Archive for March, 2012
So, yes, I know. I’ve been less than diligent about the blog. But the Gregor is going fine, and is likely to actually be handled in when promised, and I’m happy.
Right now, I want to address a question:
When reading mysteries–all kinds of mysteries, where you don’t know who the perpetrator is from off–does it matter to you if you figure out who the perpetrator is before the detective/protagonist/whoever does?
I want to discuss this with regard to a particular example, so I want to tell you right up front that what follows will be about Isaac Asimov’s Murder at the ABA, and that I will be giving away the ending.
Murder at the ABA was published in 1975. I don’t know if it’s in print, and I don’t know if anybody reading this blog has read it or wants to read it.
But here’s the
Everything after this point will have specific information about this book, including the solution.
The ABA, for those of you who don’t know, is the American Booksellers Association, and this book is one of those things Asimov used to do from time to time as a kind of tour de force. Asimov himself is in it, and the fourth wall breaks down every few pages. The main character was almost certainly meant to resemble the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and since Asimov and Ellison were friends, my guess is that Ellison didn’t mind.
In spite of all that, however–the various footnotes meant to be from the supposed narrator and Asimov himself, the in jokes and the references that very few of the readers would have understood, or even been able to tell were happening, the book is a fairly standard and reasonably well constructed fair play mystery.
And it’s because that’s what this is that I was brought up short.
Because I knew who the killer was within maybe five pages of the body being discovered, and it probably didn’t take that long.
Here is the set up.
The victim is a writer names Giles Devore, who has had one big best seller and whose new book is just about to drop. He has arrived at the ABA convention to schmooze booksellers and to make connections, because he is determined to drop his small publishers and go with a big house for his next book.
On the night before he is to do his Big Signing, he has a commitment that makes him worried he will not be back in time to get a package from the cloakroom that has been left for him by his wife.
He therefore gives the ticket for this package to Our Protagonist, and Our Protagonist promises to retrieve this package and leave it in Giles’s room.
Our Protagonist gets distracted, and doesn’t remember about the package until well into the next day. He finds out that Giles has attempted to retrieve it himself, and not having the ticket has been refused. Giles then had a fit and, in his autograph signing, had even more fits.
Our Protagonist finally retrieves the package and rushes up to Giles room to hand it over.
When he gets there, he finds Giles dead in the bathtub and clothes strewn all over the room, and a little pile of white powder that he is able to identify as heroin on the top of the bureau.
He immediately calls security, and a security guard named Michael Strong shows up.
Our Protagonist points out that the clothes flung all over the room mean that this must be murder, and not an accident, because Giles was notoriously neurotic about folding his clothes neatly and putting them away. He would never fling them about.
Michael Strong allows as how this isn’t much to go on, and that Giles may have had some reason for not following his usual routine. Then he calls the head of security.
When the head of security shows up, Our Protagonist explains about the clothes and gets the same kind of so-what reaction. Then he goes, “and on top of that, there’s heroin in this room!”
They look at the bureau as he points, and there is no sign of heroin there. The top of the bureau is shiny and clean.
And at that point, of course, I knew that Michael Strong was the murderer.
I did not stop reading the book there, of course. I read lots of books where I know who the murderer is.
But maybe because I didn’t know the murderer before I started reading, because I figured it out on the page, the rest of the book read very oddly to me.
For one thing, I could not get over the distinct feeling that, given the fact that Michael Strong was the murderer, a lot of the rest of the plot was simply superfluous.
It all felt beside the point–the exposition of Giles’s rancorous relationship with his small publishers, the various women Giles had tried to get to accommodate his very peculiar sexual habits, the highly uncordial relationship between Giles and the ABA and hotel staffs.
Part of it, I think, was that a lot of the subsidiary motives were not very believable to me. There’s a famous story about some science fiction writer–it might have been Harlan Ellison, come to think of it–throwing a piece of office furniture through the window of Lester del Ray”s Manhattan office, and I never heard anybody say that del Ray had been ready to kill him.
Publishing people do not, in general, resort to physical violence agaisnt each other. Some of them do other very nasty things, but the physical is just not part of the repertoire.
And although I think rape could lead a woman to murder, I’m not sure that I believe that a woman would kill a man for suggesting sex she found disgusting. I’d believe it might cause her to slap him, or to knee him, or to run away in disgust, but why kill a man who isn’t trying to force you?
I find myself, in the meantime, a little uncomfortable with this whole thing.
The people who walk up to you and go, “I figured it out before the end!” as if “figuring it out” is the gold standard of value for the fair play mystery, or any mystery, drive me crazy.
There ought to be more to a book–including a fair play mystery–than just “figuring it out.” If that was all it was, nobody would ever reread mysteries, and plenty of people do.
So there’s a question–do you read mysteries to “figure them out”? Is “figuring them out” the whole point, or the main one? Is a mystery you can’t figure out until the writer tells you at the end better, and a more satisfying book, than one where you do?
I thought I had the answer to this, for me, a long time ago.
With this one book, though, my usual answer didn’t hold true.
I was less happy with this book because I figured it out that early.
As for the title, don’t ask. It’s one of those days.
But I’ve been looking over the comments from the last post, and two things struck me.
First, pace Mique, Harold Robbins never wrote an explicit sex scene in his life. Even Grace Metallious (Peyton Place) only informed her readers that some kind of bizarre sex had taken place.
For explicit sex, you had to look at Henry Miller, who was a sort of cult icon among (mostly male) writers in the Sixties.
But the issue comes down to what will and won’t sell books, and writers and publishers are looking for “the kind of thing” that will get readers to buy.
It’s not entirely true that any “good” book will find an audience. Fashions come and go in fiction as in anything else, and very good books that are outside their time often go nowhere.
But the fashion for very explicit sex and violence is something else.
It’s an attempt to make books not books.
Books have always been addressed principally to the mind.
I don’t mean they were Intellectual with a capital I, but that the writer and the reader both assumed that the attraction of reading was getting your mind to work, either logically or imaginatively.
A book doesn’t have to be difficult to read in order to do this. The idea isn’t to give everybody the mental equivalent of a full body workout. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
The issue is only that it be your mind that is appealed to, and maybe to your emotions in the sense of sympathy for the characters, which is also a mental act.
What books do when they provide more and more graphic sex scenes and more and more graphic violence is to appeal not to the mind, but to the gut.
I’m not talking about sympathy or imagination here, but a reaction similar to getting tazed. The material bypasses mind and emotions both to give you a kind of electric shock. And if you like that electric shock, you’re going to want a bigger one the next time.
For centuries, the only kind of literature that went for the electric shock was pornography, and that was why pornography was deemed both trashy and illicit. It was trashy because it didn’t appeal to the mind, which was assumed to be the most human part of the human. It was illicit because the Powers that Were thought it was a bad idea for human beings to spend their time chasing ever larger electric shocks.
Think drug addiction. Or–closer in actual experience–chronic gambling.
I do not like to read or watch explicit violence, so I was unaware that graphic descriptions of child rape and murder had become so prevalent.
It does occur to me that such graphic violence marks a distinct change from when I started publishing fiction, when I was told that violence done to a child would hurt a book. I even had a book–Charisma–with such violence, that was roundly panned in several places, including the New York Times, for having such violence.
But if violence is becoming more common in books, my guess is that it’s there because there is no other place to go.
And all graphic violence looks like a how to manual. It would almost have to.
But if such books are selling, then somebody wants to read them.
And it seems to me that books without the electric jolt are selling less well.
And I have, really, no idea of what any of this is supposed to mean.
It may, though, explain something about the tendency to shove books that are not cozy into the cozy label.
Maybe we have just reached a point where there is no name for a novel that is just a novel, genre or otherwise. You either have “dark,” meaning explicit, or books that are deemed before they’ve ever been read to be cutsey, silly and unrealistic.
I’ve got a good one, by the way, if you want to read a decent traditional mystery novel but might get turned off by the cozy label because you don’t like detecting cats or characters that are less like human beings than vaudeville skits.
Try Jane K. Cleland’s Consigned to Murder.
It’s the first in her Josie Prescott series, and it’s very good indeed. And very well written.
And not in the least bit cutsey-wootsie, giggle and give recipes.
That’s my recommendation for the week.
When I write mysteries, I often also read mysteries. And I tend to read older mysteries, at least as much because it’s hard to find the kind of mystery I like being published today.
We are in an era of “thrillers,” and thrillers don’t thrill me very much.
But we are also in an era of escalation, if that’s the word for it.
There are so many mysteries being published by so many different people in such a very few subgenres, that each of the subgenres seems to me to be in a state of constant one-upsmanship.
I have no idea if the grammar of that sentence makes any sense.
But you know what I mean. Each author feels the need to go one better than the last author, especially the last best seller author. Each serial killer novel is gorier and more outrageous than the last. Each police procedural has a more convoluted set of body wounds or a more complex set of twists that rely on the idea that the police aren’t necessarily angels.
This kind of thing causes problems in any subgenre it occurs in. After awhile, readers like me tend to get innured to the blood and gore and yet another sexual aspect and to feel more bored than shocked or entranced.
But in the particular subgenre in which I work–the fair play mystery–there’s another problem, and it’s a big one.
If you’re going to start out your mystery with a corpse found in a spectular situation–dressed like a bat and hanging upside down from its knees from the lintel of his wife’s front door, say–you’d damn well better have an explanation that is just as spectacular.
Okay, I’ll admit it.
I like that bat thing.
But I’m never going to use it, because there are only two ways in which I could explain it that would be in any sense plausible.
The first is that there is something about the commission of the crime that REQUIRES the perpetrator to resort to such a thing.
And by requires, I don’t mean “was made at the victim and this was his way of getting revenge on the victim by making the victim look ridiculous.”
That’s the kind of explanation we get for most of these things, and it’s beyond lame.
I know a lot of you here don’t think it’s necessary to stick to what could happen in the real world when you’re writing a story, but a situation like the one I’ve outlined above, coupled with the kind of explanation I’ve outlined above is beyond being implausible. It’s just plain silly.
Murderers do not dress their victims up as bats and hang them from lintels for the very good reason that doing so naturally increases the chance that they’ll be caught.
That kind of thing takes a lot of time, and it provides many more opportunities for the murderer to leave physical evidence, like fingerprints and clothes fibers.
The closest thing I ever saw to a decent explanation for a situation like this came in a Murder, She Wrote episode, where the corpse was dressed in a costume from a costume party in order to make people believe, when seeing it, that it was really somebody else.
The plot did not require that anybody buy the mistaken identity for very long, and the reason for the switch was in fact necessary to the murderer getting away with it, but it was still iffy.
In most cases, the explanation isn’t nearly as well thought out, and what we’re left with amounts to “the murderer went through all this extra trouble because the victim locked him in a room with a bat when they were both five.”
The other possible explanation is that the murderer wasn’t able to avoid leaving the corpse in such an outrageous position–that the living person was actually in that position at the time he was killed, or that something about the disposal of the body or the killer’s need to get away left him no other choice but to do this thing.
The obvious problem with this, of course, is that there are very few circumstances in which this sort of thing would be the case. How plausible is it (there’s that word again) that the ONLY time the killer could have to murder the victim is in the middle of a costume party while the victim is hanging from a lintel in a bat costume?
In the actual world of murder mysteries, and especially of cozies or quasi-cozies–we get a lot of situations like this in which the reason for the victim wearing the bat costume is plausible enough (costume party, Halloween), but where we are then told that the murderer deliberately posed the body over the lintel.
Worse, we eventually come to find out that by doing this, the murderer was “sending a message” he expected at least some other people to be able to read.
Apparently, the murderer does not care that sending messages of this kind will almost certainly make it much easier for the police to figure out who did it.
This is, I think, a large part of what I don’t like about the core of the “cozie” subgenre. I’m not a big fan of cute in any case, but I don’t mind the outlying regions of “cozy” which are not so much “cozy” as they are just sort of straightforward middle of the road detective stories.
But the artificialness of this kind of situation makes me wild.
And that goes back to why I end up reading old mysteries.
Before the escalation started, there were a fair number of books written that did the outrageious-circumstance thing fairly well, and did it both plausibly and without resorting to lots of silly not-really-within-the-realm-of-believability explanations.
Of course, there were also a lot of books that did just the kind of awful thing I’m talking about–but they’re now out of print.
This morning, I’m reading Erle Stanley Gardener’s Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife.
He’s very good at the kind of thing I’m talking about.
And he’s a genius–because only a genius could have named a continuing character Ham Burger, and gotten away with it for 40 years.
Here’s the thing.
I almost never know who the murderer is going to be whenI start writing a book, and I almost always change my mind several times over the course of writing.
What’s more, I almost always change my mind again when I’m doing the cut from the first draft, and sometimes I change my mind twice.
This requires an awful lot of going back and forth with things, and there is simply no way that I don’t miss some of them.
Of course, this is what editors and copyeditors is for, but with this book I’m trying a new method of checking on myself–I’m printing out the whole thing as I do it so that I can reread it in hard copy.
I have no idea why I seem to pay more attention to, and retain more, with hard copy than I do with what I see on a computer screen.
I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but I do know I noticed it this time because the mystery I constructed depends on a lot of little and not always obvious details–when the alarm system at a house was activated and deactivated, for instance.
I don’t usually write technical mysteries of that kind, but this was a good idea, and I had an explanation for a few elements that I think are rather novel, so I went with it, and here I am.
But what’s striking me this morning is this–a lot of what I read now I read on the Web. I don’t own an e-read, but I know many people do.
How much of what I’m reading on the Web am I missing?
Does everybody have the same problem I’m having, where they just find it easier to retain what they read in hardcopy?
And if they do, are they having the same problem with their e readers as they are with actual Web based content?
And at what point does this sort of thing become seriously dysfunctional?
My problem with e readers, at the moment, is that I don’t much like the format. I haven’t tried one, but I know I can’t manipulate a hard plastic box the way I can a series of pages that can be twisted around in my fingers and other things I do with books when I’m reading them. I also do a lot of highlighting, even in fiction, and I’m not sure how that would work on a e book or if I would find it easy to find the quotes I need when I’ve forgotten everything about them.
But the difference between what I’m retaining of what I’m reading of my own book on the computer, and what I’m retaining by looking at the hard copy is HUGE.
It’s so huge, I’d have to say that reading is different experientially on the computer than it is with the hard copy.
And I wonder what that means.
So try this
It was on Arts and Letters Daily today, about the “new Atheism” and that sort of thing.
So, okay. My head is still full of Gregor, as it’s going to be for the next couple of weeks. And when my head is full of Gregor, I tend not to be able to really focus on anything else.
That said, some observations from my week:
One of the reasons I like Perry Mason novels, and a lot of Fifties television, is that they were conceived and written before everybody in the country was watching his weight.
When Perry Mason takes Della Street out for dinner, she orders a steak and a baked potato dripping with butter, and she finishes it. If anybody has problems with food, it’s with not getting enough of it. People run around doing things, and then they’re famished, and then they can’t get to dinner fast enough, and they complain.
The “got to watch my calories and keep my figure” thing started in the Sixties, at least on a broad scale, and I suppose that’s another black mark against the Extreme Decade.
I have no idea where my balance sheet bottom line is on whether I loved or hated the Sixties, but here we are.
Last week was the week of March 1, which is traditionally the week we get our biggest nor’easter of the winter. We did get snow, but it was on the order of about two inches, and didn’t even require shoveling the walk.
Most years, we get about two feet. By this time last year, there was so much snow the banks of it on the sides of my walk were over my head. If this is the most of winter we’re going to get, I say yay.
The Republican primary process has now gone on for so long, it’s made my skull numb.
If it had just been primaries, I don’t think it would have been so bad, but the primaries have been accompanied by endless debates that never seem to come to any kind of conclusion.
I’ll admit that I don’t know what kind of conclusion I want them to reach, but by now my politics-addled brain just wants them to settle on something.
The only definitive conclusion I’ve come to so far is that I’m fed up with the people–starting with Alan Colmes, speaking on Fox News–who make fun of Rick Santorum and his wife, or call them crazy, by the way they responded to the death of their child. This does not seem to be a legitimate part of the political process.
I will, in case you’re wondering, put up with the endless (on both sides) and almost certainly deliberate (on both sides) misstatements about the other sides positions, or the blithe ignorance of the particulars of those positions.
I’ll put up with a lot in the way of cheap shots, too.
But the man had lost a child. Let it go.
I do admit that I find it less and less possible, over time, to keep the whole political thing in my head.
I am tired, however, of the constant attempts to get one or another commentator pushed off the air or fired from his university teaching job because he said X, whatever X said.
I find it literally impossible to listen to talk radio–it’s just too damned distracting in the car, and I don’t have a radio in the house–so I’m not 100% sure what Rush Limbaugh said, but from all reports, he behaved like a jerk.
Getting him shoved off the air, however, would not be a victory for anybody but the Nurse Ratcheds–only OFFICIAL speech is allowed! Rights come with “responsibilities.”
No, they don’t.
Rights are close to absolute claims against government power. That’s why they’re rights instead of priveleges.
That said, the right is against the use of GOVERNMENT power, which means that calls to boycott Rush’s sponsors so that he’s no longer on the air do not constitute “censorship.”
I wish everybody could get this into their heads.
I wish the right could get it straight now, with Rush, and that the left would get it straight the next time some private group or business decides not to carry their favorite book or magazine.
And yes, I am very close to the grand old tradition of “a pox on both their houses.”
That said, the local political landscape here is very odd.
By local I mean very, very local–school board, probate judge, first selectman.
You literally cannot tell anything here from party affiliation. The “cut the budget and never raise taxes” parties in the towns out here are as likely to be Democrats and Republicans.
Some of the towns out here, especially the ones that are doing the rural equivalent of gentrifying, have spawned Independent parties whose focus is on increasing funding for public schools in order to provide more AP classes, more foreign languages, and that kind of thing.
That’s because the towns’ traditional parties are both of the opinion that the schools should provide something basic and vocational, and beyond that you should send your kids to private schools.
Which, in some towns farther up in the hills, might mean an hour commute each way.
Whatever the particular constellation of issues, however, it’s as if local politics has come completely unmoored from the national variety–as if they’ve taken “a pox on both your houses” to the extreme of just ignoring what’s going on in Hartford and Washington completely.
And that has some interesting implications for the long term. National politicians start out as local politicians. This is the pipeline that will produced Democrat and Republican candidates for elections to Congress, the Senate and, maybe, the presidency.
If this keeps up, another dozen years and you’re going to see Connecticut politicians with familiar labels and completely unfamiliar policies.
But the big kicker in my week so far has been this:
There is a case in Oregon where parents are suing the hospital where their child was born because the hospital failed to detect that that child would have Down Syndrome when born.
Therefore, they went ahead with a pregnancy they wouldn’t have continued if they’d known.
The child is now four years old.
And all they can think of is that they’d have preferred to have her dead.
Give me Rick Santorum singing to his dead baby any day.
Okay, I ‘d appreciate it if you’d put comments for the last post onto this one, just to see if it’s working.
I think I did something again that screwed things up.
We’re having a little trouble with the blog program.
Maybe it will pass.
But–I’m not having an hiatus. I’m finishing a Gregor. And writing Gregor takes precedence over any other writing. So here we are. The deadline is approaching. I’ve got my murderer up a tree without a paddle. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Cutting can do crazy things to a book.
First, to address the “women and children first” thing.
Women and children first did not originate in any attempt to infantalize women. It originated in the social acceptance of a fact of nature–the most expendable part of any human population is its adult men.
Women and children are the future–women, because they can procreate, and children, because they’re the next generation.
If you can only save some, you save what will all your society to extend into the future.
My best guess is that the rules against women in combat originate in the same place, especially since those women who could best serve in combat would also be of childbearing age.
We don’t think of our job as preserving the species any more, but we either preserve it or not much else matters.
As for the Singer-acolyte thing:
Well, you know, whatever.
I bet the principle writer teaches courses in “bioethics,” too.
And it’s cute–“after birth abortion” instead of “infanticide.”
But I said a something a few years ago that got a lot of you upset with me, and I think it’s time for me to say it again.
I don’t know which side is right about the uses and abuses of religion, or the ability of the secular community to arrive at objective moral rules that treat human beings as human beings–
But I do know whose side I’m on.
And it’s not the side of the people who do not know what’s wrong with this.
I’m going to go wander off in search of dinner.