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Let me start by making a book suggestion.

The book is actually a long essay that Knopf has decided to put into hardcover, under the title Talking About Detective Fiction.

It’s written by P.D. James, who says in the foreward that she wrote it for the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, “in aid of the library.”  I’m not sure what that means, but it’s an interesting liltle history of British detective fiction and meditation on the writing and reading of the same, and it’s got a lot to recommend it.

And I saw that even though it makes the same mistake almost every book on detective fiction makes–it defines the universe of detective novels as split between British traditional and American hard-boiled, as if the British never write hard-boiled and the Americans never write tradition.

Americans actually wrote more traditional than they do hard boiled, and always have. 

The weird perception is reflected in publishing patterns, too–an American who is not writing “gritty realism”  (meaning lots of blood, gore and mangled organs) has a hard time getting published in England, and a Brit who isn’t writing carefully thought out intellectual detection has a hard time selling (though not necessarily) getting published here.  

But I didn’t start this post in order to complain about British and American stereotypes of each other. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have said about why they read murder mysteries and what they are and aren’t interested in in them.  Several of you say you’re not very interested in murderers, which makes me wonder why you read murder mysteries, instead of dozens of other kinds of fiction that is equally weighted on the side of entertainment–science fiction, romance, westerns.

But I am interested in murderers, sort of.  What I seem really to be interested in is murders.  I don’t care any more than anybody else about the run of the mill, two idiots got liquored up and had guns, asshole couldn’t stop his girlfriend’s baby from crying all the time sort of thing.

I am interested in murders that are deliberately chosen by people who are not, and cannot be realistically argued to be, mentally ill.

By this I mean that I am not much interested in serial killers.  I was once, when the whole Bundy thing was unfolding, and it all seemed very new.  By now, however, there has been a positive parade of these guys, all with pretty much the same kind of sexual dysfunction, all with pretty much the same standard operating  plan.  Every once in a while, you get a little quirk here and there (Jeffrey Dahmer liked boys and ate them, for instance) but it’s less original than it looks at first glance.

What interests me are the people who decide to kill and go about it conciously and with planning.  And although very few of those plan the kind of elaborate thing that my book is outlining right this moment, they do plan.

There are, to begin with, the three Petersen cases–Lacey Peterson, Stacey Peterson, and Michael Peterson.  Okay, the first two were victims.  The last was the perpetrator, because I can’t remember his victims’ names, and I remember his because he was a mystery writer and we once shared the same agent.

In all of those cases, however, the husband made a straightforward plan to do away with his wife, and also went to some lengths to protect himself from being suspected.  That was true, as well, of the woman in North Carolina who shot her husband in bed and claimed it was a gun accident. 

And the woman in North Carolina and Michael Peterson had something else in common–they had each committed at least one murder before the murder for which they were arrested and jailed, and they had committed that murder in exactly the same way.

Robert’s wrong when he says that I want a slice of life–please, really, no–but he’s also wrong that “the truth, even if it didn’t happen” does not mean “true to the internal logic of the story itself.”

It means that the work of fiction expresses something true about human life.

And the truth about narrative is that it’s a very good way to lie, and lots of people have done it.  When I was very small, I got myself into lots of trouble by staging various incidents meant to get my parents to do something I wanted them to do.  I staged the incidents because I’d seen similar incidents staged on television programs, and seen the way the parents on those programs responded.

Imagine my shock when my parents didn’t respond in any way like the ones I’d seen on TV. 

Later I would realize that the narratives of those old shows lied as a matter of course, as do many of the narratives on similar shows now.  

I don’t think it’s necessary to write about liquored up bar fights or boyfriends killing their girlfriends’ babies to write the truth, even if it didn’t happen, but it is necessary to stay within the bounds of the actual psychological make-up of people who commit murder.

There are plenty of the kind of murderer out there who would fit into a murder mystery, but there are things they do, and things they do not do.  One of the things that strike me about the real-life is that they tend to be repetitive.   If they do Murder A and get away with it, they use the same method to do Murder B, and Murder C.

Sometimes they can get away with this for a very long time.  There are those old ladies who kept killing lonely old gentlemen in order to collect their social security checks, and I think they managed to get away with it for more than a dozen years.  In both the Peterson case and the case in North Carolina, the perpetrator duplicated his or her first murder with his second.  Michael Peterson’s first was at least committed an ocean away in another country.  The woman in North Carolina was duplicating things in her own town.

In this sense, Christie’s A Carribbean Mystery is more “true” than a lot of better written and better honored novels, because her murderer has committed his crime in the same way twice before. 

In another way, however, the book is not so true, because in the case that forms the focus of the plot, the perpetrator commits two more murders, and neither of those is done in the same way as the first, or anything like it.

One of the things the writers of murder mysteries like to do–and I’ve done it myself, more than once–is to include two or three murders in a single novel, with each of them done in a different way.

It’s really hard to write these posts sometimes without knowing what kind of spoilers it’s okay to use.

No spoliers, just a hypothetical example, then:  Our Murderer (hereinafter, OM) first kills his wife by drowning her in the bath.  Then he realizes that his nosy next door neighbor saw him enter his house when his alibi says he was supposed to be at work, so he kills her, by stabbing her in the chest with a kitchen knife.  After he’s done that, the local letter carrier tries to blackmail OM because he saw OM drop the bloody murder weapon in a post box, so OM bludgeons the letter carrier to death with a ball peen hammer.

I probably just spelled that wrong.

It’s not that murderers in real life don’t use multiple methods for multiple crimes, it’s that murderers of the kind murder mysteries are written about don’t.

Professional hit men use whatever will work.  Street thugs use whatever is handy.  Your standard middle class murderer planning a crime tends to stick with what she knows has already worked.

And such a person almost never kills a second time to get rid of a witness.  “He died because he knew too much” may be a good basis for a mystery plot, but in real life it virtually never happens as a secondary murder.  Our middle class murderer will kill his victim because the victim discovered he was running a Ponzi scheme instead of an international company.  He won’t kill his wife and then kill some guy he thinks might have seen something.

I’m really not suggesting here that murder mysteries should be portrayals of the statistically accurate, only that the murder, as a character, should run true to the characters of actual people who actually commit these crimes. 

Maybe that is why I like P.D. James’s novels as much as I do.  She doesn’t give me ordinary street crime, but she does give me both murders and murderers who ring true according to what we know of conscious middle-class murderers walking among us.

And yes.   I do understand that, like Bernie Madoff, a lot of these people are not very interesting in and of themselves.  They do, however, represent a reality we live with.  I am not interested in the person of the murderer so much as I am interested in the reality they create.

And now I’m blithering.  I really am working a lot, and on one of the most elaborate and complex (or complex-seeming) plots I’ve ever done. 

And I’ve still got no idea how Gregor is supposed to find the gun.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2010 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Clueless'

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  1. I’m wrong a lot. It isn’t always my fault. Words like “typical” “average” “usual” or “normal” in relation to homicide don’t always convey to me “cold-blooded murders carried out by the sane and reasonably intelligent.” I agree they’re an interesting subset.
    “Expressing something true about human life” is an excellent thing to do in a piece of fiction, but to get there with fiction you have to pass the internal consistency test first. Once you’ve done that, you ARE saying something true about human life, though not all statements are equally interesting.

    I hate to say it, but publishing economics may drive fictional murderers to more elaborate schemes. Tey, Christie and Stout all run to about 200 pages, The same is true of my Pay McKennas. At that, Christie does short stories from time to time and Stout does 50-page novellas. Georgette Heyer mysteries were a little longer, but still no more than 250 on an average.
    But a 350 page “crime novel” seems reasonably common today. I would suggest that this requires a qualitative change somewhere. Either the murder grows more complex, or less attention goes to the crime and its detection. I keep hearing Donald Westlake define a “blockbuster” as “a mystery, generally 50,000 words too fat, and going for the big money.”

    The PD James is ordered, but if she draws all her examples from her own work, it’ll go to Indiana in the next box. (Yes, I’ve seen it done.)


    12 Jan 10 at 6:17 pm

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