The Lear Method of Mystery

Jun 10, 2016

by James Lear, author of The Sun Goes Down

I’ve read some very interesting, complex and fanciful accounts of how and why mystery writers construct their books. They say the mystery genre allows them to interrogate social and moral issues, to plumb the depths of the human psyche or to question the nature of truth. I wrote my first mystery novel because I thought it would be a good way of getting my detective hero to have sex with a lot of different men. The investigation started out as little more than a pretext for him to seduce the suspects. At the time I was obsessed by Agatha Christie, and I’d always felt there was an interesting sexual subtext in her books that needed to be made explicit. I’d also been watching a documentary about life in an Edwardian country house – this was long before Downton Abbey, which I think of as James Lear-light – and the rigid hierarchy of class and status that puts handsome young men in subservient positions to rich, horny aristocrats.

When I plotted The Back Passage, the first of my mystery novels, I came up with a crime, a household of characters both above and below stairs, and a solution or denouement. Then it was just a question of maneuvering the hero, Mitch Mitchell, into situations where he had to interrogate the suspects, usually by means of seduction. The book is structured around a series of sexual episodes, each of which has a twofold purpose. Firstly, it gives the reader some exciting erotic material; secondly, it reveals information which moves the plot forward. That’s remained the key to the ‘Lear Method’ ever since. Sex and detection go hand-in-hand, and it’s my job to keep the balance right. Some readers think there’s too much sex getting in the way of a good detective story, others feel that the mystery elements detract from effective erotica, but most people seem to enjoy the combination as much as I do.

There are now four Mitch Mitchell novels, each of them using a recognizable ‘cosy mystery’ trope: a country house, a long-distance train journey, a ‘closed room’ murder, an exotic island resort. And I’ve added a second detective to my roster – Dan Stagg, an ex-US marine, embittered, hard-boiled, permanently horny. He has so far appeared in two contemporary thrillers that were directly inspired by Lee Child’s super-butch Jack Reacher novels. The plots in the Stagg books are a little more complex, but the method is the same: a crime, a list of suspects, a series of sexual encounters that lead the plot to its conclusion. In both series, I have to do the plotting and planning twice over: once for what I write, and once for what really happened – the hidden mystery that will be gradually revealed through the story. If I don’t know exactly what the baddies are trying to conceal, what is the truth behind all the lies and red herrings, I can’t keep control of the story. And that means only one thing: confused, annoyed readers, no matter how much sex I give them.

There is one more element in my mystery novels which I think is the hardest one to get right: human emotion. One of the reasons I love Agatha Christie is because her characters are like robots: they have very little depth, they exist only as functions of the plot, and their inner life only matters insofar as it serves the story. In a way I’d like my mysteries to be the same, but when you’re writing about sex it’s impossible not to let emotions in as well. Both Mitch Mitchell and Dan Stagg are looking for love, but keep letting sex get in the way. Mitch has his adored sidekick Morgan, who’s basically straight but enjoys sex with men; Dan mourns the death of his lover Will, killed in an ambush in Afghanistan. They know they should move on to more satisfying, sustainable relationships, but struggle to let go of their obsessions.

It became clear with the first of the Mitch novels that readers enjoy the romance aspect of the books as much as they like the crime and the sex, which makes planning each novel like a game of 3D chess. For something that started out as a light-hearted romp, writing erotic mystery novels has turned out to be the most technically challenging thing I’ve ever done – harder, even, than thinking up the punning titles that adorn each cover.

James Lear is the nom de plume of a prolific and acclaimed novelist. As James Lear, he is the author of The Back Passage, The Secret Tunnel, Hot Valley, The Low Road, and The Palace of Varieties. He lives in London.