Check any list of the best mysteries of all time and you’re virtually certain to find And Then There Were None somewhere near the top, if not in the number one slot overall. The 1939 Agatha Christie classic imagined ten strangers lured to a deserted island where they end up marooned to be murdered one at a time in a manner keeping with the nursery rhyme.
How I came to write The Murder of Twelve, both an homage to and update on And Then There Were None, is a story in itself that dates back almost to the day I was fortunate enough to be handed the reins of the iconic Murder, She Wrote series, featuring America’s favorite sleuth Jessica Fletcher.
My first solo entry in the series became Manuscript for Murder, in which Jessica nearly becomes a murder victim herself. Though she manages to escape the flames that nearly consume her beloved home at 698 Candlewood Lane, the house is badly damaged which forces her to take up residence in a suite at Cabot Cove’s Hill House Hotel.
As a fan of fabulously successful, television show on which the book series is based, like many one of my favorite episodes of the nearly 300 was “Murder Takes the Bus,” in which Jessica, Sheriff Amos Tupper, and an assortment of other random bus passengers find their respective journeys waylaid by a storm at a roadside diner. Before you can say whodunnit, one passenger is murdered and another is attacked, leading the rest to realize a killer with no plans on stopping is in their midst.
The desire to create a fresh take on that episode, coupled with the fact that Jessica was now residing at Hill House, led me to picture her stranded in the midst of a historic, killer blizzard with a dozen strangers who, you guessed it, are being murdered one at a time. Confession time: I had never actually read And Then There Were None, although I had vivid memories of the 1945 film adaptation, so my first order of business was to dig into those classic Christie pages even as I was embarking on my own version. Good writers borrow, as Victor Hugo famously said, but great writers steal.
The resulting The Murder of Twelve is distinguished by my never having more fun writing a book. I had a notion of who the killer was going to be, but little else, so I was essentially creating on the fly, stuck with Jessica inside Hill House as five feet of snow collects outside the windows. This time out, there’s no Sheriff Mort Metzger, Dr. Seth Hazlitt, or private detective Harry McGraw to ride to her rescue. Jessica is totally on her own, save for the little they can do for her via cell phone.
For structure I opted for a kind of Murder, She Wrote version of the classic Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey into Night when the warring factions of a wedding party fill many of Hill House’s remaining rooms. But the bride and groom are no-shows. Money goes missing. Secrets abound. Red herrings can be found anywhere and everywhere, as Jessica races to sort through the morass of murder to uncover the killer before she, too, becomes a victim.
As a thriller writer by nature, I’m a firm believer in the slowly simmering fuse, so the primary events of The Murder of Twelve actually begin outside the hotel as the first few flakes begin to fall. Jessica attends a town meeting to go over emergency preparedness, in between dealing with a murder on the outskirts of town and a vehicle strangely abandoned in the middle of a road. That these were connected to the greater plot to come was never in doubt; I just didn’t know how yet, when Jessica finally settles in at Hill House with the members of the warring factions of the wedding party.
By then, the snow is already piling up and I was off and running—well, sledding. What a blast it was to ratchet up the suspense with each passing hour, and murder, first knocking out the cell phone service and then the power. Planting clues only Jessica notices and setting up pretty much the entire wedding party as potential suspects, the ultimate revelation of the killer’s identity as shocking, I hope, as the one behind the murders in And Then There Were None.
I believe that the mark of a great story is one that every single reader feel was written strictly for them, and that’s the case with The Murder of Twelve more than anything I’ve ever written before. The first-person prose makes it indeed feel that Jessica is speaking directly to you, even perhaps asking for the kind of help you can’t provide from your bed and easy chair. The effect is akin to the classic children’s tale The Never Ending Story in which a boy reading a book gets sucked into action.
That’s not going to happen here, though you may want to belt yourself into wherever you’re sitting regardless. Because I’m going to predict you’re going to enjoy reading the roller coaster ride that is The Murder of Twelve just as much as I enjoyed writing it.