What Innovators can Learn from Mysteries (An interview with Hy Conrad)

September 21, 2020

I’ve always found that innovation and mysteries have a lot in common. They both involve solving complex problems, and sometimes making the impossible possible. This is why I primarily read and watch mysteries during my spare time. They force me question my thinking in order to see the clues.

One of my all-time favorite television shows was Monk. The characters were great, and Monk’s obsessive hand washing is now quite timely. But for me, the mysteries were what grabbed my attention. To solve the puzzle each week, you needed to challenge your assumptions and consider an unlikely solution.

To learn more about the how the stories are written, I reached out to Hy Conrad. He worked as a writer for the entire run of the show, and was co-executive producer the final two years. He is also the author of four Monk books. I watched every episode multiple times and read every book.

His latest mystery, The Fixer’s Daughter, was published September 10, 2020. I had the privilege of reading an early review copy.  It is excellent! Although the story is filled with mystery and intrigue, it was the richness of the characters that had me totally enthralled.

Let’s start with your creative process. How do you develop your “puzzles?” What’s the thought process?

Creating whodunit puzzles is a learned skill. For me, a practitioner of the traditional mystery, the twist comes first.  Once I know the ah-ha moment, then I can build backwards.  “In order for the killer to fool everyone into thinking X, what has to happen?  What kind of person does the killer have to be?  What is his skill set?  And how do I make it all believable?”

If you look carefully at mystery plots, you can categorize the twists into perhaps a dozen different types.  For example, there’s the guilty knowledge clue, used almost exclusively by Jessica Fletcher in her 12 years on TV, in which the culprit knows something that an innocent person wouldn’t know.  The corollary to this is the guilty ignorance clue, in which the culprit doesn’t know a fact that an innocent person would know, perhaps dealing with his own alibi.  A favorite clue of Agatha Christie’s is changing the perceived time of death, making the murder seem to have happened before or after it actually did, in order to give the killer an ironclad alibi.  There are hundreds of variations of these twists and the good writers always make them seen new.

The art of this artform is in how you construct a story around the twist.  While working on Monk, we were aware that people would remember Tony Shalhoub’s wonderful character and the great OCD moments.  That was true artistry.  But without the spine of an intriguing mystery, these stories would not have the same power.  You need both the skill and the art.

Many of my favorite episodes are “howdunits” not “whodunits.” Monk knows (intuitively) who did it, he just doesn’t know how. How were those developed? Are there any episodes that are favorites of yours?

Some of my favorite Monk “howdunits” began with an impossibility. How could an astronaut kill his mistress while he was up in space? How could the TV star be on his front lawn with reporters at the exact moment that his wife is screaming for her life just inside the house?  Both of these examples utilize the Agatha Christie trick of changing the perceived time of death.

And then we have the “whydunits”. Why would anyone poison a convict’s last meal, an hour before his execution? Why would someone break a business executive’s left hand? How can a mail bomber send out his deadly packages while he’s in a coma in a hospital bed?  This last one, “Mr. Monk and The Sleeping Suspect” has to be one of my favorite episodes.

I’m addicted to your mini-mystery books. Reading them sharpens my critical thinking skills. You pack challenging situations into only a few pages. How do you develop them?

A short mystery is based on a single twist.  Then you work backwards. For example, making the murder weapon a pirate peg leg from a Halloween costume is a fun idea.  What kind of story would make this a good mystery?  And what clue gives the killer away?  Perhaps, after the murder, the killer re-attaches the murder weapon to the wrong leg.  Perhaps a witness notices bloody indentations in the dirt as the killer walks away.  Or perhaps he leaves the bloody, mysterious weapon at the scene and a witness later sees him walking around on two good legs.   These are all decent clues, but I’ve only used one.  So far.

Turning your victim’s body into bone and ash in a self-cleaning oven is also fun.  But then you need to figure out why the killer would resort to such a cumbersome, time-consuming way to dispose of a body.  Did a nosy neighbor see your victim walk into your house and never walk out?  Are the police outside, waiting for a warrant before they can come in and search for the body?  Half of a mystery writer’s working life is spent answering questions.  And good mystery writers make sure that they ask and answer all the questions.

What’s more difficult: creating a large number of short mysteries or creating one long one?

Short-form mysteries and mystery novels are totally different animals. A novel deals much more with character, creating interesting, sympathetic characters, and with involving the detective in a case that has real meaning, something that’s going to propel the readers through 300-plus pages and keep them caring about the outcome.  To do this right is incredibly hard, for me at least.  I cut my teeth on short whodunits and mystery games.  As a writer, I go naturally to the twist and have to remind myself that the story is also about people.

Which mystery writers have influenced you the most? (Ed McBain and Robert Parker are two of my favorites, with Edward D. Hoch being my favorite short story author)

Agatha Christie has always been the gold standard for puzzle-making. I love including humor in my work, a certain lightness. Dick Francis and Rex Stout are two authors I always admired.  All old-school, you’ll notice.  Peter Swanson is a modern author who has written some terrific mysteries.  His novels have a startling way of changing viewpoints as they go, leaving you clinging for dear life as the plot spirals off in a new direction.

My problem in reading any author over and over – the problem of a technician – is that I see most authors re-using their best tricks from book to book.  Not just twists, but character development, etc.  Dick Francis, for example, would always have a hero who did his best to help out selfish people who had no appreciation of how much he did for them.  It’s a good way to build sympathy in the reader, but it also gets repetitive.

Innovation is really just problem solving. Isn’t this the same thing that makes a good mystery? As a reader, I want mysteries that are challenging to solve, but are truly solvable.

I had always considered boundaries an important part of my creative process.  Having only 500 words to tell a story, or having to follow a certain format…  That defined a lot of my early work, including work I did for “Clue” and for other mystery game brands that wanted me to help out.  It was great training, but eventually felt limiting.  In reinventing myself as a novelist, I have tried to hold onto my roots while expanding into real characters and stories.

My newest novel, on which I have spent an obscene amount of time trying to get the details right, is The Fixer’s Daughter.   The bones had been there from Day One.  The big twists never changed during the writing process.  But keeping the narrative fresh and meaningful presented many more problems than I’d anticipated.  One of the skills of a real pro is not to let them see you sweat.  You solve problems that they had no ideas were problems.  You subtly lead them to conclusions and never let them know that you’re leading them to the wrong conclusions.  You add flaws to your characters that weren’t there six months ago when you invented the characters.  To the reader, it may appear to be a seamless whole.  But there’s a lot of sweat.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at.  As part of my aging process – perhaps I should say growth process – I’ve learned to slow down and trust myself, to trust my characters, to keep the bones of what I’ve always done but flesh it out into stories that, I hope, have more staying power

Outside of writing, do you find that the skills associated with creating mysteries has helped you in other areas of life? Problem solving? Creativity? Do you find yourself constantly hyper-observing situations in real life?

I think there’s very little connection between my private life and my creative one, which makes sense. A plumber is not obsessed in his daily life with toilets and faucets. Having said that, I must admit that I do sometimes get ideas from life. A friend once told me about going on a wake to Paris, where the deceased had given all of his mourners a free first-class trip in order to sprinkle his ashes off the Eiffel Tower. I immediately knew this had the makings of a good mystery.  It became “Dearly Departed”, the second book in the Amy’s Travel Mysteries series.

I’m a fan of lateral brainteasers. The key to solving them is to challenge your assumptions. This I believe is a cornerstone of a good mystery. How do assumptions play into the writing of your mysteries?

My first great a-ha moment in the mystery world came when I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but the twist was so simple and yet so totally unexpected. Agatha Christie was a genius in that respect.  She knew what your assumptions would be.  She knew you would expect the book to have a reliable narrator that you trusted or, as in Murder On the Orient Express that you would have ten suspects and only one murderer.

Since those old days, thousands of authors have come along and written every plot twist imaginable.  I’m not sure you can really fool a modern reader, not the way you used to.  But the key, in my mind, is to make the twists have meaning.  The twist should be a punch in the gut or a laugh out loud response.  A fan recently wrote a sweet note in which she compared the ending of The Fixer’s Daughter to a “slap myself in the head, ‘I could’ve had a V-8 moment.’”  For me that was very high praise.

Red Herrings are common in mysteries. They are the writer’s attempt to trick the reader through misdirection. The brain is fooled. This happens all of the time with innovation. Can you say a little bit about how you develop your red herrings and why you do it?

Red herrings serve two purposes.  They give the detective something to do for half the book.  And they distract the reader from the real solution.  That was the reason why the Monk writers gave Lieutenant Disher his outlandish theories for many of the murders on the show.  We wanted to tell the viewers that there were other possibilities out there, so that they wouldn’t automatically jump to our own slightly-less-outlandish solution.

Lieutenant Disher’s theories were certainly creative! Any other thoughts on the creative process or the link between innovation and mysteries?

It helps to be a contrarian, to be the type who likes to turn every assumption upside down. But in order to do this correctly you have to recognize that you’re creating new problems as you go.  All in all, it’s a pretty enjoyable way to spend one’s life.

Thank you Hy Conrad. I’ve been a fan of your work for many years and I appreciate your taking the time to answer provide your insights.

The Fixer’s Daughter is now available. I highly recommend it. Get your copy today.

StephenShapiro.com