Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Kisses Sweeter Than Whine

with 2 comments


Sarah Palin and FGM by government doctors in Australia–there’s enough blood in the water to start World War III around here.

And I do want to get to Sarah Palin, and “hometown values,” eventually.  I’ve got a feeling this is mostly going to be a matter of vocabulary.

That said–back to why it is one would write a MYSTERY when one isn’t much interested in mystery plots, and what’s left of a book when you take away the plot besides a bunch of people standing around talking.

First, let me say that there’s a difference between plot and story.  The plot is the bare skeleton of events considered by themselves–

So, the plot of Somebody Else’s Music is that Gregor Demarkian agrees to look into a 20 year old murder in a small town in Pennsylvania.  One of the people involved in that case originally is now a prominent author and political talking head, and the tabloids have gotten hold of the thing and are making innuendos.  Gregor goes up to the town–where the author is also spening the summer to make arrangements for her ailing mother–and a series of events occurs, first the brutal death of a dog, then a murder, then another murder, and Gregor, looking into it all, solves it.

That’s the plot.  It could be the plot of three dozen other books, and it is.  Some of the particulars are different, but the plot itself is fairly standard.

But the story is something else again.  A book with a single plot may contain half a dozen complete stories, which are not about events but about people.

So the story in Somebody Else’s Music–the main one–is about Liz Toliver (our pundit), who finally manages to overcome the long-term effects of an absolutely epic course of childhood and adolescent bullying–

And the substories of what has happened to, and will happen to, the girls who bullied her.

I thought it was interesting that the person who wrote the comment over at Steve Lewis’s blog used Ruth Rendell as his example, because Rendell–at least when she’s writing as Barbara  Vine–is practically a textbook case of a writer in whose books plot is secondary and story is everything.

I’ll admit that I’ve only read two of the Wexfords, which I didn’t care for, but I’ve read a lot of the Barbara Vine.  The one that comes most clearly to mind at the moment is a thing called King Solomon’s Carpet. 

I’ll admit it.  I don’t remember a single thing about the plot of that book.  I don’t remember what the crime was, or who solved it, or how it was solved.

But I remember at least one of those stories so well that it’s bugged me ever since–the story of a young woman who dreams of being a classical musician and who has moved out of her mother’s house (and into range of the crime) because her mother is a world class bitch who spends all her time beating her daughter’s head in.  The daughter has no talent.  She’s nothing.  She’s never going to be anything but a loser.  Etc.

Except, in this case–the mother is absolutely right.  The girl has no talent.  She is not going to realize her dream.  And the daughter has to come to terms with that.  Her mother is still a bitch, a bad mother, and an emotional abuser–but she’s right on the facts, and classical music will not be the daughter’s escape from the mother’s maltreatment.

Part of the reason to choose to write mysteries is that mysteries provide a good, and expansive, frame for stories.

Part of the reason to choose to write mysteries is that mysteries provide a automatic point of pressure.

Stories happen when characters are in conflict, with themselves, with each other, with a situation.  The occurence of a crime automatically creates conflict in and between any of the people who are touched by it.  It’s a good pressure point.

Over the course of twenty five years writing about Gregor Demarkian and the people he comes in contact with,  I’ve been able to write dozens of stories that would never have seen the light of day if they hadn’t been attached to a mystery.

Precious Blood is, I think, one of the two or three best in the series–and it concerns the people left in a dying rust-belt city and what they’re doing with their lives, and how they’re living after a wild incident in their youths that nearly ruined all of them.

I can see the book proposal for that one now, minus the mystery. 

We are, I think, at the end of the novel as an art form.   Film does better what most people want from novels, and it does it faster and in a way that makes it possible for a broad audience to like it on some level, even if they don’t “get” the whole thing. 

Readers who once went through mountains of Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Melville now have very little patience for anything that isn’t quick, often resent “hard” books with complicated sentences, don’t need description because they’ve got pictures–you name it. 

A best seller today, except for the huge successes like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, sells about as many books as Hemingway did when he was a best seller.  The difference is that that reprsents a much smaller percentage of the population.

I loved mysteries from off.  They were the first full-length novels I read.  I still read them, and lots of them.  I tried writing my first mystery when I was about six.  I actually finished my first mystery when I was ten.

I love the genre, but I love it because it is a frame on which other things can be hung.  If it wasn’t, I think it would have gone the way of the “mainstream novel” a long time ago.

Sarah Palin and “hometown values” tomorrow.

Assuming I’m actually awake.

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2010 at 7:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Kisses Sweeter Than Whine'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Kisses Sweeter Than Whine'.

  1. Perhaps your attention has been elsewhere, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has just now backed down from their previously announced policy of a “symbolic nick” of FGM in order not to have the parents take the daughter overseas and have it done there.


    I’m not sure at this point if it’s genuine concern for the girls or the thought of losing the fees. Gah. It’s so repulsive that if I found out my own doctors were in favor of it, I’d leave them.

    Two other notes:

    1. The definition of a cozy seems to wander about. On RAM, the generally accepted one seems to be “a mystery or (amateur) detective novel where the murders or violence occurs outside direct narration.” In addition, there are rarely any graphic descriptions of crime scenes or bodies, decomposed or otherwise. The detective may be threatened, but always escapes the bad guy unharmed. Rescued in the nick of time, or whatever.

    2. Doesn’t any novel with a decent story contain a mystery? Isn’t that what dramatic suspense *IS?* Even if it’s only “what does she see in him?” Other than those literary novels in which nothing actually happens, where the mystery becomes “why am I reading this?” Unless it’s funny or trenchantly observational, I can’t see the point of novels like that. Angst alone does not a story make, particularly when the characters themselves aren’t worthy.

    So when I say “mystery” I’m most like to mean murder or detective mystery, where people are in jeopardy of some sort. If the mystery is what we find when we open Al Capone’s Vault, I don’t care so much.


    28 May 10 at 1:14 pm

  2. Fully agree. Have a nice weekend.

    Oh? Details. Yes, you can write a short story with a single plot and a single story, and maybe a short novel, but above 200 pages, almost every novel is a mixed form. SHARDS OF HONOR is war, romance, adventure, political intrigue and doing evil that good may come of it. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is war, adventure, addiction, the corruption of power, sacrifice and the nature of evil–but then Tolkien had a lot of room. But this is why Mary Stewart is “romantic suspense” instead of just “romance” and why Jennifer Crusie who IS just “romance” has two murder mysteries and two crime novels among her romances.

    Pressure is helpful in putting together a story, and violence provides a lot of pressure.

    Ideally, everything blends–the mystery, the setting and the characters–and it all resolves together. By that standard PRECIOUS BLOOD is very good indeed–right up there with GAUDY NIGHT. Shifting briefly from mystery to crime, Parker’s “Spenser” novels at their peak–somewhere around PROMISED LAND and VALEDICTION–also managed that integration of elements.

    A word, though for the pure “Fair Play” mystery–the 70-page Nero Wolfe short, or the 200 page Gideon Fell. You can get a mystery novel with six elements close enough for jazz. The solution of a pure mystery is opaque until it’s revealed, and then it’s head-thumpingly obvious. But if the author doesn’t get it exactly right, he needn’t have bothered trying.

    I persist in thinking Raymond Chandler took “hard-boiled” off on a side track because he didn’t have what it took to write a Fair Play mystery.


    28 May 10 at 5:57 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 864 access attempts in the last 7 days.