Showing posts with label Conan Doyle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conan Doyle. Show all posts

25 March 2020

Sleeping Murder



"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
          - The Duchess of Malfi

My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.

Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.


This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.


Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.


Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.


The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.


There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.

20 August 2018

Blues and Clues


by Steve Liskow

In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


03 September 2015

Serial Offenders


by Janice Law

Like most mystery fans, I have my favorites, characters I willingly read about time and again. Indeed, what lover of the genre wouldn’t like just one more Sherlock Holmes story or another vintage appearance from Lord Peter Whimsy or Adam Dalgliesh? Familiarity breeds contentment for the reader. The writer is another breed of cat.


Writers enjoy variety, new challenges, new plots, new directions, and perhaps for that reason even wildly successful mystery writers have sometimes had complicated feelings about their heroes and heroines. Demands for another helping of the same can arouse a homicidal streak – of the literary sort. Thus Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenback Falls and Henning Mankell gave Wallander not one, but two deadly illnesses. Agatha Christie wrote – then stored– Curtain, Poirot’s exit, at the height of her powers, while Dorothy Sayers, faced with either killing off or marrying off Lord Peter, mercifully opted for the latter. He was never the same in any case.


first POD for Anna. My design
During my career, now longer than I like to mention, I’ve twice created serial characters, each begun as a one off. Anna Peters was never projected to live beyond The Big Payoff and my second novel used other characters entirely. Alas, Houghton Mifflin, my publisher at the time, was not enthralled, and the new novel was destined to be unlucky. Bought by Macmillan – or so I thought – the deal fell through when the entire mystery division was folded.

Back to Miss Peters, as she was then. Nine more books followed. They got good reviews and foreign translations and sold modestly well, although not ultimately well enough for the modern publishing conglomerate. I did learn one thing I’ll pass on to those contemplating a mystery series: don’t age your character.

Sure, aging a character keeps the writer from getting bored, but in five years, not to mention ten or twenty years down the road, you’re getting long in the tooth and so is your detective. Poor Anna got back trouble and was getting too old for derring do. I was faced with killing her, retiring her, or turning her into Miss Marple.

I chose to have her sell Executive Security, Inc. and retire ( some of her adventures are still available from Wildside Press). I imagined her sitting in on interesting college courses and wondered about a campus mystery. But I was teaching college courses myself at the time, and a campus setting sounded too much like my day job.

Wildside edition,
last Anna Peters
For at least a decade (actually, I suspect two) I stayed away from series characters. I published some contemporary novels with strong mystery elements and lots of short stories. I liked those because I didn’t need to love the assorted obsessives and malcontents that populated them. I just needed to like them enough for 10-14 pages worth.

Then came Madame Selina, a nineteenth century New York City medium, whose adventures were narrated by her assistant, a boy straight out of the Orphan Home named Nip Tompkins. Once again, I figured a one off, but a suggestion from fellow Sleuthsayer Rob Lopresti that she’d make a good series character led me write one more – pretty much just to see if he was wrong.

That proved lucky, as she has inspired in nine or ten stories, all of which have appeared or will appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Thank you, Rob. However, there is a season for all things, and having explored many of the key issues of the nineteenth century with Madame Selina and Nip, I am beginning to tire of mysteries that can be wrapped up with a seance. That, by the way, gets harder each time out.

What to do? I’m not so ruthless as to kill off a woman who’s worked hard for me. But as she’s observed herself, times are changing and the Civil War, so horrible but so conducive to her profession, is now a decade past. As you see, I learned nothing from my experience with Anna Peters, as both Madame and Nip have continued to age.

I don’t think I’ll marry her off, either, although she knows a rich financier who might fill the bill. Instead, I think I’ll let her sell her townhouse and retire, perhaps to one of the resorts she favors, Saratoga or, better because I know the area, Newport, where she will take up gardening and grow prize roses or dahlias.

As for Nip, I’ve already picked his profession. Snooping for Madame Selina has given him every skill he needs to be a newspaperman in the great age of Yellow Journalism. Will the now teenaged Nip show up in print again?

We’ll see.