William Deverell — Novelist

The official website of William Deverell, Winner of the Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in North American Crime Writing

The Blog: January 22, 2014

– Lessons from the Master: Horace Widgeon –

Nearly two decades ago, in Kill All the Lawyers, I excerpted various writing tips from Horace Widgeon’s masterwork, The Art of the Whodunit. Then in a recent sequel, Kill All the Judges, I borrowed even more, from Widgeon’s own sequel, Secrets of the Whodunit.

It has struck me that his nuggets of wise advice ought to be displayed to a wider audience – the entire Internet in fact – and thus here, in this blog, and in several postings to come, I propose to use them as a teaching aid.

(I pause to mention that Mr. Widgeon’s consent to my use of these extracts has yet to be obtained, but see no reason why he would not be flattered.)

This effort has a double purpose: those who give a shit about this blog may recall my early promise to reveal the mysteries of The Mystery, so I believe that a deep appreciation of the master’s texts may improve the skills of those who aspire to excel in the crime genre. But I also hope that by re-reading Widgeon I will sharpen my teaching skills – preparatory to my giving a summer class at the University of British Columbia on July 15-19.

Widgeon is a bit of an acquired taste, I’m afraid, so there may be those who are insufficiently familiar with the author of the Inspector Grodgins series. The old pouf has penned some thirty-five of these, and remains prolific even into his eighties, with number thirty-six due this fall from Cheltenham Press.

But while most of his back-list is out of print – his style, one might say, has gone out of style – his delectably fusty How-To’s remain required reading for serious students of the genre. Here’s a lovely sample of his wisdom from Secrets of the Whodunit:

“I find a wee nip at the bottom of the day stirs the embers to one last spurt before the weary writer retires to the comfort of easy chair and telly.”

A “wee nip or two or three,” he might have said, or several more, for he is reputed, I regret to say, to be quite the sot, a bottle of the finest from Islay Isle ever at the ready beside his keyboard.

So let us start lesson one, appropriately, with the opening chapter of your manuscript. A death, or at the very least a disappearance, must occur in the first chapter, Widgeon instructs, preferably on the first page. He has little respect for the trend toward “literary mysteries” (I can almost see the curl of his lip as he snarls that phrase) and to what he calls “deathless prose.”

So waste little time in wasting your first victim. Ah, but first, Widgeon warns, you must know your victim:

“The writer must always retain a photograph of this unfortunate soul at an earlier time—while still in the flower of life. Take a few snapshots to remember him by, but do not dwell on him; the reader cares not whether the victim collected stamps or picked his nose or grew prize pumpkins (unless indeed it turns out he was felled, in a jealous rage, by the loser of the annual Southampton Fall Fair).”

But time flies and the recess bell is ringing. In our next post we will learn how Widgeon conceives, assembles, and composes his improbable plots.