In 2018, I sent a basic outline to my publishers about a novel that was to be centred around a network of true crime and murder mystery fans who were tormenting my Dublin-based detective, Frankie Sheehan, by taunting her with various fake crime scenes around the city. Their aim was to score higher than each other on both forensic detail and publicity. The idea is close but not quite what eventually became The Murder Box. As is often the case, I felt I was reaching for something but hadn’t quite got to it yet. It was shortly after, that I attended a murder mystery dinner at the Theakston Crime Festival in Harrogate. The participants were so committed to the game that it was then I thought that in this novel I should bring together the idea of a murder mystery game with a network of mystery fans.
I knew that this was what I had been reaching for, the idea of a murder mystery game spread out across my detective’s very real landscape but instead of a fictional victim, my detective discovers the victim at the centre of the game is real. Frankie would not only be up against the killer but all the players in this game who also want to ‘win’.
Although the book is set well before we saw advanced digitally augmented reality games like Pokemon Go become popular, the concept of these games did influence my writing in some ways. I was interested in that idea of a fictional world superimposed on the real. I also listened to many podcasts and read papers on gaming and game philosophy, as I knew I wanted a character who was a game’s expert to help Frankie and her team and so arrived Camille Forbes who gives the book it’s opening quote:
‘Whatever the objective in life, so often, success is not dependent on knowing how to play but knowing how to win.’
Another fun avenue of research was looking into how our brains interpret and solve various puzzles. In particular, those optical illusions that occasionally trend on social media. What happens when we are presented with what looks like a simple picture but there is information missing? I was interested in how our brains, when they are denied certain details, fill in the blank spaces, dependent on past experience. This gave me some nice angles to explore in how to create better red herrings for both the character and the reader. It all fed into the theme of fiction versus reality in the book. The characters are constantly attempting to decipher what’s game, what’s false and what’s real during their investigations. One fun addition was being able to include Dublin’s own fictional death posed as reality, the brass plaque on O’Connell Bridge commemorating Fr. Pat Noise. The plaque says:
‘Fr Pat Noise…He died under suspicious circumstances when his carriage plunged into the Liffey on August 10th 1919.’
Only his carriage did not plunge into the Liffey because Pat Noise didn’t exist. The plaque was created by two brothers who fit it into the depression left by the control box of the Millennium clock. It was two years before Dublin City Council were alerted to the plaque’s presence but a meeting on whether it should be removed determined that it should stay. Even though Pat Noise never existed, he had become part of the fabric of the city’s reality.
In the early stages of writing The Murder Box, I spent a lot of time researching murder mysteries and even bought a game of Cluedo so that I could revisit the shape we associate with the murder mystery boardgame. I needed to think how the game’s creator in The Murder Box would think. That game master would be a purist, I thought, adapting the traditional structure of the mystery game and blowing it up over Dublin city and its suburbs. I wanted to explore both the traditional murder mystery as seen on TV, in books and the murder mystery game. I wanted to hold them up against the gritty world of police procedure that Frankie and her team navigate so that in the novel, Dublin, becomes a boardgame for the players; my detective torn between the rules of the game and those procedural rules imposed on her through her work. So that reality and fiction become enmeshed as my detective attempts to piece together the clues.
When it came to writing The Murder Box, I wanted to distil this idea of plot on plot. To superimpose the traditional murder mystery game over a modern police procedural. In many ways, I wanted to capture some of that feeling of playing Murder in the Dark and Cluedo but in the authentic setting of Dublin city.
(c) Olivia Kiernan
About The Murder Box:
At first, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan believes the murder mystery game sent to her office is a birthday gift from one of her colleagues. But when Frankie studies the game’s contents, she notices a striking resemblance between the ‘murder victim’ and missing twenty-two-year-old Lydia Callin.
As Frankie and her team investigate, a series of grisly crimes connected to the game are discovered across Dublin city and Lydia’s involvement with a shadowy network of murder mystery players becomes clear.
On the hunt for Lydia’s murderer, Frankie is drawn more deeply into the game. Every successful move brings her closer to the killer. But the real question is not what happens should she lose — but what happens if she wins.
‘Kiernan’s best yet. You’ll be gripped from the minute you open The Murder Box . . .’ Cara Hunter
‘A real page-turner with an ingenious plot’ Patricia Gibney
‘A superior police procedural’ Sarah Vaughan
Order your copy online here.