Friday, 7 October 2016

Murder at 134,000,000 Miles Per Hour

Today's bloggage is a guest post by Damon L Wakes who has written a somewhat unusual murder mystery ....


Ten Little Astronauts is a murder mystery in space.

Ten astronauts are awoken from suspended animation – chosen from a crew of thousands to repair their steadily freezing ship – only to discover that one of their number has been killed, and that the murderer is now amongst them. In order to survive and repair the ship, they must work out who is responsible, because if the impostor doesn’t kill them, the cold will.

There are a whole lot of ways to write a murder mystery. If there weren’t, the butler would always do it, and nobody would ever bother reading more than one book. However, though there are a whole lot of mysteries, there are also a few rules. It is generally expected that it should be possible – at least in theory - for the reader to work out whodunit before the murderer is revealed in the book. It would be terribly unsatisfying for the solution of the mystery to be that the murderer was not, in fact, a guest at the hotel, but an opportunistic burglar named Chad who snuck in without anybody noticing and only got caught because his DNA was found at the scene. Page 304: Chad dunit. Everybody go home.

In order to avoid Chad ruining everybody’s fun, most murder mysteries follow a range of conventions:

• There are a limited number of suspects.
• The murderer is a character the reader is already aware of.
• The mystery is solved only by rational and scientific methods.

Some settings are better suited to this sort of scenario than others. Agatha Christie’s mysteries often take place in a small village or a country house, or on board a moving vehicle. These places all make for a small cast of characters to begin with, and lend themselves to a “somebody in this room is the murderer” scene at the end. I began writing Ten Little Astronauts with these points in mind – a spaceship is more or less the ultimate moving vehicle – but once I got started, I realised that I would have to borrow more than just a handful of Christie’s tricks. The premise of my book – a small cast of characters, hopelessly isolated with a murderer in their midst – overlapped so heavily with And Then There Were None specifically that the only way I could avoid writing a rip-off was to make it an homage.

Nevertheless, shifting the setting to a tin can in a vacuum demanded a brand new plot. With the ship itself hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, so far beyond help that an SOS sent at the speed of light would take years to be heard, there was no need for chapters dedicated to explaining how the cast became so trapped and why they couldn’t call for help. The hostile environment also helped to ramp up the tension and get the action off to a quick start. However, the new story demanded a great deal of research. Where Christie drew upon an extensive knowledge of medicine and chemistry, I had to develop an understanding of cosmic rays and explosive decompression.

The space setting handed me an obvious reason for the small cast of characters and an immediate explanation as to why the murderer was so certainly one of them, but at the same time it made it a challenge to ensure that the solution would be rational and scientific. Lightsabres and hoverboards make for exciting sci-fi, but it was clear that for the murder mystery itself to shine, the world of Ten Little Astronauts would have to stick as closely as possible to our own. I learned everything I could about real life in space, and visited a WWII submarine – HMS Alliance - to get an idea what it would be like on board a vessel that must carry its own atmosphere. Seeing the interior of the submarine for myself, and speaking to a former submariner about what conditions were like, informed a spacecraft characterised by exposed machinery and bare metal, rather than white plastic and polished glass. The Alliance was such an influence on the setting as a whole that I later returned to film the video for the book in its control room (The video is small but if the link doesn't work or you want to see a larger version click here).

If you’d like to see Ten Little Astronauts make it into print, you can pledge at Unbound, where there’s also an extract available (Click here). You’ll get a copy of your very own (among other rewards on offer) and your name will be recorded for all time in the back of the book.