The e-pistolary novel comes of age in a new on-line mystery co-authored by a Toronto man, REBECCA CALDWELL writes
It’s an open and shut case: A mystery novel features a crime being committed and ends with a crime being solved. One doesn’t have to be Sherlock to recognize that except for the identity of the perpetrator, there is not a lot of room for real surprises in the genre’s strict conventions.
Until now. Because two mystery writers, Michael Betcherman and David Diamond, have hit upon a new way of storytelling: an “e-pistolary” thriller told in e-mail form. Instead of a book, e-mails sent between the characters will be copied to the reader’s inbox.
Through nearly 100 e-mails sent “real-time” over a period of roughly three weeks, The Daughters of Freya relates the story of reporter Samantha Dempsey. Samantha has been asked by a desperate friend to track down his daughter who has been swept up into a Californian sex cult. Meanwhile, she is juggling an overstressed family — including a strained relationship with overworked and out-of-town husband Peter and a son who is dating a much older woman.
The e-mail story also contains links to mock websites, such as the magazine Samantha writes for, which contains her article on the sex cult. Mystery fans can read the first three e-mails of The Daughters of Freya free at http://www.emailmystery.com before signing up to receive the entire story for $9.99 — cheaper than many mass-market paperbacks.
“We’re not reinventing the mystery genre, but what’s unique about it for sure is the delivery,” said Betcherman during a phone interview from his Toronto home. “In a sense it’s a conventional narrative — you’ve got a villain, a heroine, there are the clues. If you converted that to prose, you wouldn’t say this is a groundbreaking thing, but it is a new storytelling technique.”
Betcherman and his California-based co-author Diamond, who is a journalist and writer, were intrigued by the idea of bringing the epistolary novel into the 21st century by using e-mails instead of letters. The genre seemed obvious: “The main reason we picked a mystery is that the format allows you to take advantage of one of the most insidious aspects of the Internet, and that’s that you never really know who is on the other end of an e-mail,” said Betcherman. “It was tailor-made for a mystery, and we just took it from there.”
Since they lived in different cities, some of their early collaboration on the story was done, fittingly enough, through e-mail. They didn’t feel constricted by the chatty, snappy tone typical of the medium, Betcherman said. If anything, writing e-mails played to his strengths for writing dialogue. A former lawyer, he is better known in the film and television world as a producer and writer, particularly the Gemini-nominated Was Justice Denied? He’s also written scripts for real-crime forensic TV doc Exhibit A, and the CBC dramas Street Legal and Side Effects.
Betcherman and Diamond initially thought they would publish the book as a collection of e-mails, until a friend suggested to Betcherman that they should send the story through the format they used to tell it. It’s proving to be a killer idea. Officially launched at Bouchercon, the annual international mystery writers convention that was held in Toronto last month, The Daughters of Freya has attracted a lot of interest, Betcherman said, and they now have several hundred paid subscribers with more signing on every day.
“We’ve been getting really good, enthusiastic feedback. People are saying they are hooked,” he said. Some of the attraction seems to be that their tale riffs off the built-in suspense of serials such as those written by Charles Dickens, where readers are at the mercy of the arrival of the next instalment of the story. “Some people have told us they finally have a good reason to check their inbox.”
But their real success lies in having found a realistic, smart way to use the Internet as a storytelling tool.
“People haven’t been able to use the Internet to get people to read because essentially they have been saying to people, open an e-mail and read a chapter of a book, and people have been saying, ‘No Thanks,’ ” Betcherman said. “Our project has been saying, open an e-mail and read an e-mail. Our project mirrors the way people actually use the Internet, with the links, and that opens the possibilities to enhance the storytelling. That’s where there is potential in this concept.”
So far, The Daughters of Freya is proving to be more than just concept — reviews in mystery magazines have been positive. Crime Scene Magazine called it “an experiment in style that is bold enough to work on its own terms. . . . [It] works well, blending form and content into an entertaining journey for the reader.”
Betcherman and Diamond are currently working on a Japanese translation of The Daughters of Freya, and are already considering a sequel — possibly a new Samantha Dempsey story — or tackling another genre.
“The format can be adapted to other genres, but it’s early days yet,” Betcherman said. “Right now I’m focusing on getting the word out on The Daughters of Freya.”