Monday, January 11, 2010

Detect and Discover

Although you had been fond of reading novels of detection and, indeed, many of your friends were writing and publishing them, you had no thought to actually write them. It was enough to think about them in a kind of hazy and noncritical admiration, aware that you did not see your own way clear to plotting such narratives in ways that could lead to a satisfactory conclusion. At one point, you'd even gone so far as to plan an elaborately complex novel, something even more prolix than Hammett's The Dain Curse, that ended with the protagonist saying in so many words,"I've fit all the pieces together and now have supporting evidence to bear out my conclusion: Phil did it." THE END.


Even when circumstances drew you closer into the net of acquiring and editing mystery novels and, in time, a mystery magazine, you still considered yourself more an adjunct. Being affectionately railroaded by Dorothy B. Hughes into serving as an officer in The Mystery Writers of America only brought you into contact with more mystery writers, more respect for their abilities at plotting which you did not believe you had, and, of necessity, more mystery writers.

Somehow the lines grew more blurred. Mystery writers were serious drinkers, and two of the more prolific at the time braced you, each in his own way, with the trope that only women mystery writers with husbands who had significant daytime jobs had the luxury of being able to plot and outline. When you recall the ways they braced you, you also recall that the process involved some quantities of bourbon. Your first mystery was done while you were still in high school and although it was bulky and filled with false clues and moments of suspense, most of it remained in pen and ink rather than finding its way into typescript. The first one you were paid for was a more intimidating experience since much of the advance was in a sense enough to pay an outstanding bill at a French restaurant on Highland Avenue, where you were known to have an affinity toward cabernets sauvignon and Gewurtztraminer. Nor did you shy away from the trockenberen auschlese and madiera desert wines nor Martel's VSOP cognac. Ah, no wonder you found yourself with a deadline and a brick wall beyond which you could not penetrate. Smaller wonder yet that you repaired to the very same French restaurant with mystery writer friends who insisted that sole with a tangy Veronique sauce would be just the thing to show you the way beyond your brick wall. Home at midnight with the strong hint of a buzz and no concrete way out of your problem, you had until nine the following morning to present the final pages.

The memory of all that. No wonder you migrated away from French restaurants and novels of detection. Is it fair to say that you have moved to Italian restaurants and novels of discovery? Yes; it is fair. You are able to salute the novel of detection from a distance, take some notion of security in your ignorance of any local French restaurants, and look at such novels of discovery as Richard Price's Lush Life and Clockers, Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves and The Painted Drum, and Richard Powers' The Echo Maker and, most recently, Generosity as role models, things to look at when the world of literary cynicism is too much with you. Instead of Martel's Very Special Old Plain Cognac, there is the occasional bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and all the hidden bottles of peppermint schnapps hidden here and there in the novels and novellas of Jim Harrison.

You could also toss in Richard Russo.

Could and did.

Good night, John Boy.

Good night, everybody.

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