09 January 2016

Of Lords and Eggs

by B.K. Stevens

Mystery short stories offer us many pleasures, including the opportunity to enjoy, briefly, the company of protagonists who might drive us crazy if we tried to stick with them through an entire novel. I was reminded of this truth recently when I reread a Dorothy L. Sayers story featuring Montague Egg, a traveling salesman who deals in wines and spirits. Most Sayers mysteries, of course, center on another protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. As almost all mystery readers know, Lord Peter is highly intelligent, unusually observant, and adept at figuring out how scattered scraps of information come together to point to a conclusion. Montague Egg fits that description, too. Both characters are engaging and articulate, both have exemplary manners, and both sprinkle their statements with lively quotations. More important, both Lord Peter and Montague Egg abide by codes of honor, and both are devoted to the cause of justice, to identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And Sayers evidently found both protagonists charming: She kept returning to them for years, writing twenty-one short stories about Lord Peter, eleven about Montague Egg.




Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories
But while Sayers also wrote eleven novels about Lord Peter, she didn't write a single one about Montague Egg. I don't know if she ever explained why she wrote only short stories about him--I checked two biographies and didn't find anything, but there might be an explanation somewhere. In any case, it's tempting to speculate about what her reasons might have been.She might have thought Egg lacks the depth of character needed in the protagonist of a novel. That's true enough, but she could always have developed his character further, given him more backstory. She did that with Lord Peter, who's a far more complex, tormented soul in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon than he is in Whose Body? Or perhaps she thought all the little quirks that make Montague Egg such an amusing, distinctive short story protagonist would make him hard to take if his adventures were stretched out into a novel. Yes, Lord Peter has his little quirks, too, but I think his are qualitatively different. For example, while Lord peter tends to quote works of English literature in delightfully surprising contexts, Montague Egg sticks to quoting maxims from the fictional Salesman's Handbook, such as "Whether you're wrong or whether you're right, it's always better to be polite." Three or four of these common-sense rhymes add humor to a quick short story. Dozens of them might leave readers wincing long before a novel ends.



I did plenty of wincing when I decided, not long ago, to read Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (not a mystery, but protagonist Lorelei Lee does go on trial for shooting Mr. Jennings, so I figure I can sneak it in as an example). For the first thirty pages or so, I relished it, laughing out loud at Lorelei's uninhibited voice, at the absurd situations, at the appalling but flat-out funny inversions of anything resembling real values. Before long, however, I was flipping to the back of this short book to see how many more pages I had to read before I could declare myself done. Lorelei's voice, which had been so entertaining at first, had started to get on my nerves, and her delusions and her shallowness were becoming hard to take. I couldn't understand why this book had been so wildly popular until I found out it had originally been a series of short stories in Harper's Bazaar. Well, sure. A small dose of Lorelei once in a while can be enjoyable, but spending hours with her is like getting stuck talking to the most self-centered, superficial guest at a party. If you ever decide to read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I recommend reading it one chapter at a time, and taking at least a week off in between.
There could be all sorts of reasons that a protagonist might be right for short stories but wrong for novels. I wrote a series of stories (for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) about dim-witted Lieutenant Walt Johnson and overly modest Sergeant Gordon Bolt. Everyone--including Bolt--sees Walt as a genius who cracks case after difficult case. In fact, Walt consistently misunderstands all the evidence, and it's Bolt who solves the cases by reading deep meanings into Walt's clueless remarks. A number of readers urged me to write a novel about this detective team. (And yes, you're right--most of these readers are members of my immediate family. They still count as readers.)

Despite my fondness for Walt and Bolt, though, I never even considered writing a novel about them. I think they're two of the most likable, amusing characters I've ever created. But Walt is too dense, too anxious, and too cowardly to sustain a novel. How long can readers be expected to put up with a detective who's always confused but never scrapes up the courage to admit it, no matter how guilty he feels about taking credit for Bolt's deductions? And while I find Bolt's self-effacing admiration for Walt sweet and endearing, I think readers would get fed up with his blindness before reaching the end of Chapter Two.

I think these two are amusing short-story characters precisely because they're locked into patterns of foolish behavior. As Henri Bergson says in Laughter, repetition is often a fundamental element in comedy. But this sort of comedy would, I think, get frustrating in a novel. Readers expect the protagonists in novels to learn, to change, to grow. Walt and Bolt can't learn, change, or grow without betraying the premise for the series. So I confined them to twelve short stories, spread out between 1988 and 2014. In the story that completed the dozen, I brought the series to an end, doing my best to orchestrate a finale that would leave both characters and readers happy--a promotion to an administrative job for Walt, so he can stop pretending he's capable of detecting anything, and a long-awaited wedding and an adventure-filled retirement for Bolt. I truly love these characters. But I'd never trust them with a novel.


Other short-story protagonists, though, do have what it takes to be protagonists in novels, too. Lord Peter Wimsey is one example--in fact, most readers would probably agree that, delightful as most of the stories about him are, the novels are even better. Sherlock Holmes is another example--four novels, fifty-six short stories, and I think it's fair to say he shines in both genres. I considered one of my own short-story protagonists so promising that I decided to build a novel around her. Before I could do that, though, I had to make some major changes in her character.

American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi first appeared in a December, 2010 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine story, now republished as a Kindle story called "Silent Witness." Positive responses to the story--including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society--encouraged me to think I might be able to do more with the character. It also helped that one of my daughters is an ASL interpreter who can scrutinize drafts and provide insights into deaf culture and the ethical dilemmas interpreters face. And I like Jane. She's smart, she's observant, she has acute insights into human nature, and she has a strong sense of right and wrong. In "Silent Witness," when she interprets at the trial of a deaf man accused of murdering his employer, she wants the truth to come out. She definitely doesn't want to see an innocent man go to prison.

Image result for b k stevens silent witnessBut the Jane Ciardi of "Silent Witness" is mostly passive. She's sharp enough to figure out the truth and to realize what she should do, but she lacks the courage to follow through. Her final action in the story is to fail to act, to sit when she should stand, to convince herself justice will probably be done even if she remains silent. I think all that makes Jane an interesting, believable protagonist in a short story that raises questions it doesn't quite answer.

I don't think it's enough to make her a fully satisfying protagonist in a novel--at least, not in a traditional mystery novel. In what's often called a literary novel, the Jane of "Silent Witness" might do fine--another protagonist paralyzed by doubt, agonizing endlessly about right and wrong but never taking decisive action. The protagonists of traditional mysteries should be made of sterner stuff. So in Interpretation of Murder, I made Jane regret and learn from the mistakes she'd made in "Silent Witness." We find out she did her best to correct them, even though it hurt her professionally. And when she's drawn into another murder case, she works actively to uncover the truth, she comes up with inventive ways of gathering evidence, and she speaks out about what she's discovered even when situations get dangerous. I can't be objective about Jane--others will have to decide if these changes were enough to make her an effective protagonist for Interpretation of Murder. But I'm pretty sure mystery readers would find the Jane of "Silent Witness" a disappointing companion if they had to read an entire novel about her.

  
Have you encountered mystery characters who are effective protagonists in short stories but not in novels--or, perhaps, in novels but not in short stories? If you're a writer, have you decided some of your protagonists work well in one genre but not in the other? If you've used the same protagonist in both stories and novels, have you had to make adjustments? I'd love to hear your comments.

20 comments:

janice law said...

I think you are right that only a few characters can shine in both formats. As for my own work, many of my short story characters are so obsessive, homicidal or both that 15 to 20 pages is plenty of time for me to spend with them.

Eve Fisher said...

I think Archie Goodwin/Nero Wolfe stand up in both short stories and novels, as do Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. But, imho, while I like Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in short stories, I find the novels tiresome.

And I think there are some writers who are simply short story writers: Ray Bradbury is the classic example. Other than Fahrenheit 451, his novels don't quite work. (The Martian Chronicles is simply a string of short stories, so I don't count that.)

B.K. Stevens said...

Thank you for your comments. Janice, I've read a few--only a few--novels with obsessive, homicidal protagonists. Even when the novels were fascinating in the early chapters, they started to feel uncomfortable before long. That's one of the wonderful things about short stories--they let us spend just a little time with protagonists we don't want to linger with for long, for one reason or another. Eve, I like your examples. Do I dare mention Ernest Hemingway as well? I think his short stories are masterful, but I'll admit I've never made it all the way through some of his novels--though that may be because I got tired of his style, not of his protagonists.

KB Inglee said...

Sherlock Holmes did well in the short stories but I never liked the novels as much. In fact while I have read all the stories, most several times, there is one novel I just can't read.
I wrote four Emily novels before I turned to short stories. In this case, I don't think the problem is with Emily but with me.

B.K. Stevens said...

KB, I think many Holmes fans, including those who like the novels, would agree that the stories are generally better, just as I like the Lord Peter stories but prefer the novels. (But I'd reread any of the stories--or all of the stories--before suffering through another reading of FIVE RED HERRINGS.)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Bonnie,

I think your point is well-taken. Some characters although interesting and entertaining in a short story simply wouldn't be suitable protagonists for a novel because they lack depth of development. The author couldn't see them as well-rounded characters or chose not to dig deeper.

B.K. Stevens said...

Jacquie, I think that's a good point. Some characters work well in short stories precisely because they don't have much depth--they're defined by one or two characteristics we can pick up on quickly, and those defining characteristics never change. In novels, we have more time to get to know characters, and we expect that time to pay off--we expect the characters to have complexities that can't be conveyed in just a few pages. So if writers want to use a short-story character in a novel, they'll probably need to develop that character further.

Jeff Baker said...

BK, I loved the Walt and Bolt stories! I remember reading Isaac Asimov saying that he thought about doing a novel based on his Black Widowers stories, but realized they worked better in the shorter forms.

Jeff Baker said...

Oh, and I'm a little surprised the Montague Egg stories aren't more well-known!

B.K. Stevens said...

Jeff, I'm so glad you enjoyed the Walt and Bolt stories! I'll always have a special fondness for those two characters(probably partly because my first published story featured them--"True Detective," back in 1988). I'm surprised the Montague Egg stories aren't better known, too. I think they're delightfully clever. When I was teaching, I sometimes gave Introduction to Literature classes all but the final page of "The Professor's Manuscript" as an exercise in close reading, challenging students to figure out how Monty knows the professor is a phony. The clues are all there, plain as can be, but it's easy to miss them.

Thanks so much for your comment!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

On point analysis with perfect examples. You asked if we have personally experienced a similar situation and my upcoming book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing - April 20, 2016) is a variation of your point. My very first published story, "Legal Magic" featured four pink-haired Mah jongg players and the lawyer son of the group's ringleader. I loved the characters, but shelved them after that initial appearance -- the lawyer's characteristics had weaknesses that would want you to kick him into action in a book while the players were funny in small doses. All would be good again in short stories, but in a book??? Then I started writing Poker and realized they were perfect secondary characters as its young female attorney protagonist's interaction with the male attorney is pleasurable and makes him grow while the Maj group provides a comic foil, wisdom, and a realistic counterbalance to the protagonist. In both cases, the secondary characters are (I hope) on stage enough for readers to look forward to the pages the characters appear on while becoming engaged in the protagonist's journey.

B.K. Stevens said...

That's an interesting point, Debra--some short story protagonists might make good secondary characters in a novel. If only Dorothy Sayers had had Montague Egg show up at Lord Peter's apartment one day and sell him some wine! I'm glad you found a good home for your mahjongg group. Your book sounds like a lot of fun--and I love the title!

Eve Fisher said...

BK, I love that idea of Montague Egg selling Lord Peter wine! (Fan fiction alert?)

B.K. Stevens said...

Eve, wouldn't a meeting between Lord Peter and Monty be fun? After all, they both know how to appreciate a good glass of wine--and I think they'd appreciate each other, too. I can just see Lord Peter nodding in agreement with a maxim from the Salesman's Handbook.

Anonymous said...

I love this post and the comments. None of my short story characters have appeared in another short story, much less a novel, although my novels are serial and have most of the same characters. Finally I decided to write a short story prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat Novels, and that would require me to use at least the protag and the sidekick from the novels. It felt very strange to use familiar characters in a short story but it seemed to have worked at as "A Killing at the Beausoleil" was published in EQMM, Nov. 2015 and reader response was totally excited and positive. Folks that like the novels ran out to get a copy of the magazine. When I get some free time ("what's that" you ask, "I'm not sure" I answer) I'd like to re-read my short fiction and see which characters would like to come out and play again! Thanks for putting the idea in my head. Terrie Moran

Kaye George said...

Just peeking in to say I loved Walt and Bolt, too, and the post makes some excellent points about the differences in protagonists. I have a couple of short story heroes that I've thought I'd like to use in a longer length, but so far I'm leaving them in short stories. I think I see why now! Thanks!

B.K. Stevens said...

Terrie, that's so interesting that you haven't used the same characters in more than one short story--I hadn't realized that until you pointed it out. Just as some characters seem right for stories and some seem right for novels, some seem right for series and some seem right for stand-alones. A couple of times, I wrote a short story about a character, thinking it would be the first in a series. But even if I liked the character and the story, a second story just didn't happen. Characters really do seem to have lives of their own--they don't always do the things we'd planned.

B.K. Stevens said...

Kaye, your comment seems like the perfect complement to Terrie's. Again, characters don't always cooperate and go along with our plans. And I'm so glad you enjoyed the Walt and Bolt stories. I had mixed feelings about retiring them, but I think the time had come. (And at least I didn't send them tumbling down a waterfall.)

Kaye George said...

When I posted this I'd completely forgotten that I've written a few short stories from Imogene Duckworthy's childhood. In fact, I mean to someday put them together. I think that's the only crossover I have from novels to short stories.

B.K. Stevens said...

That's an interesting idea--writing stories about a mystery protagonist's childhood. I have vague memories of a movie, many years ago, about a young Sherlock Holmes. That's the only other example I can think of.