Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)



Night Walk, by Elizabeth Daly (1947)

Night Walk, by Elizabeth Daly (1947)

daly night walk

Author: Elizabeth Daly is a Golden Age mystery writer who was not successful until later in life; her first Henry Gamadge mystery was published when she was 62. Daly went on to write a total of 16 volumes in 11 years and then packed it in, possibly due to exhaustion; it’s frequently observed, upon no evidence that I can find, that she was Agatha Christie’s favourite mystery writer.

Publication Data: First edition Rinehart & Co., New York, 1947, under their “Murray Hill” imprint. Other editions include Berkley Medallion F811, seen above, in which a Cosmo-style girl from 1963 is either sleepwalking or trying to find her Vespa without looking. It’s not entirely clear to me if she represents someone in the book. A couple of other paperback editions exist; for instance, this is #55 in what I call the “puzzleback” series from Dell in 1982. (See Collector’s Notes below.) There is a 2013 edition from Felony and Mayhem that is in a very attractive uniform trade edition.

This is the 12th of 16 Henry Gamadge mysteries; Gamadge specializes in analysis of questioned documents, forged books, etc., and frequently solves murders that are related somehow to documents and books.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

8507630714It’s not absolutely clear to me where the town of Frazer’s Mills is, but it’s close enough to New York City to make a convenient location for an upscale “rest home” called Edgewood. The proprietor, Miss Studley, wouldn’t like you to describe it as a rest home, and its guests are not patients. (Alcoholics, addicts, “mental cases and people likely to depress other people” are not accepted.) Edgewood is where you go to get away from it all, and apparently pay a hefty price for the privilege.

On Labor Day weekend in 1946, a young man named Yates tells some little white lies and wheedles his way into renting a room at Edgewood because all hotels in a wide radius are full. That’s the night that … well, how shall we put this? Weird things begin to happen in Frazer’s Mills. First, old Mrs. Norbury at Edgewood sees someone open her bedroom door just a crack, and then close it again and vanish. A similar thing then happens with an outer door at the local library, and Miss Bluett, the librarian, thinks someone tried the latch and then vanished into the rhododendrons. Next, while Yates is alone in his room, someone quietly tries the door and finds it locked, and then vanishes. Yates steps into the hallway to see what’s going on, and sees that someone has taken a short fire axe from its accustomed place and left it lying by the staircase. Nothing specific, but certainly creepy, right? This worries him enough to go to Miss Studley and investigate things with her, and when it becomes clear that she’s going to mention it to the not-very-local constabulary, he fesses up to his fibs told in aid of having a place to sleep that night.

At the nearby Carrington house, Lawrence and his sister Lydia have been phoned by Miss Studley about the possibility of a prowler, but they don’t take it too seriously. Their invalid father upstairs, and father’s ward, quirky chess prodigy Rose Jenner, and the local librarian’s antics, occupy their minds much more. When Rose returns from a date (as we later learn, with Yates; she’s the reason he’s in the neighbourhood), she hears the story of a “madman” and goes upstairs to check on her guardian. He’s dead, and a bloodstained log of wood lies nearby. But the madman doesn’t stop there; next a visiting high-school boy has a close encounter with an invisible stranger, and finally Miss Bluett is bashed with a log at the library and killed.

Yates calls in Henry Gamadge, who takes a room at Edgewood masquerading as a patient. Gamadge strolls around the town and talks to people in a gentle, seemingly unfocused way. Gamadge specializes in noticing tiny, inconsequential things and putting together a picture, bit by bit. Here, he soon discovers a hidden relationship between two people who appear not to know each other; next he investigates the activities of some Frazer’s Mills townspeople who have a plausible story to explain events that turns out to be false in tiny particulars. Finally Henry Gamadge works out exactly why things have been happening; this is nowhere near what people have been assuming. Indeed, Gamadge identifies the murderer and sets a trap that results in a hasty suicide.

9781631940002_p0_v1_s260x420Why is this book worth your time?

Although this book certainly held my attention, and I could say it was even gripping at times, when I finished I had an odd sense of … slightness. This book is tiny and graceful and spare at 157 paperback pages; perhaps 45,000 words, by my guess, and is about a third the size of, say, the latest Elizabeth George opus. And there is almost nothing extraneous in this book. The scene is set; when Gamage arrives, he sorts out one extraneous sub-plot and then hones in precisely on whodunit. There’s very little description, there’s very little characterization, and indeed very little of anything at all.

Nevertheless, as I said, this is a book I didn’t want to stop reading. The scene-setting chapters, in which the vaguely creepy things are happening — wonderful stuff. Honestly, Daly gets more out of a door opening a crack and then closing again than many modern writers can get with, just to make something up off the top of my head, disemboweling an animal on the front porch. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling. Even though we’ve been told that none of the patients are likely to be crazy, has someone made it through the screening process, just like young Mr. Yates managed to weasel through? The background of Frazer’s Mills is given in just enough detail to make it interesting; this is a quiet backwater, the descendants of wealthy people and their servants. These people are living quiet lives, some on the verge of poverty. The experienced mystery reader will be looking at the Carrington family closely, since the deceased Mr. Carrington had money; but it doesn’t seem that anyone was sufficiently anxious to inherit it to commit murder.

Once the solution is revealed, I had the thought that this was something I call a “snow globe” mystery (another idiosyncratic definition, I’m sorry). A snow globe mystery, to me, is where you start with a set of facts and an explanation of those facts that makes sense. Then something happens to shake the snow globe — and all of a sudden the facts look completely different because the explanation of them has been turned upside down. In this particular book, it’s not completely unexpected (mostly because no mystery reader worth his/her salt would accept the “wandering madman” theory as being the final solution). But it is beautifully done and the new viewpoint takes a tiny fact that everyone had ignored and turns it into the crux of the matter. The murderer’s well-hidden motives become perfectly clear.

The writing style here is elegant, but somewhat underwritten. At times, I wanted Daly to have spent more time showing me buildings and locations, not necessarily because they were important to the mystery plot but because they might have helped me grasp what was going on a bit more clearly, to understand the people who lived in the buildings and walked through the locations. Mind you, I have a very clear grasp of the geography of Edgewood; unfortunately I didn’t get a deep impression of the personality of most of its inhabitants. As the plot progresses, it seems like writing about anything much except things that are crucial to the plot simply falls away. There were people in this novel about whom I wanted to know more, and now never will. At the same time, there is a tiny incident at the very end of the book that introduces a new character and provides some local colour — too late.

I believe that Elizabeth Daly is a significant name in the history of the American Golden Age mystery; perhaps not of the first rank, but a strong talent certainly deserving of the attention of readers who are interested in the byways as well as the highways. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you make this your first experience with this writer, but I expect that you will want to read them all sooner or later, and this will be an interesting, if a bit slight, experience for you along that path.


Notes for the Collector:

The most expensive copy I see available on the internet today is a Good first edition with a Fair+ jacket for $195. Someone is offering a curious volume which *might* be from a uniform edition owned by a member of Daly’s family, in full gilt ruled leather, for $143.75. A first without jacket in VG condition is selling for $95. This has been a relatively scarce title for years but is now back in print (thank you for your good work, Felony & Mayhem!) so there is not as much pressure for the few good copies on the market.

I personally think the most interesting edition is the Dell “Murder Ink” volume seen nearby, which is #55 in what I call the “puzzleback” series. These volumes have a uniform linking device of a missing puzzle piece on the front cover which is revealed on the back; the series was chosen by two mystery bookstore proprietors and its quality is uniformly high. I regard these as very collectible and relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately the cover art of this particular volume in the series comes rather close to giving away the entire plot and this, I think, is a serious error. Perhaps invest in this after you’ve read the Felony & Mayhem edition, which is very attractive. Berkley Medallion F811, from a few years earlier, is also quite funky and “50s moderne”.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1947 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “E”, “One book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title;” I believe that “night” qualifies, since in context it refers to the time of day. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.



Okay, what I’m NOT reading

I’m a natural-born speed reader and, from about ages 16 to 45, read about a book a day.  At least one book a day, more if I had them around.  This included re-reading old ones.  It’s kind of baffling these days to me to realize that I just don’t read as much as I used to.  This is for a number of reasons — partly that I can’t afford to spend as much on books as once I did, partly that I experience a lot of books on audio these days, partly that I’m writing one and don’t want to be influenced.

But I can say that there are a couple of writers whom I used to love and now — well, as I put it the other day, they’ve changed from unputdownable to unpickuppable.  I remember the day when I used to buy Reginald Hill in hardcover, just because I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out.  Well, I’ve had his last-but-one in paperback sitting on the to-be-read shelf with a bookmark at about page 50, and I have finally stopped believing that I am ever going back to it.  It’s going in a box for storage.

The other writer I used to love is Elizabeth George.  I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times, when she came and signed at my store — apparently we sold a disproportionate number of books of hers out of sheer enthusiasm and she was sent to us more often as a result.  I also took a brief course with her on “How to write a mystery”, which doesn’t seem to have gotten me anywhere because all I remember is that I was seated next to Kareen Zebroff — if you are a Canadian, you will remember Yoga with Kareen on television from the 70s or 80s.  Ms. Zebroff was probably a good yoga instructor (her program was at this point off the air) but as a fellow course-taker she was annoying as hell, because it was all about her.  I wanted to hear Elizabeth George talk about mysteries, thanks very much, not a fellow student monopolizing the conversation with talk about how interesting this all is to a yoga instructor.  I note that I have never heard of Ms. Zebroff writing anything since and probably not even signing autographs. And I seem to have forgotten everything I learned from Elizabeth George, but that’s okay, she leads by example. If I hadn’t read A Great Deliverance, I wouldn’t have been able to write my own current novel in progress.

Anyway — I thought her first book, A Great Deliverance, was truly fine, one of the best mysteries of its decade.  She proved she knows how to show character and let you figure it out, rather than telling you “If A, therefore B,” which “leading by the nose” I so dislike in lesser authors. I loved most of her subsequent three or four novels (okay, I didn’t like #2 and asked her once if she had had it in her trunk before selling #1, whereupon she justifiably froze me with a glance). These days, I cannot deal with all that angst and frustration and the layer upon layer of minuscule detail in her work that I gather people do so love, that incredible accretion of observations that conceal the clues. That and my current idea that Barbara Havers needs to be put out of her misery as being the unhappiest person in detective fiction.  I started to read the last two or three, got about ten pages in and said “Fuck it.” As my friends know, if something doesn’t explode every once in a while, I get bored.

Parenthetically — I was present when a fan asked her if Barbara Havers was ever going to find love and/or happiness. She said, approximately, “Not if I can help it.” Good answer!

There are other authors whom I never have been able to stand reading, notably Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess and the truly unspeakably awful “Cat Who” mysteries.  I’m not a big cosy guy.  But I am kind of at a loss to understand how I can just “go off” an author whom I used to love.  And make no mistake, George and Hill are very, very talented writers.  I suppose I’ve just lost my taste for them. Perhaps my taste has worsened over the years, become more flattened and bland from years of pap on television.

Perhaps your experience is better than mine.  I know I’m likely to hear from Elizabeth George fans (Cat Who fans, save your breath) — and, Susan, if you’re reading this, I still love you as a person, it’s just I’m not buying your books any more. I loved the course, honest. And I still remember our conversation while driving through the streets of Vancouver about petals dropping from the flowering cherry trees and how the presence or absence of them on a car’s windshield might be a clue in a mystery. Someday, I’m sure it will be.