How to Start a Novel, But Not How to End One

by Liam Shay

SPOILER ALERT: This article includes crucial plot information to help you study the novel mentioned to improve your writing, but may destroy any suspense you feel reading it.

A novel must engage the reader from the first sentence. One way to draw readers in is to dole out crucial information at a steady, measured pace. Elspeth Huxley uses this tactic masterfully at the start of The African Poison Murders (1939). Most famous for her memoir, The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) based on her experiences growing up on a coffee farm in colonial Kenya, Huxley was a journalist and author of more than 30 books, including several mysteries.

In the first pages of The African Poison Murders, Huxley takes her time in parsing out information about the setting (British East Africa), the time (1930s), and even the profession of the protagonist, CID Officer Vachell, as well as his reason for being in the area. The reader is taken from question to question with answers intermixed, but with at least one question always left open to propel the reader forward. Once the reader learns in the first few pages the answer to the question of Vachell’s identity and profession, the reader wonders why a CID officer has journeyed to East Africa. Just as the reader learns that he has been sent to investigate Nazi Bund activities in the rural area, it is revealed that Vachell is at a farm where violent attacks against animals have been occurring in the night. Who is behind such violent attacks? The answers keep coming, but so do the questions to keep the reader wondering—and reading. Many inexperienced authors dump a mass of background information into the first page, if not the first few sentences of a novel. Huxley could have started her novel, “CID Officer Vashell arrived in British East Africa on May 6, 1936 with orders to investigate Nazi Bund activities.” Such an approach would have been more efficient than the measured approach she took, but it would have been far less effective at drawing a reader on and engaging the reader. The more an author can entice a reader to discover key information for themselves as a story goes along, the better it is for the reader—and writer.

If you buy a copy of The African Poison Murders, take a marker or pen and carefully read the first 10 or 15 pages. Mark where key information is revealed to the reader, such as the identity and profession of the protagonist, his mission, the setting (time and place), and the first crimes. The pacing at which Huxley provides such information is masterfully suited to a mystery, since mystery readers, by definition, love mysteries. Huxley leaves the reader wondering, on the borderline of confusion, trying to figure out what is going on, and why.

A Poor Ending

Unfortunately, Huxley’s novel is also a prime example of how not to end a mystery novel. The motives for a murder in a mystery novel should be logical, stemming from a character’s traits, beliefs and goals. The motive behind the killings in The African Poison Murders is insanity. In real life, murderers may be unbalanced or mentally ill in some cases. Even then, people like to find a logical motive behind murders, even if the motive is twisted, such as with the Son of Sam, who claimed his dog told him to kill women. In a mystery novel, however, readers are usually extremely disappointed if the motive for the murders is insanity. If you are writing a slash-and-gore thriller, then insanity may be a possibility, but even in such books, readers are far more satisfied if the killings are motivated by a logical, albeit twisted, motive, such as revenge, jealousy or greed. Huxley throws in some jealousy of a rival woman and love of another woman’s children for whom she cares, but the insanity angle weakens the motive and destroys the end of the novel.

Huxley’s insanity explanation is also inconsistent with the crimes in the story. One set of crimes involves brutal attacks on animals. These attacks are ferocious and passionate, fitting a disturbed mind. The second set of crimes, however, includes murders, one of which is well planned and carefully covered up in the aftermath. The insane, passionate and ferocious monster who attacks the animals is entirely inconsistent with the careful planner who commits two murders. Huxley appears to be aware of this flaw in her novel since she goes to some length explaining that the murderer only experienced episodes of insanity and could be perfectly sane the rest of the time. For readers, it is a weak explanation. Characters, even murderers, should be consistent in their traits and behaviors. Insanity is no excuse for inconsistency—at least not in a novel.