir Jeffrey stood on his chair and yelled “I’m very rich and I’m about to die!”

There was a long silence. Snow whirled against the glass; wind howled down the chimney. The guests all stared at their host, who climbed down from his chair.

“Good,” he said. “Now that I have your attention –”

All the lights went out. Then, there was a scream.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Reading Roundup!

I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.

Time to fix that!

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.

Basically, I eat books.

So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

9781785031052
image: waterstones.com

Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.

Holy Hell, do I love this book.

The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.

 

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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image: panmacmillan.com

This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.

Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.

 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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image: goodreads.com

If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?

I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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image: amazon.com

This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.

This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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image: goodreads.com

What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.

This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.