Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Elephant as Suspect

When things seem simple, watch out.  Simplicity covers a multitude of complexity, causes you to ignore potential nuance, invites snap decisions.  It is one thing to admire simplicity, another still to take it for granted.  Were you to encounter on some personality test a True-False question:  “Things are always as simple as they seem.” You would without hesitation opt for False.

Stripping away details of description allows events to speak for themselves, without the need for stage direction.  Things that speak for themselves bid you to listen to them before moving on to the next sentence, the next idea, the next encoded emotion.

You were drawn to mystery fiction early in your reading years because of the inherent puzzle wanting to be solved.  Made sense then; life was yet more a puzzle then than now.  A good portion of the reason life was more puzzling came from the fact that you had no storehouse of experience dealing with feelings; many of your experiences were one- or two-timers.  The characters you admired solved problems with logic, with brainpower.  After a while, you began to see that these worthies coped you're their feelings off stage. Your pole stars were writers who could concoct a puzzle, which some seemingly attractive individual was able to solve by dint of brains, logic, and stored knowledge.  Ah, how you prized these qualities. You prized them to the extent of wanting to emulate their fictional counterparts.

All that bought you was an unusable vocabulary and an armor plate against feelings.

So your way “into” a story is through the unspoken, the various elephants you’ve been writing about these past few days—the things your characters think and look around while trying to pursue the wisdom of informed choice.

Which gets you back to the elephant with which this essay began—the mystery.  Your early approaches to writing mysteries of your own were not satisfying because you were going at the construction of the puzzle from the outside.  You wanted a puzzle that could be solved with some effort, where you already knew the result.  It did not help that most of your friends at the time were mystery writers or that, thanks to those two great friends, Dorothy B. Hughes and Vera Caspary, you were immersed in the Mystery Writers of America, which meant you had even more contact with mystery writers, and that as an editor, you’d begun contracting mystery writers and, of course, editing the results.

Numerous things had to give.  Dorothy B. Hughes helped you through the first one.  “Never,” she advised, concoct a puzzle to which you already know the answer.”

Day Keene (remember, a paperback original novel a month) talked you into the second.  Day got his start as an actor.  “Characters are actors,” he told you. “Make them audition to get into your stories.  Don’t be afraid to pass on the unpromising ones.  They have to want to get into your story.” And most important, he led you down the path of “At heart, all novels are mysteries.”  Which led you to the revelation of the novel—any novel—as a mystery to be solved, as in, What is its mystery for you?  What is its mystery for the principal characters?  And not to forget, what is the emotional denominator of any scene in a short story or novel.  Of course you’d have to tack on to that, How do you feel after having figured what the novel means, then adjusting it to accommodate, and What do you want the reader to feel after she’s finished the reading, and how about what vital emotional information have you left for the reader to discover?

The thing that has to date helped you the most is the awareness that every novel is a mystery; every story is fraught with the attempt to hide a crime.  In a literal sense, the crimes could be embezzlement, robbery, arson, even murder, but seeing that, you are able to jump to the true crimes of passion, crimes such as betrayal, hidden agenda, revenge, identity theft, and ego strangulation.

The best puzzle of all is one you could not solve going in.  You had to squirm and fidget and drink coffee and itch until you see what it represented in terms of elephants you could not face without help from your characters.

Yesterday’s elephants won’t help at all with today’s mystery.  You have to go in unarmed every time you begin another.

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