Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mystery Writers Ponder the Genre

The 24th Magna Cum Murder Conference  in Indianapolis featured guests of honor Reavis Wortham of Texas (Sonny Hawke and Red River series) and Peter Lovesey of the UK (a 35+ year career including the Peter Diamond series set in Bath, England). Highlights of a couple of panels include:

Down Those Mean Streets --
a look at the PI Novel

Panel members discussed variations among the types of mysteries, including traditional mysteries, police procedurals, private investigators, and noir. Most examples focused on classic mysteries, and I could have listened to these panelists talk for another hour. Better than a seminar, but with some humor.

PIs in traditional mysteries (Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes) function in an orderly world, and they are looking for the disorderly person (criminal) among orderly people.  They may butt heads with the police sometimes, but they're on the same team. When the PI finds a culprit, s/he can turn the bad guys over to the police.  Hard-boiled detectives operate in a corrupt world; they are looking for deviants among deviants. (Terence Faherty)

In Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (a very dark PI novel), even the police are corrupt. The Continental Op (the narrator) pits characters against each other to clean up the town, but at great cost. Almost every key character dies. (Diana Collier)

Distinctions among types of mysteries have a lot to do with the tone, atmosphere, and language. (And not just whether they cuss or not, the level of coarseness varies.) The same plot could be written as a cozy, PI, or procedural. In the PI novel, the atmosphere would obviously be darker. (Kaye George)

Shown in the photo: Kaye George, Terence Faherty, M. Ruth Myers, Diana Collier, Jim Doherty.

In a traditional mystery, the PI would follow several paths, four of the perhaps five being red herrings. Eventually the investigation leads to a killer. Had the investigator picked the 'right' path first, it would be a short story. But if you look at Chandler's Deep Sleep, Philip Marlowe is peeling an onion. He has to jump through all the hoops to solve the crime. In many ways, it's a more complex story, more interesting to the reader. (Faherty)

Police procedurals show the mean streets real-life police have to face.  As Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) said, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.” (Jim Doherty)

Noir novels, as the name implies, are darker stories. Micky Spillane's Mike Hammer considers himself judge, jury and executioner -- in many ways a vigilante. Criminals generally don't get turned over to the police. (Faherty)

In Sickness and in Health

I moderated this panel, which discussed the extent to which health (mental or physical) can affect a story line. Participants included honorees Wortham  and Lovesey as well as Parnell Hall (The Hastings and Puzzle Lady series) and Michael Allen Dymmoch (Caleb and Thinnes series).

It's a given that all murder mysteries include at least one person with mental health issues -- the killer. I wish I could have made the kind of notes I take when I'm a panel attendee, because the panelists had cogent points.

We acknowledged that the health limitations could be those of the protagonist, villain, or victim. In fact, the Thrilling Detective website has a section devoted to "Defective Detectives," organized by mystery subgenre. In current culture, Adrian Monk's OCD often comes to mind first.

None of us structured our plots around a character's illness (beyond those with criminal intent). However. Dymmoch and Wortham both have key characters with PTSD. I thought Dymmoch's Jack Caleb gave a poignant description of his emotional reaction after rescuing a policeman from a car, covered in gasoline, that was about to be torched.

"[Caleb] shivered in spite of the blanket he was wrapped in. The excitement was wearing off and a poisonous cocktail of neurochemicals was replacing the adrenaline. He was beginning to experience depression. He'd suffered from it for so long it seemed comforting at times -- the devil you know. He felt the onset of a self-loathing that was familiar, too, a habit he had thought he'd broken. It was partly self-disgust at having lost control, partly a profound feeling of loneliness. In times of distress, friends and family were a palliative or at least distracting. But he was estranged from his family."

A great example of presenting an emotional reaction without making it sound like a clinical recitation of symptoms.

I asked Wortham about Sonny Hawke (his newest protagonist) who, in Hawke's War gets shot under the arm, falls off a cliff, and is essentially tortured by the bad guys who later capture him. Is the reader meant to suspend reality in terms of physical endurance? Wortham cited the basic need for human survival -- people push themselves to the limit to keep living. Wortham has also fallen off a cliff, so has some firsthand knowledge of that and plowing through cactus needles. Good research.

Apparently male protagonists survive such medical emergencies -- Hall's Teddy Fey (written with Stuart Woods) is a stunt-actor-cum-assassin who intended to fall five stories onto an inflated mat. His nemesis had poked it full of holes, so he landed on concrete -- and survived.
Peter Lovesey, Reavis Wortham, Elaine Orr

Lovesey doesn't create disabled characters for plot purposes. I asked him about his Theo Sinclair (in Rough Rules) who walked with a cane because of childhood polio. In a near final scene, an injured Sinclair is almost thrown into a hayloft while the murderer occupies himself below. Sinclair was able to watch as the killer dragged in another victim.If he hadn't been so encumbered, he would have tried to escape, thus precluding the chance of spying on his suspect.

What I Learned about Poisons

Toxicologis Luci Zahray is at Magna most years, and each time has more resources on the role of poisons in murder. If you think like a novelist, it's good to remember that the poisoner has to be able to handle the substance without harming themselves. It may take more skill than putting on latex gloves.

Thinking of poisoning someone with strichnyne? You pretty much have to want the recipient to die, as one of the few effective antidotes is an injected Benzodiazapine (such as Valium), which relaxes convulsions. It's unlikely a hospital would have enough to help. Even if an antidote works, your body temp likely would become so high that you'd die of organ failure within a few weeks. Ugh. 

Zahray had other 'suggestions.' How about putting a DMSO (Dimethyl Sulfoxide) in a water-soluble solution such as hand lotion? A poisoner could do that and be long gone before the victim became ill.

The best thing I learned was that you can buy some older poisons at antique stores. I've no plans to do so, but one of my future bad guys may well make such a purchase.

                                                        *     *     *     *     *     *
 Check out Elaine's web page, sign up for her online classes, or receive her newsletter.

No comments:

Post a Comment