Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 11/22/2022

Episode 26: My Murder Chart

by Whitman Chambers

From September and October 1933 issues of "Writer's Digest."

A reproduction of the chart mentioned in this article can be found here.

Part I

The great beauty of a mystery murder is that every major character connected with the story is a definite possible suspect; each with a good reason WHY he or she could have committed the crime.

Then as a mystery murder progresses, one or more additional murders occur, and the most obvious of suspects are the ones killed; thus mystifying the story even more.

Reader interest in a mystery murder comes only from having a large number of major and semi-major characters, each and every one of which could be guilty of the crime. The difficulty, of course, lies in keeping all lines clear and not getting your characters mixed up. What’s the best way to do this? Whitman Chambers tells in his murder chart.

In Mr. Chambers’ best selling novel, "Navy Murders," there are 12 characters. Immediately we have eleven suspects.

As the trail of the murderer gets hotter and hotter, one definite suspect stands out. Then he is murdered. Four murders occur, and each time the murder happens just when the suspect is (in the reader’s mind) definitely found guilty of being the criminal. Out of the remaining 8 characters, each is an honest legitimate suspect. Eventually one is found to be the murderer and the book ends. But the whole force of the book depends upon everybody in the book being suspected of the murder. The murder chart permits the writer to keep all characters apart.

"What'll it be about?" Mrs. Chambers asked, as we sat that evening in front of a roaring fire.

"Any ideas?"

"Not one," I said gloomily.

"Well, let’s pick a good setting first," said the wife.

"You name it. But if you suggest the country estate of a millionaire, or a haunted house—well, there’ll be a divorce in the Chambers family."

"But," my wife objected, "ninety per cent of all mystery novels are laid on country estates, preferably haunted and preferably English."

"And that is exactly why we won't use one!" I said. "Our crimes will take place as far away from a country estate, and from England, as possible."

"How about the tropics? When you were in the Navy you were stationed in Panama. Perhaps—"

"There’s an idea! Why not make Panama the scene of the story and make the characters Navy officers and their wives? I know how those people act. I never read a mystery story laid in Panama nor one in which the chief characters were Navy people. In these two respects, at least, we’ll show a little originality. The scene, then, will be a tropical naval base at which are stationed a few officers and their families."

"So much for the locale and the characters. You said something a moment ago about crimes. What will they be?"

"Murders, of course. What less violent crime, in this violent day, would hold the attention of our readers? Murder, always!"

"And you used the plural."

"Naturally. A few years ago an author could write 75,000 words about one murder and its solution. Moderation, however, has ceased to be a characteristic of the American people—perhaps it never was. Only multiple murder will hold the reader these days. Not even a top-notcher like Mrs. Rinehardt tries to get by with only a single murder. We shall have at least four murders in our book!"

"Very well," my wife nodded, "who will commit these murders and why? You always work out these mystery stories from the solution, don’t you? Well, what’s your motive for this mass murder?"

I groaned and confessed weakly: "I haven’t any motive."

"What? No motive?"

"Well, hardly any motive. But one thing I do insist upon. The motive must be simple, understandable, convincing and not too complicated . . . How about this idea? We have a woman married to a naval officer whom she has grown to hate. She has also grown to hate the tropics and the deadening monotony of navy life. This hatred has become a mania with her—to such a degree that she is willing to do anything to break away from her husband and the life she is leading."

"Why doesn’t she divorce her husband?"

"If she did," I said, "we wouldn't have any story."

"Why else?"

"Well—uh—no grounds! That's it! He hasn’t given her any grounds to divorce him."

"Then why doesn’t she give him grounds to divorce her?"

"He won’t divorce her. He’s a stubborn egg. Very stubborn. He absolutely refuses to consider divorcing his wife."

"Well, why doesn’t she leave him then? Why doesn’t she just quit and go home to her folks?"

"No folks to go to," I said promptly. "No home to go to. And no money to support herself."

"Then, if she kills him, how is she going to support herself? If you suggest she might kill him for the huge life insurance policy he carries—"

"No, no, no! I’m not quite so crude as that," I put in quickly. "Wait a minute now . . . Here! How’s this? Our little murderess is quite wealthy in her own name. _But_—the money is in trust. Left to her by her father. The old man was narrow-minded. He was fanatically opposed to divorce. By the terms of his will, the income from this trust fund would be cut off if his daughter, in the event of her marriage, divorced her husband or was divorced by him . . . There! How’s that for a motive?"


"Only fair? . . . Look! See what we have so far. Here is our murderess. A good looking woman about 37 years old. Outwardly happy and contented, quite wealthy. She is likeable, even lovable. All this to divert the reader’s suspicions. We must, of course, make her the last person in the world one might suspect of committing a murder. Underneath, however, she is bitterly discontented. She feels she is caught in a trap. She cannot divorce her husband—for in that event she would lose her income. She cannot leave her husband — for in that event he would divorce her and still she would lose her income. It goes without saying that she could not possibly support herself. Now! There are two courses open to her: She can go on as she has in the past, living with a man she hates and living a life she cannot longer endure. Or—she can kill her husband."

"And for the purposes of the story, she decides to kill him."


"But won’t she be the first person under suspicion if her husband is murdered?" Mrs. Chambers objected.

"Well, uh—uh—" I stammered lamely. "Come! You’ll have to get around that some way."

I tossed a log on the fire.

"All right, we’ll get around it. First, our murderess and her husband are, so far as anybody knows, living in peace and amity. The situation as regards the trust fund is not known to the other people on the navy base. And our murderess has taken pains to conceal the fact that she hates her husband and is bored to death with her life. All that stuff need not come out until near the end, when our detective digs it out."

Mrs. Chambers shook her head. "I still think I’d be inclined to suspect the wife in a situation like that. The first thing your detective would do would be to delve into the married life of this couple and try to find a motive for hanging the crime on the wife. That is, if your detective has any common sense."

"All my detectives have common sense!" I asserted proudly.

"Well, there was that dolt in—"

"Do we have to go into that?" I demanded.

"See here! I’ve got an idea."


"Yes, really! And it’s a pip! Listen to this: The first murder is not the crucial murder."

"What do you mean by the crucial murder?"

"The one on which the whole plot hinges. The murder of our insufferable husband. I use the adjective advisedly. No one, of course, realizes our husband is insufferable."

"You mean you are going to have this lovable little lady kill some one else first, in order to divert suspicion from herself?"

"Yes. Some one who is hated by everybody on the base. Some one for whom the reader can feel no sympathy. Some one who, from everybody’s reaction to his murder, really rated killing."

"Sounds weak to me."

"Give me time. We’ll build up the idea . . . How’s this? Following the first murder it is brought out that the insufferable husband had a very good motive for murdering this man. His wife, though apparently reluctant, will see that that motive is brought to light. Later, when the husband is found dead, it appears to be suicide. It looks as though the husband, repenting of his crime and fearful that he may be brought to justice, has killed himself. That part of the story would be easy enough to handle—the wife, in killing him, makes everything point to suicide."

"All that is very lovely," Mrs. Chambers admitted. "But your detective, whoever he may be, must discover very shortly that the second death was not suicide . . . Otherwise the investigation would end there and so would your story."

"Fair enough. The detective discovers that the insufferable husband did not kill himself, but was murdered. Why was he murdered ?"

"All right, why?"

"H-m. Uh—well— Here we are! The husband, up to this time, has been conducting the investigation of the murder. Now what is the most logical motive for the murder of an investigator?"

"Your investigator has found a clue pointing toward the murderer."

"Right! Our real detective, and our reader, feels certain that the insufferable husband has been killed before he could make public what he has learned. Almost invariably, in mystery stories, the second murder is committed to keep the murdered person from talking. And our reader, trained to his mystery story, will fall into the same trap our detective falls into."

"So far, so good. Wouldn’t you like to put a name to a few of these people?"

"We can name most of ’em right now. Commander Gordon Sprague is the commandant of the naval station, which we’ll call Puerto Obaldia. He is cordially hated by everybody on the base. He makes a play for all the women and he rides all the men. Everybody in the story has good cause for despising him and wanting him out of the way. And it is Gordon Sprague who is first murdered.

"That makes everybody a suspect."

"All right. The investigation of the murder is taken up by Lieutenant-Commander Ben Sutherland, who is second in command. Ben’s wife we’ll call Eve. (It is Eve, of course, who kills Sprague and very shortly thereafter kills her husband.)"

"Who will you have for a detective?"

"Well, with the commander and the executive out of the way, the next in command would carry on the investigation. Let's call this fellow Sam Bremer."

"So far, then, we have four characters: Gordon Sprague, the commandant; Ben and Eve Sutherland, and Sam Bremer, our detective. Who is murdered next, and why?"

"The next man murdered must be the chief suspect up to this time—the chief suspect in the mind of the reader. That’s one of the rules. Build up a good case against a man, have it pretty well fixed in the reader’s mind that he is guilty and then murder him. That’s what we did, in a way, with Ben Sutherland. We’ll do the same thing with this next fellow. Let’s call him Jake Williamson.

"Jake is a bachelor. We’ll make him a bit wild. Drinks too much and all that sort of thing. He has a court-martial coming up which Sprague is pushing. If it goes through, Jake will be ruined. He has every reason in the world to want to get Sprague out of the way.

"Having killed Sprague-this, you understand, is the way our detective and our reader will reason it out-Jake Williamson discovers that Ben Sutherland has found a clue. Jake gets Ben alone and rubs him . But the detective’s deduction knocked into a cocked hat when Jake himself is murdered.

"All right. But why did Eve Sutherland have to kill Jake?"

For the most logical reason in the world. Jake, blundering around, stumbled on some clue pointing to Eve."

"But why didn’t Jake tell what he he found out?"

"Easy! Jake held Eve Sutherland in such high esteem that he couldn’t believe she was implicated. It was incredible to him. Before he announced himself, he wanted to talk with her alone. But before he had a chance to do that, Eve found out that Jake was wise and knocked him off."

"Well, you murdered three people so far. Who do you want to kill next?’

"It should be a woman."


"First, for variety. Second, because it gives us a chance to work in some love angles."

"Who will she be?"

"Let’s call her Helene Haverill. She is the very lovely wife of Bruce Haverill, one of the officers on the station."

"Why are you going to kill her?"

"When the time comes, with the help of our Murder Chart, we'll build up a motive. Just now we haven’t gone far enough, haven’t worked out the story in enough detail. I can assure you of this, however. The murder will be a logical development of the preceding events. It won’t be dragged in just to shed more blood for the delectation of our readers."

"Well, there are your four murders. Are you planning any love interest in the story?"

"Yes. Love interest is always a good thing in a mystery story provided it is kept subordinate to the main plot."

"Who will the two principals be?"

"Our detective, Sam Bremer, and—and —well, let’s give Bruce Haverill a sister. We’ll call her Lynne Haverill. She is living at the base with Bruce and Helene. At the time the story opens Lynne and Sam have a mild crush on each other. We’ll build this up into a good love affair, keeping it always subordinate to the mystery."

"How about your other characters?"

"Well, we’ll need another couple. We’ll make them young. We’ll make the wife a hard-boiled flapper type—this for comic relief. And we’ll make the husband very jealous of her—this to lend complication to the plot. And we’ll call them Marie and Tommy —uh, Tommy Tompkins."

"Who else?"

"Well, let’s throw in another man. Make him a doctor, because we’ll need a doctor in the story to pass on the cause of death. Call him Doc Sessions."


"We’ll concern ourselves with only one. Name her Ann, a buxom colored lass."

"Is that all?"

"That's the works," I said.

Here are the characters as I listed them on a slip of paper:

  • GORDON SPRAGUE (first to be murdered)
  • BEN SUTHERLAND (second to be murdered)
  • JAKE WILLIAMSON (third to be murdered)
  • HELENE HAVERILL (fourth to be murdered)
  • ANN
  • EVE SUTHERLAND (murderess)
  • SAM BREMER (detective)

"Now," Mrs. Chambers said, "you want to gather all these people together for the first murder, don’t you?"

"You bet."


"We’ll have them all at a party at Ben Sutherland’s quarters. We’ll have just these officers and their ladies and Ann, the Sutherland’s servant, in the house. No one else. Then when they find Gordon Sprague’s body and Doc Sessions says he has been murdered, everybody will know that the murder was committed by one of these people. Then it will be our job to give each person there a motive and an opportunity. Also we will plant a few clues pointing to this person and to that."

"The list of suspects, then, must include each and every one of the characters."

"Exactly. That’s where our little guessing game with the reader comes in."

"All that is very well. But why couldn’t some one from the outside, perhaps an enlisted man, have slipped into the house and killed Commander Sprague?"

"That’s a point!" I put some more wood on the fire and thought about it for a while. "Well, suppose we have a tropical storm sweeping the coast. Suppose the doors and the window screens have been rattling. Ben Sutherland has latched them to keep them from banging in the wind. After the murder, the house is searched and the doors and windows are examined. Thus we know that the murderer was one of the group in the house. O. K.?"

"O. K. . . How are you going to kill Commander Sprague?"

"The method of murder should be in keeping with the atmosphere. These people are living on the edge of the jungle. Back in the bush are some of the wildest Indians in the world. All right! We’ll make Ben Sutherland a collector of primitive weapons. Bows and arrows, blow-guns, native knives, all that sort of thing. He has these weapons in an unlocked case in his study, to which every person at the party has access. Commander Sprague, along with the other three people who are murdered, are struck by poisoner darts which are either shot from a blow-gun, hurled by hand, or plunged into the victim.

"And they die instantly?"

"The poison on the dart renders them unconscious almost at once."

"What poison?" Heavy sarcasm here. "Some unknown and baffling native poison for which the white man knows no antidote?"

"Are you trying to insult me? Unknown poisons are not fair. The poison on the darts will be aconitine, which is probably the most deadly poison known to medical science. Its action is typical. The body stiffens. The face turns blue. It is obtained from the root of a flower called monkshood and is used extensively by the wild tribes of Central and South America."

"You’re pretty smart, aren’t you? You’ve been reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica."

"Could I write a novel without it?"

"You couldn't, no."

"You’re complimentary tonight, aren’t you? . . . Well, the fire has gone out and we might as well go to bed and sleep on these murders. Tomorrow night we’ll work out the Murder Chart."


The scene is the same as the night before, same story under consideration, same fire, same wife.

"Well, what have we so far?" I asked.

"If you can’t remember it, I can’t," Mrs. Chambers replied.

"If I can’t remember it! Listen to the lady! Just get a load of this: A group of naval officers and their wives are living on the isolated post of Puerto Obaldia, on the coast of Panama. They are the Commandant, Commander Gordon Sprague; Lieutenant - Commander Ben Sutherland and his wife, Eve; Lieutenant Sam Bremer, Lieutenant Bruce Haverill, his wife Helene, and his sister, Lynne; Lieutenant Jake Williamson, Ensign Tommy Tompkins and his wife, Marie ; Dr. Sessions, and Ann, the Sutherland’s negro servant.

"A party is in progress at the Sutherland’s quarters. During a game in which the lights are turned out, Commander Sprague is found dead with a poisoned native dart in his shoulder. Immediate examination of the house shows that all the screens and doors had been fastened on the inside, due to the noise they were making when left unlatched in a tropical storm. This proves that the murderer must be one of the eleven persons in the house.

"Now for our investigation, which must throw suspicion on every one of these eleven persons. Ben Sutherland, as next in command, would take it up. But Ben is soon to be killed off in the interests of our story, so we’ll have to make him call for help."

"Well," said Mrs. Chambers, "why does Ben call for help? He doesn’t know he’s going to be killed."

"Ben is a weak sister. He is the type who, in a tough situation like this, would yell for help. Sam Bremer, being the next in rank, is the logical one to whom Ben would appeal. . . . There! How’s that?"

"So far, so good. But you haven’t gone very far."

"Give me time. Here’s my murder chart. In the first column, as you know, I always put the names of the characters in the story. This time its headed by Gordon Sprague, who is the first person killed. Naw let’s take up the other characters one by one and show how each of them might be involved in the murder of the commander. We’ll start with Ben Sutherland. My might Ben Sutherland have desired the death of his commanding officer?"

"You tell me."

"All right, if you insist. Let’s think about it a minute. . . . (The periods represent a lapse of ten minutes). Here we are! The investigation brings out the fact that Ben and Sprague have known each other for years. Sprague, some ten years before married Ben’s sister, of whom Ben was extremely fond. Sprague was unfaithful to her, chased around a lot and finally made life so miserable for her that she killed herself. Naturally, Ben hates Sprague."

"Naturally," Mrs. Chambers agreed. "But it seems to me Ben waited a long time before killing him."

"That’s only one motive. We’ll throw in some others. Ben was once Sprague’s commanding officer. But in the navy shuffle, perhaps as the result of a court martial, Ben lost twenty or thirty numbers and now he’s serving under Sprague. That irks him."

"Would it irk him to the point where he’d commit murder?"

"It might. You must understand—_and we must bring out_—that none of these people are quite sane. They have been living for months on this isolated naval base only a few degrees from the equator. Under the strain of proximity and heat, their nerves are raw and their souls are festering. Anything might happen under such conditions. And these conditions—the atmosphere of the story—will make credible motives and actions which in a cooler clime and under other circumstances would seem most implausible.

"This will aid us, when we come to the last chapter, to explain and justify Eve’s crimes. Even more important, however, we have successfully tied the atmosphere into the story. Without it, without the heat and the ennui and rasped nerves, there could not have been a story. And no one will be able to say that our exotic setting was just dragged in for effect. The atmosphere, always, should play an important part in motivating the action of the story. . . . Now where were we?"

"You were giving Ben Sutherland a motive for killing Sprague."

"Oh, yes. We have the motive. We have two motives. And then, of course, as we said last night, Ben had a collection of poisoned darts and would be the most likely person to think of and put into execution that mode of murder. So much for Ben. Take the chart. You may write in the column under Sprague and opposite Ben Sutherland:

" 'Hated Sprague because latter had virtually caused the death of Ben’s sister. Had once been Sprague’s commanding officer and greatly resented serving under him. Had collection of poisoned darts and knew how to use them.’ . . . That should settle Mr. Sutherland’s hash."

"Jake Williamson is next on the list."

"Old Jake, yes. . . . Well, we said last night that Sprague had ordered Williamson court martialed. We’ll bring out the fact that Jake’s offense was not very great and the other officers would be inclined to drop it. Sprague, however, being a hard egg, insists on going through with it. If he does, Jake’s career will be ruined. That should be sufficient motive for Jake to bump off the commander. Now you may take the chart again and write in the same column, opposite Jake Williamson:

" ‘Sprague has ordered court martial which would ruin Jake.’ . . . Who’s next on the list of suspects?"

"Helene Haverill."

"Helene, huh? Well, why might Helene want Sprague out of the way?"

"Well, you seem to be drawing Sprague as quite a ladies’ man and something of a bounder. Why not tie in Helene’s motive with this characterization?"

"Good idea! Suppose we bring out that Helene, before she married Bruce Haverill, had an affair with Sprague. Bruce, who is very strait-laced, does not know of this. Sprague is trying blackmail on Helene, her husband having quite a bit of money. Helene, we feel from what we know of her, would do anything to prevent her husband’s finding out about this old affair with Sprague. Perhaps he even had some letters from her which he was trying to peddle, as blackmailers do."

"You are certainly making Commander Sprague a consummate villian."

"We have to. Only by making him a rascal who should have been rubbed out years before, can we make Eve’s killing him sound reasonable. Suppose you write this in the column opposite Helene Haverill:

" 'Had had affair with Sprague which she was determined to keep from husband at any price. Sprague was trying to blackmail her.’ . . . Who’s next? Bruce Haverill?"


"All right. Let’s see. Bruce has a very comely sister, Lynne, who is our heroine. Knowing Sprague as we do, and realizing the dearth of women on this isolated naval station, what do we suspect?"

"If you ask me, I suspect that Sprague has been trying to seduce the comely Lynne."

"He couldn’t miss. . . . Set this down opposite Bruce Haverill:

" ‘Resented Sprague’s attentions to Lynne and may have feared for his sister’s virtue’ . . . Next on the list?"

"The comely Lynne in person."

"Ah. The comely Lynne! And she’s going to be comely, what I mean! . . . Well, our detective realizes without bringing it out too strongly in company that Sprague may have compromised Lynne and she has killed him to keep him from bragging about his conquest."

"Do men brag about such things?"

"A lousy rat like Sprague might do anything."

"Well, anyway, I think that motive is weak."

"What of it? A weak motive in Lynne’s case won’t hurt the story in the least. The reader, by this time, has tumbled to the fact that Lynne is our heroine. He has also tumbled to the fact that Sam Bremer is in love with her. Now if our reader is at all cagey, he knows that I am not going to make my heroine, with whom my detective is in love, a cold-blooded murderess."

"It has been done."

"Yes, but it isn’t cricket. Not if the detective is really in love with her, and we’ll bring out definitely that he is. The smart reader, you know, realizes that the detective must get the girl in the end and we can’t have our fair-haired boy marrying a murderess. So opposite Lynne Haverill you may write:

"Might have compromised herself with Sprague and had to kill him to protect her reputation."

"Ann is next."

"Ann, the colored maid." I put some wood on the fire. "Well, let’s bring out merely that Ann is a proud, self-willed, haughty sort of a woman who might stoop to murder if she harbored a violent dislike for a person. We’ll make her sort of an enigma. Nobody will know what goes on behind that black forehead of hers, put down merely:

" ‘Hated Sprague because of his overbearing attitude toward her.' "

"And now we come to Eve Sutherland."

"Ah! Our murderess."

"Our lovely murderess." Mrs. Chambers corrected.

"Yes. Our lovely murderess."

"Do you plan to give her a motive? Is it your intention to plant in the reader's mind the possibility that Eve might have killed the commandant?"

"Exactly! But we’ll plant it in such shallow soil and give it so little water won’t grow very long. And right here is where we’ll have to use all the judgement, all the tact, and finesse of which we are capable. This is one of the turning points of the story. Remember, we’re playing with the reader. We’re trying to outsmart him. A few years ago, a mystery writer was very careful to cast no suspicion on his murderer. Then the mystery reader got wise to himself and, when he’d read a few chapters, he'd pick the least likely character as the murderer. He didn’t use any reasoning powers. He merely said: ‘Here’s John Jones. No clues have pointed to him. No one is suspicious of him. He appears to have no motive for committing the crimes. He’s the last person in the world you’d ever suspect. But I’ll bet you two to one that John Jones is responsible for these killings.’ And nine times out of ten the reader would pick the right man.

"These days things must be handled a little differently. We must cast suspicion on Eve, our murderess, but we must make it seem rather obvious and contrived. Our motive, for Eve, must be weak. Any clue that we drag in pointing to her must seem a bit artificial. If we can just make the reader say smuggly to himself: 'This man is trying his best to throw suspicion on Eve Sutherland, but he has run out of plausible motives and hasn’t ingenuity enough (or is too darned lazy) to think up a new one. You can’t fool me, fella. I know Eve Sutherland isn’t the killer.’ If we can just get the reader to say something of that sort, early in the story and for the reasons I’ve outlined, half the battle of fooling him is won."

"Well, what shall I write opposite the name of Eve Sutherland?"

"You may write: 'Disliked Sprague. Knew he was getting under her husband's skin. May have killed him to prevent an open breach which might have been disastrous to Ben. Also was familiar with Ben’s collection of darts’ "

"You’ve made a pretty weak case against her," Mrs. Chambers said dubiously.

"We’ll make it stronger when we write the story, just a little stronger. . . . Who’s next on the list?"

"Tommy Tompkins."

"Oh, yes. . . . Well, we’ll suppose that Tommy was caught in the same jam as Jake Williamson. A court martial, forced by Sprague, was pending. With Sprague out of the way, the charges would probably be dropped. Put this opposite Tommy Tompkins:

" 'Might have killed Sprague to avert threatened court martial’ . . . His wife is next on the list?"

"Yes. Marie Tompkins."

"All right. Much the same motive could be used for her. We’ll make her a bit of a roughneck, without much social background. Her husband is only an ensign and she has little chance to get ahead socially until Tommy gets another stripe or two. That court martial would set him back several years. Motivated by her intense ambition and her sense of inferiority, she might stoop to murder. Particularly when we draw her as a selfish, self-centered little snip with a firery temper and an iron will. Opposite her name you might write:

" 'Same motive as husband, but stronger because she is a stronger character.’ . . . Doc Cessions is next?"


"Well, we’ll introduce a jealousy angle here. Doc Sessions, like our hero-detective, is in love with Lynne. He is pretty burned up over the fact that Sprague has been making up to the girl. Doc is a sharp-tongued, ironic sort of a person; no one knows what he thinks or how his mind works. Well make him, by drawing him this way, one of our chief suspects. And then, of course, there is the matter of the poisoned darts. He, of all the people under suspicion, knew how swiftly fatal is aconitine. . . . You may write for him:

" 'Jealous of Sprague’s attention to Lynne, on whom he has a crush. A hard, enigmatic sort of person, sort of a man of mystery. Familiar with poisons.’ "

"And that leaves only Sam Bremer, your detective, on the list. Should any suspicion fall on him?"

"Some, yes."

"Will it be a first person story?"

"Yes. The story will be told by Sam Bremer."

"But if he is telling the story, just as it happened there at Puerto Obaldia, why would any reader suspect him of being the murderer? Detectives often turn out to be murderers—in mystery stories—but would it be fair to the reader to have a man who is telling the story of these murders . . ."

"Listen! Readers have been tricked so many times that they are willing to be suspicious of anybody. It is not considered cricket for the narrator of a story to withhold facts; he must present them in the story in the order that he received them. Some writers, however, refuse to abide by the rules. Now and then one even goes so far as to allow his narrator to omit such an important detail as that he (the narrator) was responsible for the crimes he is telling about.

"Now all readers of mystery stories have encountered tales in which the narrator of the story is not only the detective but is also the criminal. Said readers have been pretty peeved when they realized how they were tricked. But they haven’t forgotten and they still keep in mind the fact that they may again fall for such trickery. And for that reason we must give our narrator-detective a plausible motive for killing Gordon Sprague. Well, he is in love with Lynne. What’ll you write opposite Sam Bremer?"

"Can you really trust me to figure out such a weighty problem? … I shall write:

" ‘Jealous of Sprague’s attentions to Lynne.' O. K.?"

"That’s fine. And so we come to the end of the motives for the first murder, all of these motives being brought out during the examination of the various suspects by Ben Sutherland and Sam Bremer."

"And what happens next?" Mrs. Chambers asked.

"The next murder, of course."


"Something like this: Sutherland dismisses the weary group to their own quarters. This about two in the morning. At four that morning Sam Bremer is roused by a telephone call from Ann. Ann tells him that Ben Sutherland has been found dead in his study. Bremer, who lives in the bachelor quarters with Williamson and Doc Sessions, discovers that neither of these men are in their rooms. That puts them under suspicion at once. Then, running over to the Sutherland’s quarters, he bumps into Lynne and finally into Jake Williamson. The three of them go to the Sutherland’s and find Ben dead at his desk, with a dart in his arm. Everything points to suicide.

"It seems that the matter is settled—just as Eve planned it to seem! Ben killed Sprague, everybody reasons, and then fearing that his guilt would be discovered, he committed suicide. Bremer, who is now in command of the base, is examining the body when he discovers strong evidence that Ben was murdered. He immediately summons the rest of our characters. When he begins to examine them he discovers that everyone, apparently, was running around the base in the darkness of early morning, though each one denies any ulterior motive for being out of his quarters. . . . Now we’ll fill in the second column of our Murder Chart. After the name of Ben Sutherland you may write:

" ‘Found dead in study—dart in arm—at four a. m. At first believed suicide. Bremer later discovers he was murdered.' . . . Jake Williamson is next on the chart, isn’t he? What is there to implicate him in this second murder? H-m. Now let’s see about Jake."

"I suggest we see about bed," Mrs. Chambers said coolly.

"So early?"

"Early? It’s two in the morning and . . ."

"A swell time for a murder."

"And you’ve let the fire go out."

"All right," I capitulated. "We’ll continue this in our next session."

We continued it in several sessions and finally worked out the appended chart. The principle, however, should be clear. And mystery stories, like almost everything else, are chiefly a matter of principle.

I hope you understand mine and can use it to your profit.