Want to learn the finer points of mystery plotting? Sure, you could study Doyle or Hammett or Chandler, but I would like to shine a light on two overlooked giants of the genre: Frank and Joe Hardy. Yep, that's right. The good ol' Hardy Boys will teach you all you need to know about writing a mystery. And, better yet, they'll do it while hanging out at the circus.
For those who don’t know, the Hardy Boys are teenage amateur sleuths who first saw print in 1927. They've starred in countless young adult mysteries, all written under the name Franklin W. Dixon.
High-Wire Act, the 123rd mystery in the Hardy Boys Casefiles series that started in 1987, finds Frank and Joe investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding an injury to their pal Freddie Felix, a circus clown who almost died during his high-wire act. Simple in premise but profound in execution, the story provides the perfect mystery blueprint due to seven key points.
1. Structure - Chapter 1 ends with what the Hardy Boys believe to be an attempted murder. They begin an investigation, interviewing suspects, discovering clues, and using legit detection to solve the crime. The plot starts quickly, and each subsequent scene works toward the eventual solution.
2. Motivation - When dealing with amateur sleuths, you must establish a clear motivation. Why are they getting involved? Frank is friends with Freddie the clown, providing an emotional connection to the crime.
3. Suspects - Readers get clear, defined suspects in a shady veterinarian, a suspicious strong man, a short-tempered snake charmer, and a rival clown named Bobo. However, the two guilty parties, Bobo's wife and the circus magician, aren't targets of the investigation until the very end. They both make appearances relatively early, and Bobo's wife has a clear motive, but neither crosses the Hardy Boys' radar until absolutely necessary. Yet when the key clue turns out to be poisonous chemicals, the groundwork had already been done to connect the magician to the crime. When he first meets the Hardys, the magician makes a point of saying his tricks are done with chemicals. And Bobo's wife had told a blatant lie about Freddie's friendship with the strong man, betraying her involvement in the murder plot.
4. Secrets - All the prime suspects have secrets to protect. The strong man is on steroids. The veterinarian is smuggling exotic birds. These secrets make them look guilty and pull suspicion away from the real killers.
5. Second Body - Mysteries need a second victim to raise the stakes. Bobo's death supplies the second body and provides the Hardys with the decisive clue.
6. Plotting - The book begins with the Hardy Boys investigating who tried to kill Freddie, but in reality, Bobo was the target all along. Once the Hardys figure out Freddie wasn't the intended victim, the pieces fall into place. Mystery plots benefit from this kind of misdirection since it’s another way for authors to stay one step ahead of readers.
7. Logic - Plot twists only work if they make sense. Everything surrounding Freddie’s fall and Bobo’s subsequent death -- every clue, red herring, and motivation -- comes together perfectly with no holes in logic.
Naturally, the story itself is tailored for the YA audience, but don't let the simplistic prose fool you. If you want a mystery plotting lesson, High-Wire Act is your manual.
The Hardy Boys would never let you down. Nancy Drew? Well, let’s just say I’ve heard things....