Writers can often learn a great deal by looking at the work of other writers. Deconstructing a story can help us in understanding how characters, plot and other elements are woven together to make a complete whole. So I hope it’ll be helpful to take a close look at a novel in this post. My genre is crime fiction, so I’ve chosen a crime fiction novel, Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, to take a look at how plot, characters and other story elements are tied together.
The Serpent Pool focuses on three murder investigations. DCI Hannah Scarlett is interested in the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. At the time, it was thought that it might have been a suicide. But Scarlett was never really convinced of that, so she and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case. At the same time, the Cumbria Constabulary is also investigating two other deaths; book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg have both been murdered, each in a different way. Scarlett and her friend Fern Larter, who’s heading up the Saffell and Wagg investigations, come to believe that the three deaths are related and begin to search for the connection that links them. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the detectives find out who’s responsible for the murders and what the surprising truth is about them.
Meanwhile, Scarlett’s personal life has become complicated. Her partner, rare book dealer Marc Amos, finds himself more and more drawn to his new assistant Cassie Weston. It’s not helping matters, either, that he and Scarlett have been having problems lately. So Scarlett has to deal not only with a complex and difficult police investigation but also with stress on the home front. Matters come to a head as the tension between the two increases and as Scarlett gets closer and closer to the truth about the three murders.
The main point of this story is, of course, the mystery. The question of who killed the three victims is at the core of the novel and all of the major events are focused on that point. It’s important to mention that because in a well-written crime fiction novel, the mystery is what ties all of the various threads of the plot together. That’s what happens in The Serpent Pool. We find out what the connection is between the three deaths, and how that relates to other events in Scarlett’s life. In the end, all of the major plot strands are related.
This novel is a police procedural, so another element we see in it is the set of details of a police investigation. Edwards integrates interviews, forensic test results, evidence collection and other aspects of a careful murder investigation. Those details are realistic and add to the book’s context. They also make the novel more believable. That said, though, they don’t overburden the novel. That’s a delicate balance in police procedurals, and it’s important to consider it when planning that sort of crime fiction story. It’s also worth mentioning that this novel shows the effect of “doing one’s homework.” There’s a solid sense of authenticity about the investigation details.
Because this novel is a police procedural, we also get to see the daily life of a police precinct. There are briefings and reports, and we get an “inside look” at conducting an investigation given the realities of budget cuts, policies and the police “pecking order.”
Another element that runs through this novel and forms a solid backdrop is its setting. The story takes place in the Lake District, and that setting is an important part of this novel. Edwards gives a very real portrait of the area, so that the reader has a solid sense of place. Here, for instance, is the scene one day when Scarlett and Amos take a walk together:
“In front of them lay a grassy platform above the farmland that reached as far as the rocky passageway leading to the ridge and the Serpent Tower. The area was featureless except for a small, irregularly shaped stretch of water. It took a fanciful turn of mind to compare it to the sinuous contours of a serpent, but the people who gave names to places in the Lakes never lacked imagination.
Readers want a solid sense of location; I’ve heard more than one book fan complain that the book she or he was reading “could have taken place anywhere.” That doesn’t happen here. Edwards uses not just the scenery, but also the history of the Lake District to place the reader.
Pacing and timing are also an important consideration, especially in a crime fiction novel. If the pace is too quick, it’s hard to follow the course of events. If the pace is too slow, the reader might lose interest, especially in a mystery novel, where readers expect events to happen relatively quickly. There’s also the question of which sort of pace is best for the kind of mystery novel one’s writing. For example, a thriller works best with a faster pace and more events than a more quiet mystery does. In The Serpent Pool, the pace moves fairly quickly; the events in the story take place over a couple of weeks. That makes sense for a police procedural since the first days of a case are the most crucial ones for getting evidence and talking to witnesses. And yet, there are enough quiet moments in the novel that we also get to know the characters.
Characters, of course, are essential to any novel, whatever its genre. Without multi-dimensional characters, a story quickly turns stale. Edwards uses several strategies in The Serpent Pool to add depth to the characters. One is giving characters’ backstories a little at a time. We piece together the story of Bethany Friend’s life and death as the detectives do, so each time they find a piece of evidence or another perspective on the victim, we discover it, too. The same is true of George Saffell. We learn a bit more about Stuart Wagg before we learn of his murder but even there, we don’t learn about him all at once. This adds to the characters’ interests and doesn’t overburden the reader with detail.
The Serpent Pool is the fourth of Edwards’ Lake District novels, all of which have featured Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. Developing characters over the course of a series can be tricky. For one thing, readers may not begin a series with the first novel, so there needs to be enough backstory in subsequent novels not to exclude first-time readers. On the other hand, for readers who do read the series in order, too much backstory in the later novels can be repetitive. Edwards resolves this issue by giving snippets of the characters’ backstories as they’re relevant. For instance, Kind’s sister Louise is having a relationship with Stuart Wagg, and Edwards uses this to share some of the Kind siblings’ background with the reader. There are also new developments in the characters’ lives in this novel, so that readers who’ve been following the series will be interested as well.
In The Serpent Pool, Martin Edwards ties together the elements of plot, pace and character against the Lake District setting. All of this takes place in the context of a very effective police procedural. But what’s your view? Have you read The Serpent Pool? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
This article is reproduced by kind permission of Margot Kinberg and first appeared on the Savvyauthors blog.