19 April 2018

Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries
by Gail Bowen
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$18.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-524-4

If you’ve ever considered writing a mystery novel, Gail Bowen provides the perfect opportunity in her latest book, Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries. She reveals the secrets to her success and offers a step-by-step, how-to process for other writers to emulate.

Bowen coaxes writers – all writers, not just those working on mystery novels – to ask themselves, “What do I hope to accomplish with this piece of writing?” In her opinion, giving readers pleasure is ample enough reason to write in the mystery genre.

She’s been writing for thirty years and offers her wealth of experience and encouragement to aspiring writers. “If you can’t imagine your life without writing, then you’re a real writer,” she says.

Bowen stresses the need for accuracy. Just because you’re writing fiction doesn’t mean you can play loose with the facts. If a reader finds just one discrepancy in logic, the entire novel may become suspect.

Emphasizing the mantra to show, don’t tell, she encourages writers to incorporate all five senses into their writing. She shows the importance of subplot and the role of secondary characters in novels, backing up her assertions by quoting from writers like Stephen King and Raymond Chandler.

Bowen also uses examples from her own work. With eighteen novels (and counting) in her Joanne Kilbourn mystery series alone, she has a lot of material to draw on, supplying the secrets to sustaining a series of novels. By following her tips and guidelines, writers can transform their material into novels that stand out. Her tips alone are worth the price of the book.

Bowen has a knack for making her characters seem real, especially Joanne Kilbourn, who comes across as endearingly human, the type of person one would enjoy sitting down with and sharing a cup of coffee.

Although she concedes there are similarities between herself and her main character, Bowen says her novels are not autobiographical. She explains why she selected Regina as the setting for her Joanne Kilbourn novels and how she made this location work for her.

Bowen writes in the same vivacious style she speaks. Pointing out that January 24 is the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists, she notes, “I understand he’s available 24/7.”

Sleuth is delightful reading, with a synopsis of many of Joanne Kilbourn’s activities over the years, and a hint of what is yet to come. If your purpose is simply an enjoyable read, Sleuth will do the trick. If you do plan to write a mystery novel, why not learn from one of the best?


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