What should you do if you're craving a twisty new whodunit? Elementary! Pick up Caroline Carlson's first middle grade mystery, The World's Greatest Detective, out now from HarperCollins!
Caroline Carlson, author of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series, returns with The World’s Greatest Detective, a story of crime, tricks, and hilarity for those who know that sometimes it takes a pair of junior sleuths to solve a slippery case.
Detectives’ Row is full of talented investigators, but Toby Montrose isn’t one of them. He’s only an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency, and he’s not sure he’s even very good at that. Toby’s friend Ivy is the best sleuth around—or at least she thinks so. They both see their chance to prove themselves when the famed Hugh Abernathy announces a contest to choose the World’s Greatest Detective. But when what was supposed to be a game turns into a real-life murder mystery, can Toby and Ivy crack the case?
Welcome, Caroline! I'm going to jump at the opportunity to pick your brain about this genre. What makes for a satisfying mystery story?
I’m a lifelong mystery reader, and I think the particular quality that most of my favorite mysteries share is a solution that’s both surprising and fair. When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience—some will uncover the truth of the mystery long before you want them to, while others might not be able to guess it at all—but in The World's Greatest Detective, I tried to create a puzzle that was tricky enough to keep readers on their toes while also planting enough clues to give them a chance to solve the case on their own.
Of course, in addition to a great twisty plot, a satisfying mystery story has to have compelling characters, conflict and tension, high stakes, interesting settings, well-chosen turns of phrase, and all the other things that make any book stronger. My hope is that readers will enjoy spending time with the book even if they solve the mystery quickly or are reading it for a second or third time.
Do you approach writing mysteries differently than, say, your Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series?
I try to include a few surprising twists in all my books, so I guess you could say that they all have some elements of mystery, but the main difference in my writing process for The World's Greatest Detective was that I had to plot the whole book very carefully in advance. I usually do some plotting before I start to write, but for this book, I couldn’t play anything by ear, even the minor details: I had to know every character’s movements, motivations, backstory and alibi. I planned out the details of how the crime was committed, and then I planned out a few red herrings as well. I made lots of lists: lists of suspects, lists of clues, lists of mistakes and wrong turns my detectives would make on their way to uncovering the truth. It took a long time to write the first draft. The structure of the book didn’t change very much after I’d completed that first draft, either, because any small change I made could have affected the entire mystery plot!
Do you have any advice for writers who want to try their hand at a whodunit?
Read lots of mysteries and study their structure! If you notice a twist that an author does well, take notes about how she does it. And if you feel intimidated by the process of writing a mystery, remember that under the surface, a mystery novel is just like any other story about an interesting character facing a challenge he or she has to overcome. That challenge just might involve a little more murder than usual.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
I had to learn a lot about cyanide for this book. Did you know that when you die from cyanide poisoning, you might turn purple?
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I worked with Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Franny Billingsley, and Martine Leavitt. I wish I could keep sending them my writing in the mail every month!
I hear that. What is your favorite VCFA memory?
There are so many specific moments I loved, but one image that’s stuck with me over the years has been waking up in my Dewey dorm room during winter residencies and watching the smoke rising out of people’s chimneys, up out of Montpelier and past the mountains. I loved those peaceful moments at the beginning of each day; I always felt really lucky to be in such a beautiful place among so many wonderful writers and friends. Even when it was several degrees below zero!
Thanks so much for visiting the Launchpad, Caroline! We're glad you're on the case!
Caroline Carlson graduated from VCFA in July 2011 and is a proud member of the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.
Visit her online at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.