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How To Write A Great Mystery
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How To Write A Great Mystery

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How To Write A Great Mystery

How To Write A Great Mystery
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Two modern-day mystery writers talk about how to create the perfect whodunit. Tana French, author of In The Woods and The Likeness, and Louis Bayard, author of Mr. Timothy and The Pale Blue Eye, weigh in on the most important elements page-turning thrillers.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. The mystery novel has a mixed pedigree. There is the decidedly literary, Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But the genre also thrives in less elite corners of the book store, campy pulp mysteries with busty dames on the cover, or the ever popular airport-mystery section. And mystery genre isn't just wide, but deep. It ranges from hard-boiled police dramas to supernatural thrillers.

If you are a new writer just starting out, sorting out the clues to your first mystery novel, and then your second and third, might be daunting. Will you concentrate on setting, on characters, or maybe that one gasp-worthy plot twist? This hour, we'll talk with some new mystery novelists about how they construct their books, but we want to hear what you think. What do you think are the most important ingredients for a modern mystery novel? Is it the setting, the character, the plot twist?

Tell us your story, but give us a spoiler alert, please, if need be. Our number here is Washington, 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. And of course, you can comment on our blog. That's npr.org/blogofthenation. Tana French's mystery debut, "In the Woods," won the prestigious Edgar Award for best first novel last year. And her follow-up, "The Likeness," was released last week. She is with us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. So good to have you with us today.

Ms. TANA FRENCH (Author, "In the Woods"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So, Tana, what made you think you could take on the mystery genre?

Ms. FRENCH: Well, I really never did, but I think it was probably always inevitable, because I've been fascinated by mysteries ever since I was a little kid, real mysteries, fictional mysteries, every kind. I think the only thing that made me thing that made me think I could take it on was that I had the idea. I was working on an archeological dig in between - I'm an actor - in between two shows. And there was a wood not far from the dig, and I thought one day, wow, that would be a great place for kids to play.

And see, this is kind of what I mean about mystery writers, they're always looking for the potential mystery in anything. So, instead of stopping at great place for kids to play, the way, I don't know, normal people might, I thought, what if three kids run in there to play and only one came out, and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two? And then, what if he became a detective and another murder case drove him back to the wood?

And I didn't think that I could write an entire book, but I figured I could probably write maybe one little section, and then maybe another little section. Then the next thing I knew, things were fitting together and I had a chapter. Basically, the only thing that made me think I could write it was that I wanted to find out what happened next.

NEARY: You know, the book has a very contemporary kind of - well, when I use the word contemporary, I mean a very sort of fresh kind of approach, I think, to the mystery, which is, a product, I think, in part, of its setting, which is the city of Dublin, and in part, of the way you used your characters. So, which came first? Does it - the setting, is that because you lived in Dublin? But - or the way you used characters? Which were more important to you?

Ms. FRENCH: See, I'm coming, again, from an acting background, so what I'm used to starting with is character. And that's what came with the idea, with that premise came the idea of the narrator, this guy who's intelligent, sensitive, arrogant, defensive, and so badly damaged that he is incapable of being honest either with himself or with anyone else, including his readers. And because what I'm used to doing is taking a character as an actor and, well, aiming, at least, to bring this character alive, so that for the audience, this is somebody they know.

By the end of either the evening or the book, this is somebody who they feel like they know this person's world, his emotions, his flaws. That's very much what I was doing as a writer, too, and this kind of means that - it leads to a slightly disorganized approach the plot, because I don't actually know what I am doing with plot until I get to know the characters well enough to know what they would and wouldn't do. So, I have to just dive in there. I start with a premise, a narrator, and a lot of coffee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: And I just dive in and hope for the book comes out at the other end. And as I get to the character, slowly the plot develops like a Polaroid.

NEARY: Ah. But these detectives who you're writing about...

Ms. FRENCH: Yes.

NEARY: Cassie Maddox, who is in both of your - both of these books, they've got a kind of hipness that you don't always see in the mystery genre.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And that's what I have meant about the city, because Dublin is a very young, very vibrant city right now, changing very rapidly. And they live there, and I don't know, they're kind the cool in a way that I don't think of, you know, detectives as always being young, and hip, and cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: Good, excellent, I'm delighted!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: I figure wherever you live, it is going to seep into your writing. I agree with what - I heard that quote from Michael Connolly at the top of the hour, saying that mystery, essentially, I think crime novels are an incredible barometer of the society in which they take place, partly because crime is such a barometer of the society there. Crime comes out in different ways, depending on where or when it happens.

There is, you know, in "The Likeness," an old thread, historical thread, becomes involved where - it's a crime where a kind of Anglo-Irish, semi aristocrat from the big house became involved peasant girl from the village, and end up killing her because she was pregnant, and this could have ruined his life. Or possibly he killed her. Possibly she killed herself. And that's a crime that could only take place in its own time and place. It would not happen now in Dublin, but 100 years ago, it's a whole different thing. And I think in that way, crimes are such a barometer of a society, its priorities, its weaknesses, its tensions, its stresses, that crime novels automatically becomes something that tells you a lot about the world in which they're rooted.

I don't know. If you take, for example, in America, I know there was - just an explosion of serial-killer novels in the '90s, with Patricia Cornwall and people like this. And I think that's probably a response to the increasing anonymity of society and the urbanization. As people feel more isolated, that sense of anonymity becomes a threat, and the anonymous stranger lurking becomes the fear. And the crime novel tells you a lot about what the society is like. And I guess, it comes out on the characters, too. You live in a vibrant, hip, young city. The characters are going to turn out that way.

NEARY: Yeah, right. We are talking about what it takes to write a new kind of mystery writer - mystery book. We are talking with mystery writer Tana French. And if you would like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. And joining us now is Louis Bayard, who went from writing romantic comedies to taking on the mystery genre. He is the author of three mystery novels, including the Edgar Award-nominated "Pale Blue Eye." His newest book, "The Black Tower," will be release this August. And he is with me in Studio 3A. Good to have you with us.

Mr. LOUIS BAYARD (Author, "The Pale Blue Eye"): Thanks, it's great to be here.

NEARY: And what's really interesting, Louis, about your books is that you, in fact, reach into the past and kind of re-imagine the past, and in that way, create a new kind of mystery novel.

Mr. BAYARD. Yeah, that's a good description of what I do. I kind the go into the 19th century, mostly, and hang out there, but then bring my own 21st-century sensibility into it, and create a kind of hybrid between the two areas.

NEARY: For instance, in "Mr. Timothy," you kind of re-imagine what might have to happen to Tiny Tim had he lived on. In "The Pale Blue Eye," you bring in the famous Edgar Allan Poe into play.

Mr. BAYARD: Right.

NEARY: Maybe you can explain a little bit how that works.

Mr. BAYARD: Well, we got - "Mr. Timothy" really began with this character of Tiny Tim. And the impulse that I had was to do bad things to him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: Because I never particularly liked Tiny Tim, or found him in anyway convincing. So, I thought the best way to do that is to make him a grownup and take away his crutch, and put him in - plop him in the middle of Victorian underworld, and let him find for himself, as it were. And really, as Tana was talking about, I didn't set out to write a mystery.

But I slowly realized that that was the best form for producing this change in Tim Cratchit, for making this new creation out of him, that that would set him in motion. And that's what mysteries are great at doing, is setting characters in motion, sometimes literally, because they are running away from somebody, but it - they have to change and adapt and, in a way, realize who they are underneath all these other creations of sentiment and people's assumptions.

NEARY: Yeah. And at the same time, by going back in the past, as I said, it creates a new kind of mystery novel. So it has, again, very different from Tana's, but has a very contemporary feel as a result of that.

Mr. BAYARD: Yeah, I like to think so. I think there're books that read other books. "The Pale Blue Eye" is reading Edgar Allan Poe's work, and creating the conditions out of which Poe would wind up creating those immortal stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" and all that stuff that still gives us shivers. I was trying to figure out how this young man, a cadet at West Point, Edgar Allan Poe, gets to the point of being able to write those things. What kind of journey does he have to go on in order to become the Edgar Allan Poe that we know today?

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Jan and Jan is calling from Reno, Nevada. Hi, Jan.

JAN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

JAN: Well, I tend to look for the depth of development in the detectives, and I like to look for, you know, those nuances that tell me that this is a real person that's doing this investigation, but I also look for, are they doing it the right way when they do their investigation? Do they follow the right procedures? Do they skip things? And not that they have to be stuck with all the little minutia in the story, but I don't want to read about somebody, you know, going through a crime scene and doing things incorrectly.

NEARY: Ah, that's very interesting. Tana French, it seemed to me that you were doing it correctly, but what do I know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: I hope so.

NEARY: Did you have to do a lot of research?

Ms. FRENCH: Yeah.

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Ms. FRENCH: Oh, definitely. See, I'm lucky. I know this detective, who's retired now from the Irish police force, but who was a wonderful guy, and who not only told me the specifics - because one of the things is that we're all so literate from TV shows in American police procedure...

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. FRENCH: That it was very easy to slide off that and assume that Irish police procedure is the same. So I just asked him everything. What are the words of the caution? At what age can you question someone without a parent or guardian present? But also, apart from that, he also told me stories, which I think is just crucial, because the actual procedure can only tell you the technicalities, can only tell you the framework of what it's like to do this incredibly high-stakes and emotionally-involving job.

But when you listen to detectives talk, and you start to hear what are the little things that haunt them, that stay with them, what are the things that matter most, the things that frustrate them, that's when you get the atmosphere. And I do occasionally - I've got to admit - depart from the reality, things like there isn't a murder squad in Dublin - there's one big National Bureau of Criminal Investigation - but I figured the story needed that intense, intimate, elite, small squad feel. But I do want to know that if I'm going to depart from reality, it's going to be because the story requires it, not because I'm making some kind of clueless mistakes. Oh, yeah, lots of research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: What about you, Louis? Can you cheat a little bit since you're in the past?

Mr. BAYARD: Oh, that's one of the benefits of going into the past, that and the fact that nobody can sue you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: I'm jealous of you (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: Yeah, the period that I'm writing in was really - detection was still in its infancy. In fact, the word detective had not yet come into the language. So, the whole concept of somebody who uses cerebration, uses the intellect, to uncover crimes was still in its infancy. And so, yeah, you have a lot of latitude, because even then, the police force itself was still in a kind of 18th-century pattern of constables, and there were lots of crimes that went unsolved because there was nobody to solve them.

NEARY: All right. We're going to continue this discussion about mystery writing, particularly contemporary fiction writing, or finding fresh angles on mystery writing, as one might put it. I'm talking with Tana French and Louis Bayard. And the number, if you want to give us a call, is 800-989-8255. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking about reinventing a familiar genre, the mystery genre with two relative newcomers. Tana French is the author of the books, "In the Woods," and the recent, "The Likeness." And Louis Bayard is the author of the literary mysteries, "The Pale Blue Eye" and "Mr. Tim." Of course, we want to hear from you. How do you make a mystery modern? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog. That's npr.org/blogofthenation.

I wanted to ask you both about the idea of the mystery series, because frequently, people who like mysteries will attach themselves to one author or another who has the same character that - they see them through any number of books, and people who like mysteries frequently like those kinds of series. Clearly, Louis, you are not writing a series of those kinds of books, although you are writing - they're similar in the sense that in each one you're going back in history and then making it kind of contemporary.

Mr. BAYARD: Right. The mode is similar but the characters, the circumstances, change from book to book. I have to say, I love reading series novels, I mean, Sherlock Holmes, for God's sakes. Alexander McCall Smith's books are fun. But I would go mad with boredom if I had to write the same characters with each book. To me, that's the excitement of any new book, really, is the possibility that I might fail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: That's the thing that kind of gets me jazzed. I know that it's worth taking on if I don't really know if I can do it. And I could see - getting to the point - where it's, well, we're going back to this well again. Here's old, you know, Parson Summers, whoever your detective is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Good name, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: So, yeah, for me, it's the excitement of a one-off and doing it fresh each time.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BAYARD: But it takes longer.

NEARY: Yeah. And Tana, you're not doing a series, but as I think I've mentioned already, you do have similar characters in your two books so far, but you used those characters differently. It's not like in each one, like, Cassie...

Ms. FRENCH: Yeah.

NEARY: Who is clearly the character that takes you from one book to the next most clearly, but she plays a different role in each of the books.

Ms. FRENCH: Yes, she's kind of the sidekick, the second lead, I think, in "In the Woods," and in "The Likeness," she's actually the narrator. And I thought a lot - it's what Louis was saying about how many mystery pares a character down to their essentials, and it really - it tests the core of them. And when I was writing "In the Woods," I'm starting to think about, wow, if anybody actually wants to publish this, they might want another one.

And I thought, well, the classic thing to do is a series, but what I'm interested in is writing about those huge turning points in a character's life, where they really are stripped to that core, and those crossroads where you know that no matter which way you choose, your life will never be the same place again. And "In the Woods" definitely is up for Rob Ryan, the narrator, but the thing about those crossroads is that any normal human being only gets, I don't know, two or three in a lifetime. So, when I wanted to write a second book, I could either keep dumping the poor guy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: Into, like, life-changing moment after moment, or I could take it to the series thing, where you follow this character through the ups and downs. But for me, that's not what the psychological mystery really was about. That's not what I wanted to write about. I love reading them, but I want to write about those high-stakes moments. So, it seemed like the only option was to switch narrator. And there is - I do want to keep writing about the same group of main characters for awhile. I kind of got interested in them and I'm not done with Rob Ryan yet, but I'm hopping narrator to see the crucial points in each person's life.

NEARY: OK. She just said something that, if you haven't read the book, it's hard to talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: But she's not done with Rob Ryan yet. And I just say, if anybody's read the book, you're going to get that. Anybody that hasn't...

Ms. FRENCH: Yeah...

NEARY: Rob Ryan has a past, and we didn't completely resolve that, I think. But at any rate, OK, moving on, what I think is interesting about what you're doing, Tana, is that you are - that idea of looking at one group and then looking at them from sort of a different perspective, it really does keep - if you've got that interest in a series, it keeps that series idea there, because you want to see where those characters are going to be next time around. But you're not just stuck on one character. And so, it's a really kind of fresh way to take that whole series idea on. I'm glad to hear you're going to continue it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: Well, I'm hoping to continue it. I'm starting the third book and Frank Mackey, who's Cassie's old undercover boss from "The Likeness," is the narrator in book three. And I think it makes it easier to create a whole world which these characters inhabit if you move around within the same general group of them. And it also provides - I'm interested in the fact that one person's perception of reality is not necessarily reality. Like, Rob in "In the Woods," is a very unreliable narrator. Cassie is a little bit more reliable, but still, different people know different things and perceive indifferently. So, by moving around from narrator to narrator, you get different angles on what the shared reality is.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Sean. And Sean's calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi, Sean.

SEAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks.

SEAN: Good. That's a great kind of bridge into my question. I was wondering if either of your guests have read Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone," and if so, whether it's influenced their views on the mystery or the detective novel in particular.

Mr. BAYARD: I love "The Moonstone." That is one of my very favorite mysteries of all time. Wilkie Collins in general is a wonderful writer and one of the greatest plot-smiths. In fact, Dickens, who was a friend of Wilkie Collins, used to learn - had actually learned about plotting from the example of Collins. "The Woman in White" is another great Wilkie Collins book and "No Name." If you're going to Victorian mysteries, those are the places to start.

SEAN: OK, great.

NEARY: What about you, Tana?

Ms. FRENCH: No, I know "The Woman in White" but not "The Moonstone." But I do think that they are definitely classic mysteries that teach you everything you need to know about plotting and the boundaries of the genre. My equivalent is probably Josephine Tey, who was writing in the '40s and '50s, and who plays with the boundaries of the genre in the most incredible ways. In one of her books, the most serious crime is basically wasting police time, and you find out who the villain is within a couple of pages. And yet, it is this gripping portrait of a young psychopath in development and in process. And so, I think, yeah, the classics really - they show what exactly can be done with this genre.

NEARY: All right. Thanks much for your call, Sean.

SEAN: Thank you.

NEARY: Something else I wanted to ask you about is the whole idea of continuity in a mystery novel being very important because, you know, you have all these evidence that you're dealing with, and clues, and you have to keep track of it. Louis, you're nodding your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: That's the challenge, yeah. That's the challenge for any mystery writer, is to follow your own threads and not get tripped up on your own red herrings. What I've discovered, though, is that plot is something you can re-jigger. It doesn't have to be cast in stone, and in fact, I do a very minimal synopsis before I start, and I know where I end up, I know sort of stations along the way, but I give myself freedom to kind of just discover things as I go along. It's a little bit of that organic process that Tana was talking about. But conversely, I know people who - I know a thriller writer who writes 200-page outlines for 300-page books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: I can imagine going to all that work, and I wouldn't want to write the book after that. So, he clearly needs to know it all in advance.

NEARY: He needs to know exactly what's happening before he gets there.

Mr. BAYARD: Absolutely, everything. Everything.

NEARY: Yeah. What about you, Tana?

Ms. FRENCH: No, I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I don't know who'd done it when I started the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: I've had to figure this out along the way. And that makes for huge amounts of rewriting. Because what happens is, you know, I'll write the first third of it, I'll keep going, the characters will develop a little bit differently, or the scenario will develop a little bit differently, and I have to go back and rewrite the entire first chapter, because I've just found out that, you know, the murder couldn't have happened at the time that I planned it. So, it does make for - you do have to do an incredibly rigorous final check for glitches because, yeah, there are - I do keep finding glitches right up until I - you know, after I turned it in because of the fact that this is the way that I write, without a synopsis, without a plan, and I'm incredibly jealous of writers who do have a synopsis, and I want to be them when I grow up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: And those are the glitches that some readers are going to come up and confront you with at some book store.

Ms. FRENCH: Oh, yeah. Wait a minute...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: You know on page 231, that Sarah moves to the...

NEARY: Wait a minute, she was on an armchair!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: Exactly.

NEARY: It sounds like you've had that experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: Oh, yeah. Somebody came up to me and said, you know, there were no poinsettias in English drawing rooms in 1840.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYARD: And I said, well, I know that but I'm a whore for a good detail. Let me tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: We are talking, believe it or not, we're talking about the mysteries and how they get written, and my guests are Tana French and Louis Bayard. And if you'd like to join the discussion, you can send us an email to talk@npr.com, or give us a call, 800-989-8255. And we are going to go to David in Flint, Michigan. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, thank you for taking my call. My comment to any inspiring actor - pardon - writer would be to, you know, make your characters real, and don't make them stupid. If your main character is having a reoccurring dream where a slasher is coming up behind her with a knife during a certain scene, when you get to that scene, it shouldn't require her 15 seconds to realize that she should look over her shoulder. That's my comment. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: OK. Thanks.

Ms. FRENCH: It's the old thing. Why do they always go into that room without turning on the lights?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. So, I guess, neither of you are going to do that. All right, let's go to Jerry in St. Louis, Missouri. Hey, Jerry. How are you?

Have I got you?

TERRY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment that my favorite part of the (unintelligible) is the big reveal where - not the big reveal - but where the hero has put it all together in his head and he knows who did it and how to bring him down, but he hasn't told the audience yet. That happens at chapter or two later. But I always try and figure out at the same time in my head, if it's the same thing that I think it's going to happen, is what the guy thinks is going to happen later. So, it's always a fun part of the book to get to that point.

Mr. BAYARD: Oh, yeah. I think there's something wonderful about solving any kind of puzzle, whether it's a Sudoku or a crossword or a whodunit. I mean, it gets our brain cells moving and you feel a little more alive through the process, and even in the midst about this death that a mystery provides you with, maybe because of all of that death you wind up feeling a little more alive yourself.

Ms. FRENCH: I think it's kind of a human instinct, though, isn't it? It's one of the basic human instincts to be attracted to mysteries and to look for the solution to them. And I think from a mystery writer's perspective, you're always trying to find the balance, where you need your readers to be coming with you and you want them - you don't want to leave them, like, behind, going, what on Earth just happened there? But at the same time, the reveal moment does have to have an impact. So, it's a hard balance to strike. And from inside, it can be very hard to tell whether you're striking it.

NEARY: Yeah. And thanks very much - did you want to say...

TERRY: Thank you, guys.

NEARY: OK. Great. Thanks very much. I should say, that was Terry from Fresno, California. So, now I'm going to go to Jerry, who is in Saint Louis, Missouri. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hello. Thank you. One of the most influential books I think I ever read when I was about 16 or 17 was "The Long Goodbye" by Raymond Chandler, and even though the language is a bit dated, I still find it kind of a masterpiece of many different themes. And I think that mystery fiction is - ranks with any other form, really, of popular literature, as far as social commentary.

And in the area of recurring characters, or main characters, I would recommend anyone who has not yet discovered the works of Kenneth Millar, known as Ross MacDonald, and his main character, Lew Archer, which, I believe, span from, I think, the first publication in 1950 through 1976. And not only did the world in which he operated change, but the main character was changed by his, you know, experiences, I guess you could say. And as an example, one particular book, "Black Money," I always say that if "The Great Gatsby" had been written in the 1960s, it probably would have taken that form, of dreamers who tried to live out their dreams, and generally it doesn't end well.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Jerry.

JERRY: Thank you.

Mr. BAYARD: I love Ross MacDonald, thank you for bringing up his name, and Chandler. And you're right, both of those - actually, Ross MacDonald's wife, Margaret Miller, was also a very fine mystery writer. And they're all signs that, what the caller said, that mysteries can be literature. It seems strange we even have to argue that point.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BAYARD: But apparently, we still do.

NEARY: Louis...

Ms. FRENCH: I think...

NEARY: Go ahead. Go ahead, Tana.

Ms. FRENCH: Oh, sorry. I was going to say, I think it's actually - it's a great time to be starting off as a mystery writer, because more and more people are coming to that conclusion, that it's not either/or. It's not either you can write a great book, or you can write a gripping mystery. You're allowed to aspire to both. I mean, if you look at - I always use this as an example because it's, I think one of the great mysteries of the last while - it's Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River," which is a beautifully written book. It is a just great page turner, gripping. It's social history. It's family saga. It's, you know, police procedure. It's all of these at once. And it's stronger for having all these layers.

And I think there's more and more people who are breaking down that perceived borderline which - I think, Louis is right, and there never was a real one, but there was a definitely a perceived one between literature and mystery. And I think more and more of that perception is being eroded by people like, you know, Donna Tart with "The Secret History," or Dennis Lehane, and I think more and more, yeah, it's being eroded, and fewer and fewer people would be willing to argue that it's an either/or.

NEARY: We're talking with Tana French and Louis Bayard about writing mysteries, and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're going to take a call now from Mary, who's calling from Oakland, Michigan. Hi, Mary.

MARY (Caller): Hi. I had a question for the author. I read "In the Woods" a couple of weeks ago, and I was really disappointed that we didn't solve the mystery of Rob Ryan. We find that back in the early days, there's the scene with the teenagers and there's an eerie scream in the woods, and we never find out what that was all about. Now, I realize that it's going to be a series, and that we'll probably find out later. But I was very disappointed with that first novel, not knowing what was going on.

Ms. FRENCH: Oh, sorry. Yeah, I know, endings are so much a matter of taste. You know, they really are, and some people love to be still thinking about it and wondering about it after the end of the book. And some people really do have a stronger need for, I guess, that closure for things to stick within the genre. And I do know that that ending's not going to satisfy everybody. But I thought about it and I figured, right - I'm trying not to spoil it too much here, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: I know it's hard to talk about this because - it's just hard because it's a spoiler.

Ms. FRENCH: But I'm trying to. But Rob Ryan's character, and again, I'm working based on character, for he is a certain type of person, very badly cracked straight across by the events of his childhood, and the person he is, he's not capable ever of making that final leap into the unknown. And this shows up - and you'll know what I mean but I'm not going to spoil it - and it shows up in relationships. It shows up in the solution of the mystery. He's never capable of taking the final leap into the dark to find out what might be there.

And this meant that when it came to the ending, I could either turn this character into a completely different person in the last chapter, which I thought would be a very cheap, and cheesy thing to do. Or I could have kind of deus ex machina come down and sort all his life out for him, again, cheap and cheesy. Or I could try to make this the best possible book that I could and hope that enough people shared my taste for the ending that keeps you thinking and would be willing to come with me along that path. And I kind of want to apologize to the people who aren't into that kind of ending.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: But I just - I hope there are enough of them out there who do like the ending and who do figure that the best I can do is make this the best book I can.

NEARY: And are you going to - are you going to possibly satisfy whatever questions are left over for readers in the future, in a future book? Is that a possibility?

Ms. FRENCH: It is definitely. I mean, to an extent, I feel like this is - because of that borderline thing between mystery and literature, this is a story about Rob, and his character arc is very much resolved, not necessary in a...

NEARY: Right. No, that's right.

Ms. FRENCH: In a healthy way. But his character arc is resolved. But I am - I'm not done with these characters yet. And I don't - look, like I said, I have a plan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: You know, I don't know what I'm doing in this book, never mind the next one. But I definitely am not ruling out loose ends getting tied up along the way. I hope - did that answer it without getting too spoiler-y?

NEARY: Yeah, I think it did.

MARY: It did answer it. I did not realize that you're going to be doing more. So, we'll look forward to more of the...

Ms. FRENCH: All right. Oh, thanks.

MARY: To see how it gets resolved.

Ms. FRENCH: Thanks.

NEARY: OK.

Ms. FRENCH: Sorry about the ending not being what you are after.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Thanks for your call, Mary.

Mr. BAYARD: Everyone's a critic, Tana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Yep. Bye-bye.

Ms. FRENCH: No, it's fair enough. Somebody buys it and they're going, well - you know, it's - you take a risk when you do something a little off genre. And I think more and more writers are taking that risk. But it's not always going to make the readers of this genre happy.

NEARY: All right, Tana. Thanks so much. It was good talking with you. Tana French is the author of "In the Woods" and "The Likeness." We also spoke with Louis Bayard, and he's the author of "Mr. Timothy" and the forthcoming "The Black Towers." Great talking to both of you.

Ms. FRENCH: Thanks very much. Great to be here.

Mr. BAYARD: Thank you.

NEARY: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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