08 March 2021
Revisiting Early Work
I recently dug out the unpublished manuscript of my first mystery novel, A Friendly Glass of Poison, which I started writing more than fifty years ago, to mine it for material for a short story. It had been gathering dust on a shelf since I withdrew it from a respected agent who failed to sell it in three years of trying.
I finished Poison and wrote two more mysteries in the early 1970s, all marketed unsuccessfully by the same agent, still well known today. Here are the Edgar Best Novel nominees from 1970 to 1974 as examples of good mysteries at that time.
• Dick Francis, Forfeit
• Chester Himes, Blind Man with a Pistol
• Shaun Herron, Miro
• Peter Dickinson, The Old English Peep Show
• Emma Lathen, When in Greece
• Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Where the Dark Streets Go
• Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
• Pat Stadley, Autumn of a Hunter
• Margaret Millar, Beyond this Point Are Monsters
• Patricia Moyes, Many Deadly Returns
• Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock
• Shaun Herron, The Hound and the Fox and the Harper
• Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
• P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale
• G. F. Newman, Sir, You Bastard
• Tony Hillerman, The Fly on the Wall
• Arthur Wise, Who Killed Enoch Powell?
• Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code
• Martin Cruz Smith, Canto for a Gypsy
• John Ball, Five Pieces of Jade
• Hugh C. Rae, The Shooting Gallery
• Ngaio Marsh, Tied Up in Tinsel
• Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
• Francis Clifford, Amigo, Amigo
• P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
• Jean Stubbs, Dear Laura
• Victor Canning, The Rainbird Pattern
I was reading Moyes and Marsh. I eventually read Dick Francis, Emma Lathen, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Millar, Westlake, and Ball, and Peter Dickinson and PD James became great favorites. But when I wrote my novels, I hadn't yet met most of these authors. I had recently read my way through all of Agatha Christie, and I structured my mysteries as Christie did many of hers: by beginning with a passage from the POV of each of the characters who would become murderer, victim, and suspects before proceeding to the murder. I had read Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. But how do you model yourself on the greats when you don't yet have a voice?
The novel, as I read it over at age 76, is embarrassingly clichéd and overwritten. The parts I thought were funny are painfully "humorous"--a word I don't mean as a compliment. It's quaintly typed in Courier with the italicized words (many, as the novel was set in France) underlined and page numbers added by hand. I did it on an old Royal manual typewriter, starting a new sheet each time I made a revision and making carbon copies on onionskin. I feel compassion for my younger self, who always wanted to be a writer. And I'm so glad that novel never got published!
Many years later, I was invited to submit a short story to a proposed anthology on the theme of bars, pubs, and taverns. All who know me know that my contemporary fiction is all about recovery from alcoholism. Many also know that I've been an alcoholism treatment professional for the past thirty-five years. That makes this theme a challenge.
My protagonist in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries is a recovering alcoholic. Readers met him in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day in the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. Four novels, a novella, and eight short stories later, he hasn't relapsed, and he never will. He has better things to do than hang out in bars or spend his time thinking about booze. A Bruce story was not the solution.
Then I remembered A Friendly Glass of Poison. Why not go back to an era when not only didn't anybody know about alcoholism (except a few drunks reading the Big Book in a few obscure church basements with complete anonymity), but I knew nothing about alcoholism? Why not set a story in my, ahem, mature voice in a medieval village in the South of France in 1962, in a bar called the Chat Gris that I'd already invented, and let everybody there get drunk and have a jolly good time--until someone gets poisoned? I found I could write such a story without a single pang of conscience. I called it "A Friendly Glass."
I hope the story works. I hope the structure will satisfy modern editors. I hope the redesigned motives are plausible to modern readers, though they still reflect the culture and values of the early 1960s. I had great fun writing it. I learned to be profoundly grateful that my first novel was published not when I was in my twenties and desperately wanted it, but in my sixties, when I was ready. I am even more grateful that since that first novel, and as I have gone on to write more novels and dozens of short stories, my craft and voice continue to mature.