How to write a bad mystery novel can be summarised in simple ABC-style for the benefit of those who wish to avoid repeating the mistakes that Paul Theroux makes in A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta.
A) A writer-hero with writer’s block is a good way to ensure reader’s block. Travel writer Jerry Delfont is a dull protagonist mired in inertia, resentment and self-pity, and clearly not the type to push a plot forward. So he must be surrounded with proactive people who supply him not only with the plot, but Ayurvedic food and Tantric sex too. The real engine of the novel is then somebody like Mrs Unger, a black American wealthy sexpot philanthropist widow turned Kali priestess who sacrifices goats, and who makes the protagonist seem even more colourless.
B) Never ever kill your darlings. Populate the novel with irrelevant side characters like Parvathi, a young dancer-cum-poetess (guessing from the copyright notice in A Dead Hand, based on the real life Tishani Doshi), whose expertise in Kerala’s martial art is described but of course not put to use, and who gets a lot of stage time because the author is unable to determine which parts of the material collected belong in the story. When in doubt, don’t delete — that must be your mantra.
C) Mysterious messages and vital clues out of the blue, may appear once in a blue moon. But Delfont is practically spammed with letters in purple ink, chopped off hands and other pieces of evidence that are delivered to him inexplicably and unaccountably. Yet the biggest mystery is: Why would anybody want Delfont, that rarest combination of uninterested and uninteresting character, to solve a possible murder?
D) Misuse an exotic setting. Picture yourself a seedy American travel writer hero who knows his Kolkata well enough to identify a pair of ‘Netaji spectacles’ and claim familiarity with the Sonagachi red light district, but has no idea that the street in which his friend at the US consulate works is named after Ho Chi Minh. Contrive to fit all the obligatory sights in — your inert protagonist can be dragged through the pages of the Lonely Planet by proactive side characters: Kalighat, check. Park Street’s old cemetery, check. Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street, check.
E) Keep dialogues soap operatic and hammy. Let characters state the obvious and make their lips twitch when something dramatic is said. Stuff clumsy observations about India into their mouths: “Hooghly is teeming with body parts of incomplete cremations. My good wife and I encountered a human leg one day at Tolly’s Nullah.” Besides, have local characters speak in a way so that nobody will mistake them for intelligent humans, eg. “I shall call constable forthwith.”
F) Always tell, don’t bother to show anything. If Delfont feels carnal lust, tell the readers loud and clear how passionate he is and just in case they are so bored that they skipped that page, tell them again a few pages later. Don’t ever expect your readers to get it, but repeat the information as if your book is a cricket bat and you want to bash the readers’ brains.
G) A top-heavy premise is perfect for a truly bad mystery. Make the crime extremely weird, such as a person waking up in a dingy hotel room and finding a dead boy on the floor. Then simply let the “detective” forget about the story he has set out to tell and allow the plot to develop randomly around inconsistent characters. To remind the readers that there was meant to be a story, throw clumsy recaps into the dialogue — “You asked me to investigate the bizarre event at the Ananda and I’ve obeyed you. I have a few leads. The dead boy was brought to the hotel in a carpet and I have a piece of that carpet, sent anonymously to me at my hotel, probably by someone who wants me to know the truth.” In the end, if you’re unable to come up with a fitting resolution, conveniently forget all lose threads and just provide a lame explanation to the mystery. With some luck the readers are simply as bored as the writer, and can’t be bothered about the gaping plot holes.
H) Less is, by the way, not more. I was once told by a senior critic that the moment you get the itch to rework or edit a novel under review, that’s when you know it’s underdeveloped. I finally understand what he meant. There is one interesting short story at the centre of A Dead Hand in which Delfont meets the genuine Paul Theroux for a drink, and the travel writers size each other up as they poach on the other’s preserve. Add 200 pages of diary notes and random jottings about India, and when the manuscript is a total mess, have the protagonist start writing a novel with the same title, i.e. A Dead Hand.
I) To forestall critics who might say “enough is enough!” and suggest that 95,000 words be cut, make one of the characters pronounce that “there isn’t a single truthful book about India. There are long-winded family romances. And whimsical novels. And the experimental junk.” A reviewer might call A Dead Hand just that — a long-winded whimsical junk romance posing as a crime novel.