And Now a Story Within a Story*

One of the interesting plot points authors use is the ‘book within a book.’ In stories like that, a fictional book plays an important part in the plot. In some cases, that fictional story is even told in tandem with the larger plot. It’s not easy to do a book within a book; if it’s not skillfully done, it can simply confuse the reader. When it is done well, though, it can be successful.

In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, for instance, Inspector Morse is at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, being treated for a bleeding ulcer. While he’s there, he’s given a copy of a small book, Murder on the Oxford Canal. The book tells the story of the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks aboard a canal boat. At the time, Jack Oldfield and Alfred Musson were tried and convicted in connection with the crime, and both were duly executed. But as Morse reads the book, he begins to believe that these two men might have been innocent. If so, Morse wants to find out who was guilty. So, he starts his own investigation from his hospital bed. This novel includes passages from the (fictional) book Morse is reading, woven into Morse’s own story.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is a private investigator who lives in Botswana. From the beginning, she’s wanted to be the best professional detective she can and do everything right. So, she relies heavily on Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection. Especially in the earlier novels in this series, Mma Ramotswe isn’t always sure of exactly what to do in certain situations. When that happens, she looks to Anderson’s work for answers, and uses quotes from the book. For instance, here’s what Anderson says about following a subject:

‘Keep a long rein… even if it means losing the subject from time to time. You can always pick up the trail later. And a few minutes of non-eye contact is better than an angry confrontation.’

 Bits from this (entirely fictional) book are woven throughout the series as Mma Ramotswe learns her business.

Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders introduces professional editor Susan Ryeland. At the moment, she’s working on the latest release from mystery novelist Alan Conway, whose main character is Atticus Pünd. Conway is a difficult client, but very successful, so Ryeland wants to do the job right. As she’s looking over the work, she finds that the book is unfinished. She doesn’t know why Conway would have sent her an unfinished story, so she travels to his home to visit him. When she gets there, though, she finds that he is dead. She can’t find the remaining chapters, so she decides to go in search of them. In the process, she finds that this new novel could be based on true events, and that someone murdered Conway because of that. In this case, the fictional novel is woven in with the story of Susan Ryeland’s search for the truth about Conway’s death and the missing chapters.

Sulari Gentill also uses the novel-within-a-novel (or perhaps, novel-next-to-a-novel) approach in Crossing the Lines (AKA After She Wrote Him). Madeleine d’Leon is an attorney who’s taken to writing. The main character of her crime novel is a literary author named Edward McGinnity. In Madelein’s novel, Edward becomes a suspect in the death of Geoffrey Vogel, an editor who ruined his first novel. As she writes the story, Edward becomes more and more real to her and we learn his backstory. And as we follow along with Edward’s story, we learn that he has also created a new character: a crime writer named Madeleine. And as he writes, Madeleine becomes more real to him. At the same time, we learn Madeleine’s backstory. In this case, Madeleine’s and Edward’s stories are intermingled, and the result is psychological suspense. Who is real and who is fictional?

Graeme Macrae Burnet takes a slightly different approach in His Bloody Project. According to the Preface, Burnet was researching his grandfather’s life when he came across a narrative written by another ancestor, seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, in 1869. According to the narrative, Roderick was tried and found guilty of three murders in the village of Culduie, on Scotland’s Applecross Peninsula. One story (admittedly quite brief) is about the finding of the narrative and several other documents relating to the trial. It also mentions the reception the narrative got (not a good one, as few people believed that an uneducated poor boy like Roderick Macrae could write a memoir). The other story is the memoir itself, together with court records and other relevant documents. It’s an interesting way to integrate one story into the other.

There are other examples, too, of novels that include other (fictional) novels. That approach to telling a story can be engaging if both of the stories are absorbing, and if moving between them doesn’t jar the reader. It’s tricky to pull off this sort of double plot, though. If you’ve read novels like this, what’s your experience been like?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Haerle’s Tellers.

19 thoughts on “And Now a Story Within a Story*

  1. This is the type of book I usually love, Margot and you have mentioned some interesting ones. My husband has been telling me to read The Wench is Dead for years and I keep putting it off. I don’t know why. It sounds very good.

    Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill sounds good, I will look for a copy to add to my huge TBR. I have a copy of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project but it is still waiting to be read. I loved Magpie Murders and also the second in that series.


    1. I think your husband’s right, Tracy; you should read The Wench is Dead. It’s a really interesting use of the story-within-a-story. And I hope you’ll get the chance to read Crossing the Lines. Sulari Gentill is so talented; I’m really hoping you’ll like that one. As for Magpie Murders, I think Horowitz did a great job with that one. He folds the stories together nicely!


  2. It’s a clever idea if you can do it well, Margot. Oddly, I’ve just finished reading The Murder in the Basement by Anthony Berkeley, a BL reprint, which features a manuscript fragment at its centre and it works really brilliantly!


    1. I agree, KBR – it really can work well if it’s done effectively. And what timing! The Murder in the Basement sounds like an intriguing example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. I love the idea of a bit of manuscript that forms a big part of the plot – very clever, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved Magpie Murders, and I actually liked the book within the book even more than the book outside it, if you see what I mean! The other one that springs to mind is Elly Griifiths’ The Stranger Diaries. It’s actually a Victorian horror story that is the book within the book but she uses it really effectively to give a kind of Gothic vibe, and I thought the ghost story itself was a great pastiche of genuine Victorian horror stories, and would have stood as a story on its own, much like Horowitz’s book within the book.


    1. I know exactly what you mean about the story within Magpie Murders FictionFan! It’s very well done, and I think it makes it even better that the other one – the Susan Ryeland story – is good, too. I think it’s a lot harder if one or the other falls really flat. Thanks, too, for mentioning The Stranger Diaries. That’s another terrific example of how a story-in-a-story can work when it’s done well. It can be a very effective approach to writing.

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  4. Interesting examples of a book within a book. I thought of Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald. In the context of an academic mystery MacDonald creates detailed plot lines for four books written by by a mysterious woman so that her sleuth, Miranda Craig, can analyze them as part of her academic work. There is a lot of imagination needed to create the plots of 5 books within one book.


    1. Of course, Bill! Another Margaret! That’s a great example of a story-within-a story! There are several plots, as you say, in the book, and MacDonald links them very cleverly, I think. I should have included this one and didn’t, so I’m very glad that you did.


  5. Margot, I enjoyed Magpie Murders and I liked the set-up of the book. I like quirks like that. I read a book years ago and can’t really remember it – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino – which has a book (or more than one) at the heart of the book.


    1. I like quirks like that, too, Col, especially if they’re done smoothly. When it works, it can be really engaging. Thanks, too, for the mention of Calvino. I need to get more familiar with his work than I am, and it’s about time!


  6. I love these kind of stories, but all the examples I can think of at the moment seem to be non crime fiction: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Foucault’s Pendulum, Possession by A. S. Byatt.


    1. It doesn’t matter if they’re not crime fiction, Marina Sofia. There are examples from all sorts of literature, and I appreciate your including those. That approach to storytelling really can be effective when it’s done well.


      1. You’re so right. I know that I’ve read books using a book within the book, but I was having trouble thinking of them. This morning I remembered that “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is one example I enjoyed. A young man starts working for a bookstore that has some very strange, old books it allows to be used or to leave with only certain customers. The book contains clues written in some sort of tech-speak, and the story takes several characters on a wild-ride to solve a mystery. Very entertaining book!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I too love this trope a lot, Margot. Gentill was already on my wishlist and now I have got a few others to look for. Thanks. Just now the only example that I can think of is Shadow of the Wind.


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