It’s been a busy few months. While I was finalizing Clear Out the Static in Your Attic for Write Bloody Publishing, I found out that Editions Checkpointed wanted to publish Polska, 1994. Wonderful, happy news all around, but it means that I’ve been editing, proofing, creating marketing schedules, and sending/receiving emails pretty much constantly since the middle of December. Did I mention I have a day job? Oh, and at the same time I agreed to write two articles on spec for a really well respected publication.
I’ve been rejected enough to know that when the literary world rains happy acceptances on you, you take them. And I am not complaining. But I am exhausted. I am months behind in my correspondence and I really miss my friends, who, by now, might be wondering if I even remember how to return an email. I do. I will return them all soon. I swear.
But first I needed to recover, and for me recovery always means reading. So this week I took a break from my normal “reading to challenge myself and learn more about writing” routine and picked up all the unread mysteries I could find around the house. It’s been a wonderful experience and I learned some things along the way.
Mystery novels are a tradition in my family. My beloved grandmother (I called her Baba) read as much as one whole mystery novel a day. She’d then pass on her favorite Ngaio Marsh, Dick Francis, Agatha Christie, Gregory McDonald, or Lilian Jackson Braun to whomever she thought would love it. February is her month for a lot of reasons–her birthday, the day she passed away in 2011 and then her memorial service. It’s also a quiet but potent month with all the activity of a full month packed into a little space. Anyway, it feels like a good time to be near her memory and to read books she would have loved.
The books I’ve read this week are Avalanche by Patrick F. McManus because my dad used to read us McManus stories when I was a kid, Murdock Cracks Ice by Robert J. Ray because it’s set in Seattle and I know and like the author, and The Vanishing Smile by Earl Emerson because my dad likes him.
A Lovable PI
What I’ve learned from these books is that you need a lovable PI as your protagonist. I know this is not universally true for mysteries, but it’s a good start. He’s usually an ex-cop. Actually, I think Bo Tully in Avalanche is still a cop. I read these books really fast so details… The cop/PI angle is part of what talked me out of writing my own mystery series. I did consider it for a few minutes while reading these books–partly because they are a lot of fun to read and partly because I think they have a better chance of affording me that dream of living off my writing that’s been tugging at my heart so hard lately. He’s usually a man. Again, lots of writers have flipped this, but lots of them haven’t. He’s also usually a little rough around the edges–like he needs you to love him or cook him a good dinner.
Speaking of love, there’s always a love interest or story of some sort. This is actually my favorite part of most of these books. The love interests are usually a little more on the ball than the PI (especially Kathy in The Vanishing Smile) and I like that too. The characters aren’t terrifically well-rounded, but they are human enough and the days of a tomato with a great pair of pins are mercifully over. I’m fine with a great-looking woman, but not if that’s all she is.
I think the real art in a mystery novel seems to be in bringing to life (haha) the murder victim. These characters are invariably dead by the time we first hear of them (or will be in a page or two), but the reader’s engagement hinges on how well the character is, um, reanimated. In Avalanche, we come to hate Mike Wilson. The victim in Murdock Cracks Ice is wonderfully complex which really adds to the plot and subplots, and Marian Wright in The Vanishing Smile was on a mission that only gets more interesting the more we learn about it.
I do love reading books about places I don’t know. But when it comes to a mystery, a good part of the charm for me is reading about places I do know. In the past I have been thrilled to read about the Cascade Mountains in Mary Daheim’s novels and about a familiar restaurant on Eastlake in GM Ford’s novels. In the case of Murdock Cracks Ice Bob Ray actually mentioned a restaurant I ate at about a week ago. Swoon.
The setting is definitely part of the character in these books. I don’t think I’ve ever loved one where the city it’s set in didn’t come alive.
Action, Action, Action
I actually skim over a lot of the action. Another reason why I can’t write mysteries. When Thomas Black gets attacked by a man in the dark of his driveway in The Vanishing Smile, I skim ahead to make sure it works out okay. No offense to the writers, but I think that “all will soon be right with the world” feeling is part of the allure of a good mystery. I trust the writers to get me there. I don’t need all of the details.
Reading these books this week, I learned about misappropriation of funds, the meth industry, and the tangled web of HIV infection. It’s fun to step away from my normal world and go someplace darker without any of the actual risk. It’s like the classes I took in Criminology without the tests at the end.
I actually don’t care at all about the villain or who the real murderer is. That’s just one more reason I shouldn’t write mysteries. It’s also one of the reasons I can read them over and over and over. I like guessing along the way as the writer throws suspects at me. I like being fooled a little. And, like I said, I have no idea who killed any of the people in any of the books I just read.
Okay, so you can see that I wasn’t able to actually put down my “reading like a writer” glasses. Except for the parts about me skimming rapidly through the bits I can’t relate to. But I had a great time slipping into the genre and it did make me feel closer to Baba. Maybe the best part of this week is that these mystery novels are helping me reconnect with loved ones. I gave some of the mysteries I finished this week to my dad and to a dear friend who’d had dinner with me in one of the locales.
I won’t be writing mysteries anytime soon. I just don’t have the knack for action. But if you want to connect with someone who is, my friend Icess Fernandez is currently writing her own mystery series and blogging about it.
The wonderfully busy times aren’t over yet. I’ll be reading the night before AWP at 7pm at Ravenna Third Place Books. And I’ll be moderating a panel at AWP on February 27 called “Four Ways Blogging Benefits a Writer.” If you’re coming to the conference, we’re up first thing in the morning in room 604.
I hope you’re enjoying the long weekend. If you have a chance, I’d love to hear about the books you read to relax or if you have a favorite mystery writer I should put on my list.