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A Bluffer’s Guide to Crime Writing for Children By Bob Burke

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Bob Burke

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What was it that we all loved so much about The Famous Five? Writing.ie asked award winning writer Bob Burke to give us some tips on writing crime and mysteries for kids….

In theory, a crime novel follows a very simple process: a crime is committed, clues are examined, suspects interviewed and, in a tense dénouement – usually with all the suspects gathered in a drawing room, drinking sherry – the culprit is revealed (by the private detective, policeman, amateur sleuth or those pesky kids).  At this stage, if the writer has done their job properly, one of two things should happen to the reader: he either slaps his forehead in frustration, Homer Simpson-like, muttering ‘I never suspected the babysitter; how did I miss that vital clue’ or else sits there smugly with an ‘I knew it was her all along’ smile on her face.  Any other reaction might suggest that the author hasn’t been playing fair with the reader.

I wrote The Third Pig Detective Agency partly as a tribute to the type of detective fiction I’d been reading since I was very young, but once I began to put the plot together I realised how complex writing a crime novel was.  Based on what I’d read – and indeed watched – growing up, I formulated my own series of crime fiction rules to help me keep my plot in some way coherent and to ensure that the clues and suspects knitted together successfully (in my head, at least).  I should point out that these rules are in no way based on any academic research so anyone considering using them as the basis for a thesis might well be advised to look elsewhere. They are far more subjective, made to suit my needs and the source material includes (and is not limited to) The Rockford Files, Agatha Christie, The Hardy Boys, PD James, Ruth Rendell, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Harry Bosch, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, the Secret Seven, the Five Find-outers (with Buster the dog) and countless others.


Rule 1: you must be fair.  The clues and the evidence must point to a suspect identified – however tangentially – somewhere in the book.  He cannot be an evil second-cousin twice-removed, from Carpathia that the sleuth identified in a Eureka moment the previous night while sleeping and has not appeared or been hinted at at any stage in the novel.  This is a cop-out.  It will frustrate the reader and is tantamount to the writer admitting that he had no clue how to end the book in the first place.

Rule 2: the butler doesn’t always do it (or does he?).  Don’t make the culprit screamingly obvious.  If the evidence points exclusively to a man and there is only one male in the list of suspects, then the case will probably get wrapped up by the end of the second chapter and everyone will be home in time for tea.  Drop in a red herring or two and make the reader suspect one or more of the main characters based on the evidence; the more likely suspects there are, the more fun it is working out the actual villain.

Rule 3: the reader isn’t Sherlock Holmes (although they may very well think they are).  Don’t make the vital clue so obscure that only a marine biologist who specialises in the venom of Uruguayan sea-snails will spot that key piece of evidence and identify the granny who’s just back from a scuba-diving holiday inMontevideoas the killer.  The detective may, at some stage, end up interviewing such an expert as part of the investigation and can extrapolate on the clue for the benefit of the reader as much as himself at that point as opposed to presenting it out of the blue during the dénouement (see also Rule 1)


Rule 4: reverse engineering is acceptable.  Once the first (or twentieth) draft is complete, it’s ok to go back and make the clues a bit less obvious, the suspects a lot more suspicious and the links between them just that bit more circumspect.  You want the reader to have the ‘how did I miss that’ moment as opposed to ‘he never mentioned that gold ring before, did he?’

Rule 5: wrap everything up.  Ensure all clues are accounted for, all mysteries solved and there are no major outstanding questions.  Even the master of the detective story, Raymond Chandler, got it wrong on occasion, forgetting to identify who killed chauffeur Owen Taylor in The Big Sleep.

Rule 6: when writing for children, don’t dumb it down.  Kids are sharp too, you know.  It isn’t necessary to flag clues with big notices saying ‘Important Clue Here, Pay Attention’ or ‘Beware, Red Herring Alert’.  Of course this applies just as much – if not more – when writing for adults.

These rules are by no means definitive – nor are they meant to be.  This isn’t a Crime Writing Masterclass and I don’t claim to be an expert on crime fiction, it’s more of list of things that always frustrated me when I read or watched bad crime series.  When I had the opportunity to write my own detective novel, my intention was to stick as closely as possible to the conventions of the genre as well as producing a series that was both fun and entertaining without short-changing the reader, using the guidelines set-out above.  Hopefully I’ve succeeded.

About the author

(c) Bob Burke August 2011

Bob Burke blogs at Diary of a Nothingist. If you’d like him to visit your school, check out his blog and drop him a line!

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