Thanks Marilyn for inviting me to once again share my news and views on your excellent blog.
I am a retired journalist and the author of nine crime novels in different subgenres. On August 21, the third in my Moriah Dru/Richard Lake Series will be published by Five Star Cengage Publishing Company. Let me introduce you to THE DEVIL LAUGHED.
Dru -- the owner of Child Trace, a specialty PI agency -- and her lover, Lake -- an Atlanta Police detective -- team up to solve the disappearance of the sailboat Scuppernong and three of the four people aboard her. The fourth, a man named Johnny, was found in the waters of the marina. In the reverse of her child-finder role, Dru is hired by Evangeline to find her mother, Candice, one of the missing and Johnny’s wife. Evangeline, a precocious yet annoying adolescent, has faith that her mother is alive.
My post today deals with a subject that has me going back to old mystery novels like Agatha Christie (read all many times), Ngaio Marsh and dozens of others. Their plots, their style and techniques are so different than those of today. Besides being masters at deception, they do something that is getting rare in today’s mystery fiction: they let us know their characters before one or more get what they (inevitably) deserve.
Writing original fiction is a tough business, and getting tougher. Especially for mystery writers. I consider myself a mystery/suspense writer on the cusp of thriller. Even my romance, WHISPERING, has a mystery/thriller aspect, as does my paranormal THE GHOST SHIP.
The reason it’s getting tougher to write with a degree to originality is the over-the-top produced movies, the myriad of mystery/thriller television series, ridiculous commercials, brutal video games, etc. -- and that more authors are taking their cues from the pyrotechnics of them all.
Take the opening scenes of NCIS. Now I like the series because of the stars, but within the first minute-and-a-half, the corpse makes an appearance like a jump ball that starts a basketball game. He’s human, I can see that, but I don’t know him. Blown up, shot, stabbed, garroted, buried alive -- for all that, she or he could be, well, a cardboard doll.
So you say, it’s a TV series. The corpse doesn’t matter. It’s the series stars. I say wrong. In the recent spate of movies, we hardly get to know the characters before they begin racing and chasing, with all of the uniqueness of NASCAR on Sunday. And the line between good guy and bad is so blurred, figuring it out has my brain rebelling.
This greed for action is sparking opening mystery chapters like a high voltage current. Corpse placement is becoming de rigueur with disposable pawns butchered on the first page before we get to know them. Having characters leap into jeopardy with no understanding -- other than we’re reading a thriller -- belies credible conflict-- a must in any novel. Why care about somebody dying that you don’t know yet? Might as well read the Sunday obits. When characters are cardboard, doesn’t matter how high the body count, it’s hard to be concerned. And when the author simmers down, inevitably the following scenes become boring. With no investment in the people of the plot, who cares what happens next?
Ebooks have a conspicuous affect on the need for lethal beginnings, too. Opening chapters are made to be seriously gripping on the first page in the free-sampling period of a novel’s life. Open your novel with the pace of a Dorothy L. Sayers, and today’s action reader will yawn and go to the next juiced-up first chapter.
Yeah, I know, the days of Chandler and Highsmith are over. Their style reflected their age, like ours do our era. Still creative writers today can mesmerize and make their characters come alive with hooks and plots that evoke mystery and dread, suspense and horror at what humans can do to their own species. After all, it is murder we’re talking about -- the ultimate taboo -- one life taken by another. We should be invested in that life.
I contend an author who has imagination, strong nouns and verbs, style and voice can fill his or her pages with characters who are fresh with life -- at least before they’re dead.
My advice: let the corpses fall where they may. Naturally and not placed to gin up immediate excitement. The letdown begins after that.
Gerrie Ferris Finger
The Dru/Lake Series:
THE END GAME,
THE LAST TEMPTATION,
THE DEVIL LAUGHED,
MURMURS OF INSANITY (coming in 2014).