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In Media Res. Or The Middle of the Night.

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Before I get started here, you have to understand something.  It is 3:20 in the morning, and I’ve been up for two hours.  I’m usually an early riser, and I like to get up and get my work done before the day has started for most people.  I do not, however, ordinarily get up before two.

I am up, at the moment, because my younger son–who is not exactly a child–had a complete fit about the fact that our two cats were having a battle royal in the living room.  “But you don’t understand,” he said, when I berated him for waking me up, “it’s like they’re going to kill each other.”

These are two unneutered tomcats.  They’re trying to kill each other.  I sometimes think Disney has a lot to answer for.  I think it was Disney who first changed our “understanding” of animals into something more like a complete misunderstanding of them, so that we think that basically wild animals have the kind of sqiushy soft niceness reasoning most usually associated with–well, I don’t kno what it’s associated with.   I might if I’d had more sleep, but I didn’t have it.  It’s as if they’re cute little stuffed animals who can talk, only they don’t and they move around on their own.

I am making virtually no sense at all.  I know that.

But I’m here, and I’m still thinking about action sequences.  A couple of things on that point, and then I’ll go off and try to stuff enough caffeine into myself to function for the day.

First, I don’t doubt that books with action sequences are popular, just as movies with such sequences are popular.  It’s just that I don’t like them.

And I don’t like them even in those books where the action is “intelligent” and explained.   Tolstoy is very intelliegent and he explains everything, including the motivations of all the characters, and as soon as he gets to a battle scene, my mind just takes a vacation.

I’m just not very interested in people rushing about doing things.  The detective chases the killer through the subways of New York!  I don’t care if the damned thing was written by Shakespeare or Hemningway, it would still bore the crap out of me.  It’s not “stupid action” I’m n ot interested in.  It’s any action at all.

I had the same problem explaining th is kind of thing to a friend of mine named Ric Meyers, who once accused me of having a narrow mind because I didn’t like comic books.  It took me a while, but I finally convinced him that it wouldn’t matter how many of them I read,  I wasn’t going to like them because I didn’t like pictures.in my books.

In o ther words, the problem was fundamental.  And my problem with action sequences is also fundamental.  I don’t care how intelligently they’re written.  They’re action sequences, and I’m congenitally unable to care about people running all over the place doing physical stuff.

That being said, I’m also not all that i nterested in highly intellectual content in my mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mind it–unlike the action sequences, I can get fairly interested in the intellectual stuff–but what I really like, and what I really miss in modern mysteries, is the kind of thing where the detective has to pore over train timetables to break alibis or where you need a floor plan of the house or the hotel or wherever in order to figure out who’s lying about being in bed at the time of the murder.

I don’t know why we don’t do that kind of thing in mysteries anymore, except in sort of high farce in cozies.  I presume there must be some kind of market for it, since Dame Agatha is still in print. 

But even fairly traditionalist modern writers don’t do that kind of thing, and the mystery writers who make the best seller lists today don’t do anything like it. 

I think it’s a loss.

And I think I need some tea.

Written by janeh

December 7th, 2009 at 5:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'In Media Res. Or The Middle of the Night.'

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  1. You live with not one, but two unneutered tomcats? No wonder you have cat fights in the middle of the night! It’s a wonder you don’t have spraying competitions too, and if there’s an unspayed female anywhere within, oh, I sometimes suspect 100 miles, life could get really interesting, not to mention even noisier. My Sam was neutered within days of his arrival, and Cinnamon was spayed before arrival – well, the shelter at which she was dumped with a litter of unwanted newborn kittens, insisted. They found homes for all the kittens, too, which given the size of this year’s kitten glut was an achievement.

    It sound like you enjoy working out puzzles more than watching or reading action – fair enough. I like both, puzzles a bit more than action, and the action I like tends to be comic-book type. Not real. Really obviously not real, more so than hero takes a beating and keeps on kicking not real.

    I do sometimes get a bit impatient with those old railroad schedule things because I’m always forgetting whether the 6:45 is arriving at or leaving from London at 6:45, or is that the time it leaves the station nearest the manor house which I can’t quite remember the name of.


    7 Dec 09 at 10:16 am

  2. Okay, you’ve got two tomcats battling in your living room and your *son* has to wake you up? That’s some industrial strength sleeping you got going on. Not to mention vet bills in the offing. You’ll save what it costs to neuter them in one year’s worth of medication for abcesses and chewed up ears, not to mention the peace & quiet. As for me, a catfight outside and across the street can bring me up out of a sound sleep.

    I love disaster movies. Love ’em. I even broke a 5 year theater boycott to watch “2012” on the big screen. I like particular kinds of action movies too. I can watch Independence Day or Terminator 2 over and over, will rent things like Bruce Willis or Will Smith action films. What I *won’t* watch are movies where brutality is the point. “Fight Club” or any martial arts or Hannibal Lecter type stuff. Ick. Action in the service of a story, okay. Brutality as a reason FOR the story, no thanks.

    As for reading, it almost seems like Jane likes the small details better than the big picture type of book. Time lines. Charlie Chan. Nick & Nora. Wait, those are movies again. I can read very dark books (think Karin Slaughter) and cozies (though recipes are making me back away these days) but I’d rather discover the reason for a murder in human motivation than by uncovering a miniscule break in an alibi.

    I also read a lot of SF and fantasy, where action sequences can include swords and/or ray guns. These can often become boring, if handled poorly. Fight scenes in mysteries, or ones where the hero is conked over the head regularly (cumulative brain damage being disregarded) don’t affect me that much, if they get too long I just skim and find out who is left standing at the end.

    Oddly enough, one of the books I”m thinking about is ALL a chase, practically. One of the Thomas Perry / Jane Whitefield books, where someone she thought she was helping hide turns out to be a bad guy who tries to kill her in the north woods. It’s an amazing tour-de-force of pursuit and hunted/hunter turnabout. The whole series is predicated on chase & hide, and it’s tremendously successful at telling a story and keeping interest, even though I would never describe myself as someone who reads suspense, I guess they fit best in that category. They’re not really mysteries, as such.

    I think more and more people tend to view their books as screen-plays in waiting. Some of them (most recently some of the Robert Crais books) seem to be written with movie rights in mind from the beginning. Action sequences are mandatory in those, even where it seems like an intellectual puzzle is the center of the story. Look what they’re doing with the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Martial arts ala The Matrix slo-mo and big crashy things blow up, fall down and almost hit the hero(es), in between a few moments of talking here and there.

    When Dame Agatha was writing, TV was nonexistent, movies were new, and people had time and leisure to puzzle over a mystery. They concentrated, their attention span was longer, and apparently they remembered details that get skimmed over nowadays.

    I like a moderation of action in my books, and MUCH more in my movies. Once my husband and watched a particularly bad movie, and at the end we realized why it was so dreadful. Not one single stuntperson in the credits. So we made a rule not to watch any more movies without stuntpeople. ;)


    7 Dec 09 at 12:54 pm

  3. Ok – so I teach an intro to film class, and I always have 5 or 6 students who insist that a movie must have lots and lots of action. I make them watch movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird” to show them how great a movie can be with mimimal action. I usually win over one or two students. I also typically show “Jaws” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” – both have plenty of action, but the focus is on the idea of something beyond the control of the protagonist – something that pursues relentlessly. It isn’t the action that makes the movie good – it’s the way themes are presented.

    In my Philosophy classes I show “The Seventh Seal” – my students are typically riveted – they are stunned to discover that a movie can be great without CGI or even color film.

    I do get bored with action in books; though I seem to remember liking James Bond car chases when I read them forever ago.

    I had a student suggest that as we get older we get more reflective. I suspect that’s true to some degree.


    7 Dec 09 at 4:34 pm

  4. OK, No action sequences period. I was confused. I read:

    “Sometimes it seems tome that some readers are trying to turn books into television, that what they’re looking for is a place where they can just turn their minds off and slide.

    Boom! Bang! Crash! Shoot! Run! Jump! Be in danger!

    I suppose the one thing it doesn’t require is thinking.”

    and thought you were objecting to the lack of thought. As for not liking it “even if it was written by Shakespeare” we ARE remembering that it’s not a hypothetical? Hard to find anything Shakespearean not a comedy which doesn’t include an on-stage swordfight or battle scene–often more than one.
    (Incidentally, Tolstoy may explain motivations, but those who both understand the Napoleonic Wars and read Tolstoy assure me that while Tolstoy no doubt had a good working knowledge of Borodino, and a Napoleonic scholar can follow it, his description is hopeless if you don’t know the battle going in. Perhaps he assumed his readers already knew about Borodino.)

    As for no one writing the timetable and floorplan mysteries any more, check out the early Andrew Greeley Blackie Ryan books. There’s at least one hinging on a floor plan–and one of Garrett’s “Lord Darcy” mysteries, too, come to that.
    You may also not have exhausted the Good Old Stuff. You’ve never mentioned Georgette Heyer as a mystery writer, and she ran the gamut. A BLUNT INSTRUMENT is her best, as far as I’m concerned, and a time table at that.

    Anyway, no one who doesn’t like fight scenes should keep two tomcats under one roof.


    7 Dec 09 at 6:23 pm

  5. I haven’t seen a review for a timetable/floorplan type of mystery come by in ages (I read massive numbers of reviews in picking books for the library.) Robert’s right, you may be stuck with the older ones. You haven’t mentioned John Dickson Carr, either, although I presume you’ve read him? If not, some (not all) of his books are that type, especially the ones he wrote under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. Also James Anderson (The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat & others), who is relatively recent. Behold, Here’s Poison is my favorite of Heyer’s mysteries, although I love most of them.

    Speaking as someone who has taken in dozens of stray cats & kittens, tamed them, neutered them, & found homes for them (and seen at least that many just disappear, lost to predators & the weather), please tell me that your two guys don’t have any opportunities to engender more kittens.

    Lee B

    8 Dec 09 at 12:37 am

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