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There are days when I can get up and function without caffeine without a problem, and then there are days like today.  I think it’s partially a problem with the long week-end.  It’s not really Sunday.  It’s…

I don’t know.

Back over at Steve Lewis’s blog, Steve has posted a link to an essay on plot driven vs. character driven mysteries by Bill Pronzini, a name so far out of my past, I was surprised to see it.  But Pronzini is a good writer, and he used to be a good friend of Bill’s, and he’s usually interesting on mystery writing, the theory.  If you know what I mean.

I was thinking that even for people like me, who prefer to write and to read character-driven rather than plot-driven fiction, there is, in every mystery series, at least one book that must be about the detective.

That’s the first one.  The first book in any series is usually driven by the character of the detective, whther the writer is aiming for plot-driven or character-driven in the long run.

It’s not that I don’t care about series characters–I do.  I care about my own series characters.

It’s just that, if you want to write good books, your series character either has to appear entirely abstractly (like Poirot or Marple) without much if any detail of what goes on in his private life, or your series must be limited.

There isn’t a human being on the planet interesting enough to support the weight of twenty-two volumes. 

Writers whose books focus “on the detective” in the sense of on the detective’s private life (and not “on the detection,” if  you see what I mean), do, as I’ve said before, tend to descend into soap opera.  There’s a marriage.   A divorce.  Another marriage.   Another divorce.  A drunk driving accident.  An episode of binge drinking.  Rehab.  Relapse from rehab.  Jail for a time.  Rehab again.  A brain tumor…

It gets to be too much.

For Gregor Demarkian, there’s quite a lot in the first book in the series (called “Not A Creature Was Stirring,” at the bequest of the publisher.  My original title was “The Hannaford Will)–anyway, there’s quite a bit about him, his past, his life, his attempts to get over the death of his wife and get himself back into some semblance of having a life.

That’s resolved by about book three in the series. 

There are, indeed, after that, some developments–the romance and marriage to Bennis, for instance–but really, that’s about all I can say about the man without putting him through a lot of highly artificial meat grinder “life events” that would be pointless for any sane person.

I remember writing the first of the Gregor Demarkian mysteries, sitting in the room I am now, pounding away at an “electronic typewriter” an watching my sister-in-law–the one who died last fall–marching into my back yard because…because it didn’t occr to JoAnn to knock at the front door?  I don’t know why.  JoAnn was JoAnn.

But I remember writing it, and at the time Gregor Demarkian was largely a take on m father, another ethnic American (born here, but to immigrants) who ended up doing very well in then-largely-restricted-to-WASPs-who-went-to-Yale projects of the federal government, in his case the OSS.

When Bill died, I took a two year break from doing anything at all, and when I came back Gregor had turned into a take on Bill.

But one way or the other, there’s only so much you can put your series detective through before he begins to feel fake. 

The virtue of concentrating not on the detective, or on the detection, but on the suspects, is that you have a new field of suspects each time, and therefore the series of extraordinary events (yes, yes, I know) is specific to them.  The next field of suspects will not have all that in their background, and therefore the new series of extraordinary events will not be overkill.

If that makes sense.

What also happens, in that case, however, is that every once in a while something else can happen to your series detective, as things do in a life.  You can space significant events so that they don’t seem like you’re piling Job’s life on your poor detective.

Oh, ack.  I  seem to be a little floaty here this morning.

I’m having more trouble with the new book than I expected to, and for the oddest reason–this is not the season of the year when I’m normally doing my final, major cut.  I usually do that in January and February. 

It just doesn’t feel–normal, somehow.

I must be getting old.

Written by janeh

May 30th, 2010 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Amorphous'

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  1. Read the Pronzini article. It would seem to place you and Gregor with Ross MacDonald and Archer. Things happen to the transient characters, but the permanent ones are seldom changed by the events. This seems a suitable place to be.

    It’s a spectrum, of course. As you say, Gregor doesn’t go through the usual soap opera antics, but he has changed a little, and he will never say “I shall now lecture on the locked room mystery. Those readers not interested can skip this chapter.”

    I miss Dr. Fell.

    As for your major male character creation “being” your father and your husband, that makes sense. It’s that harpsichordist on Cavanaugh Street who puzzles me: a family friend? Someone hiding out in your novels under the Character Protection Program? A refugee from a discarded novel? Every time she shows up I think of Jasper Fforde.


    30 May 10 at 10:42 am

  2. Ah yes, the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome, where eventually the immediate surroundings of the detective have been depopulated of every possible disposable character, and the main character(s) have to leave for other venues, so as to spread their deadly miasma to new cohorts of old friends, distant relatives and remote acquaintances.

    At least every Demarkian story doesn’t involve someone he or Bennis knows dying or murdering or whatever.

    Series characters have some unique challenges. Either the stories are spaced a few weeks or months apart, like the Sue Grafton novels, which has the effect of marooning the detective back in time, as publication schedules come once a year or so, or they move in real time, with the effect of the Robert B Parker novels, where Spencer starts out as a Korean War veteran, which must be dropped pretty quickly. Spencer’d be far too old for the physical exploits required. If Parker had stuck with his original characterization and age, Spencer and Hawk would have ended up 80-year-olds and the scuffling scenes would have become ridiculous. Well, implausible, anyway. And Susan would have imploded because she was getting oooooolllld!

    BTW, I think Pronzini is one of the best writers of the genre. He’s managed to sustain Nameless, (well, not nameless any more) for so many books, and grow his life into something very real-seeming. A man doing his best by family and friends, not always succeeding, having regrets but dealing with them. Plus Pronzini is married to Marcia Muller, and anything that encourages her to keep writing is good, in my opinion. Their collaborations are wonderful, too.

    As for those series which focus more on the life of the detective (Susan Wittig Albert comes to mind) taken as a whole, the events of the entire series do seem a bit much. But I tend to read each book as more isolated, which the previous events inform but don’t really come into sharp focus for me. So I don’t think, “hey, didn’t she get shot/beat up/car wrecked just two books ago?” unless it’s really extreme.

    And I really really *really* hate when authors use the “what came before recap” in every book, often in the same exact phrasing, in the same exact place in the story. Copy/paste much? Gregor manages to avoid that too.


    30 May 10 at 12:58 pm

  3. Jane likes harpsichord music. I don’t know if she had a particular harpsichordist in mind when she created that character, though.

    And as for the recap – it’s worse in Tv series when you’re watching them on a DVD, since you’ve probably seen the previous episode quite recently. But at least there you can fast forward through themmuch like you can skip through them in a book. I don’t think I tend to read many books with authors who feel impelled to stick little summaries at the beginning, though.

    What I find really tedious is the ones who feel called to establish character by brand name – ‘As she pulled out her Blackberry, she aske Joe if he had seen her …what’s that expensive type of shoe? Choos or something?’


    30 May 10 at 6:52 pm

  4. Snerk, very funny Cheryl. I just this week finished reading “Go to Helena Handbasket” and laughed myself sick. I’m totally up on all the mystery cliches.

    My favorite bit, I think, was the refrigerator that though it hadn’t been filled in weeks (months?) was always capable of disgorging a full-on 5 course gourmet meal with very easily perishable ingredients. And Donna did the brand name thing a time or six as well. And her drink recipes!!

    Anyone who hasn’t read Our Donna’s book is missing out. I’m waiting for the American release of Old Dogs, too.


    30 May 10 at 9:07 pm

  5. Helena Handbasket is hilarious. I should re-read it. Aside from the brand names, my favourites are the heroes who are kind of like Timex watches in the way they keep on going after injuries that would put any mere human into the hospital several times over, and the female amateur detective who deliberately puts herself into danger for no apparent reason. I think my favourite example was the nice middle-class forensic anthropologist in a series that did improve over time who decided to go to a Montreal biker bar late one night, alone, and have a little chat with the patrons about their criminal activities when there was no burning reason she couldn’t have gone at another time, or at least gotten a bodyguard or let someone know where she was going.

    I mean, bikers in general don’t have a good reputation in spite of the fact that nowadays a lot of them are respectable middle-aged men who do rides for charity, but MONTREAL biker gangs are in a class of their own even in the not-so-respectable world of biker gangs. They’ve blown up a young boy who happened to be walking by when they were ‘settling accounts’ in their usual manner with a car bomb, came within an inch of killing a reporter who wrote about them, and so on and so forth.


    31 May 10 at 6:56 am

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