Showing posts with label Vera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vera. Show all posts

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds

by Janice Law

We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

11 February 2016

Vera

by Janice Law

I have no problem with being “a woman of a certain age.” Well, to be frank, old. So long as you don't refer to me as a “senior” or some other namby-pamby euphemism, I’m OK with old. Youth may be wasted on the young, but they're the only ones with the energy to endure it. No, aside from “the ills that flesh is heir to” as Hamlet puts it, I’m pretty content, except for my quarrel with the almost uniformly young and glamorous heroines of popular novels and TV series.

Oh, it’s fine for a George Gently to show white hair and a bit of a paunch. Kurt Wallander was done in by dementia not low ratings, and Inspector Lewis, with a bit of makeup and hair dye, looks to go on until he's older than his one time mentor Inspector Morse.

Not so the women of mystery, who need youth or glamor and preferably both. Except for Hetty Wainthropp, I don’t think anyone has picked up Miss Marple’s cardigan. So it has been a pleasure to discover Vera Stanhope, the crusty, plain spoken DCI from Newcastle, who is the featured detective in Vera. The series from ITV is now several seasons old but is just now showing up on my set.

This DCI is middle aged and dumpy. Her wardrobe can best be described as functional. She has a peculiar and distinctive voice and calls everyone, even prime suspects, either Love or Pet. If she’s got emotional trauma in her past, secret addictions, or unlikely obsessions, she keeps them private. Brenda Bethyn plays her as a grown up lady and all the better for that.


Based on the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is also responsible for that taciturn depressive, Jimmy Perez of Shetland, Vera uses a nice blend of up to date tech – the cry for CCTV footage goes out several times in every episode – with a good sense of human nature to solve her cases.

Accompanied by her young and handsome DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon), Vera is often abrasive but never heartless, being particularly sympathetic to younger offenders. She’s no softie, but she’s a good listener who, unlike her able young sergeant, can draw on a vast experience of human oddities and frailties. She’s been around long enough so that nothing too much surprises DCI Stanhope. Nice to see age is worth something!

The TV show encouraged me to sample Cleeves’ Silent Voices, part of a Vera Stanhope series. I was not disappointed. Like the Shetland novels, Silent Voices is well written with an intricate plot, an abundance of red herrings and misdirection, and a fine sense of landscape and atmosphere – like me, the author is clearly a countrywoman.

But Vera is a much more interesting, rough-edged, and generally sparky character than the hero of the Shetland series, and these traits are emphasized in the novel more than on the screen. Vera occasionally succumbs to envy and she has a nice line in snarky thoughts. She gets cranky with her staff and over works Joe, her conscientious sergeant, who is her closest companion as well as assistant.

At the same time, the DCI never falls into self pity, although she is a lonely person. She is quick to apologize and also to praise. This is a well rounded character, with a good deal of sympathy for the people who get entangled in crime and violence, as well as a tremendous excitement about her job. Like Sherlock Holmes, she can’t wait for the game to be afoot.

There are differences between screen and print versions of the character. Clearly a novel is much better at presenting the inner thoughts of the characters and the intellectual process of detection. But it is also interesting that, as with Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers, Vera has been tidied up a bit for TV. She is chunky but not really fat, and Brenda Bethyn is only a decent haircut and a nicer wardrobe away from being totally presentable.

Not so Vera of the novel, who is depicted not only as homely but as terminally undesirable, a convention I find unfortunate. If only the svelte and pretty were attractive, there would be no population problem anywhere, and it strikes me that Vera’s blank romantic life is simply the female variant of the suffering detectives are supposed to endure.

But maybe not forever. In the last TV episode, a would-be admirer appeared. Vera turned him down – but left the door open. Now a plain faced, overweight female detective of a certain age with a bona fide admirer would really break a number of stereotypes.

I hope the script writers will go for it!