Showing posts with label Daphne Du Maurier. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daphne Du Maurier. 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.

28 July 2018

A Million Tiny Steps


I'm paraphrasing Jane Friedman here, when I say:"Success takes a million tiny steps."

People always ask me what's the hardest part of being a college fiction writing teacher.  Is it all the marking?  Having to read student works in genres you wouldn't choose to read?  The long hours teaching at night, at the podium?

I don't teach that way (at the podium.)  I'm a desk-sitter.  But it's none of that.

By far, the hardest part of being a writing instructor is telling my students about the industry.  And in particular, that they aren't going to knock it out of the park with their first book - the one they are writing in my class.

It's hard, because they don't want to believe me.  Always, they point to one or two authors who make it to the bestsellers list on their first book.  "So and so did it - why won't I?"

What they don't know is that the book on the best-seller list - that author's "debut novel" - is most likely NOT the first book the author wrote.  Industry stats tell us it will likely be their 4th book written.  (3.6 is the average, for a traditionally published author.)

My own story works as an example.  My first novel published, Rowena Through the Wall, was a bestseller (yay!)  But it wasn't my first novel *written*.  It was my third.  And before that, I had 24 short stories published, which won me six awards.  (Six awards, students. Before I even tried to get a novel published.) 

Each one of those short stories, each of those awards, was a tiny step.

About that first novel: it was horrible.  So horrible that if anyone finds it on an abandoned floppy disk and tries to read it, I will have to kill either them or me.  It was a Canadian historical/western/romance/thriller with a spoiled, whiny heroine who was in danger of being killed. No shit. Even I wanted to kill her.  The second book was also horrible, but less horrible.  It was a romantic comedy with a "plucky heroine" (gag) and several implausible coincidences that made it into an unintentional farce. 

By the time I was writing my third and fourth novels, I got smarter.  Apparently, I could do farces.  Why not deliberately set about to write a humorous book?  And while you're at it, how about getting some professional feedback?  Take a few steps to become a better writer?

I entered the Daphne DuMaurier Kiss of Death contest.  Sent the required partial manuscript.  Two out of four judges gave me near perfect scores, and one of them said:
"If this is finished, send it out immediately. If this isn't finished, stop everything you're doing right now and finish it. I can't imagine this wouldn't get published."

One more tiny step.

That book was The Goddaughter.  It was published by Orca Books, and the series is now up to six books.  (Six steps.) The series has won three awards, and is a finalist for a fourth, this year. (Four more steps.)

I'm currently writing my 18th book.  It comes out Fall 2019.  Last summer, for the first time, I was asked to be a Guest of Honour at a crime fiction festival.  It may, just may, be my definition of success.

If you include my comedy credits, I have over 150 fiction publications now, and ten awards.

160 tiny steps to success. 

Conclusion:  Don't give up if your first work isn't published.  Take those tiny steps to become a better writer.  Take a million.

How about you? In what way has your writing career taken a million tiny steps?





08 August 2015

Saving the Cat



by B.K. Stevens

In the delightful Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991), the souls of the dead go to Judgment City, where they must prove they deserve to break free from the reincarnation cycle and move to a higher level of existence. During trials, prosecutors and defenders support their arguments by showing film clips from the dead person's life. (Yes, your most paranoid fantasies are true: Everything you've ever done has been filmed and filed, and can eventually be used against you.) The onward progress of Meryl Streep's character is assured by a clip from the night her house caught fire. We see her rushing out of the burning building, leading her two children to safety. Then we see her rushing back in, flames all around her, to emerge moments later with the family cat safe in her arms.

I don't know if Blake Snyder had this scene in mind when he wrote his 2005 guide to screenwriting, Save the Cat! It seems possible. Snyder defines a Save the Cat scene as "the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something--like saving a cat--that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him."
True, he admits, not all protagonists are sterling sorts likely to save cats or help old ladies across the street. He cites Pulp Fiction as an example of a movie with protagonists who are, to put it mildly, not very nice. (But even then, he argues, the writers manage to get us interested in the protagonists, to come close to sympathizing with them.)
 Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
 
I think many insights in Snyder's book apply not only to movies but also to novels and stories. As a writer, I've found his ideas about plot structure helpful, and I've been careful to include Save the Cat scenes in the first chapters of my recently released novel (Interpretation of Murder) and my soon-to-be-released young adult novel (Fighting Chance). Much as I'd love to talk about my own books, though, I decided more authoritative examples would provide more convincing support for Snyder's ideas. So I pulled some mysteries and thrillers from my bookshelf, not quite at random, and looked for Save the Cat scenes.

I'll start with an obvious example, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is strolling down a London street with his wife and daughter when he hears an explosion. Grenade, he realizes instantly. He hears a burst of gunfire, sees a Rolls Royce forced to a halt in the middle of the street, sees one man firing a rifle at it and another man racing toward its rear. IRA, Ryan thinks. He yanks his wife and daughter to the ground to keep them safe. Then he takes off. He tackles one attacker, grabs his gun, shoots the other attacker. Ryan gets shot, too, in the shoulder, but he hardly notices. He's done what he had to do. He's protected his family and stopped the attack. He's saved the cat. 






So now we know, after only a few pages, that Jack Ryan is observant, courageous, quick, and capable. His first thought is to keep his wife and daughter safe, but he doesn't hesitate to risk his own life to rescue the people in the Rolls. His actions match a pattern we easily recognize as heroic. If we want to keep reading about him, if we want to see him triumph, no wonder.

The second book I looked at was Dick Francis' Banker. Even before I read Save the Cat, I'd noticed how often Francis uses his first chapter to make us like and admire his protagonist. Banker begins when one of Tim Ekaterin's co-workers looks out a window at the bank and  sees an executive, Gordon Michaels, standing fully clothed in the courtyard fountain. The co-worker exclaims about it but does nothing more. Ekaterin "whisk[s] straight out of the deep-carpeted office, through the fire doors, down the flights of gritty stone staircase and across the marbled expanse of entrance hall." He rushes past a "uniformed man at the security desk," who presumably should know how to handle unsettling situations but instead stands "staring . . . with his fillings showing," past two customers who are frozen in place, "looking stunned." "I went past them at a rush into the open air," Ekaterin says, "and slowed only in the last few strides before the fountain."  He tries to reason with his boss and learns Michaels is gripped by hallucinations about "people with white faces," who are following him and are, presumably, up to no good. The chairman of the bank, a "firm and longtime" friend of Gordon Michaels, scurries into the courtyard. "My dear chap," he says to his friend, but evidently can think of nothing else to say, nothing else to do. He turns to Ekaterin."Do something, Tim," he says.







Banker
"So I stepped into the fountain," Tim Ekaterin says. He takes his boss by the arm, gently assures him he'll be safe even if he leaves the fountain, gets him to come into the bank, takes him home, helps get him into bed. Ekaterin's actions aren't heroic in a traditional sense--he's never in physical danger--but he's shown himself to be compassionate, intelligent, and determined. And he's acted. When other people are too stunned and stymied to do anything but stare, Ekaterin runs past them "at a rush" and solves the problem. He saves the cat.

Then there's Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, the Edgar-winning first novel in the Rabbi Small series. David Small doesn't have much in common with Jack Ryan. He's slight and pale, he'd trip over his own feet if he tried to tackle a terrorist, and if he picked up an a bad guy's gun, he wouldn't know how to fire it. But he takes decisive actions when, in Chapter One, two of his congregants are locked in a silly dispute about damages to a car one borrowed from the other. The two men are longtime friends, but neither is willing to admit he could be at fault, and both are so angry and frustrated they refuse to talk to each other, or even to pray in the same room. Rabbi Small persuades them to submit their case to an informal rabbinic court at which he presides. As he explains his judgment, he applies centuries-old Talmudic principles to this contemporary situation, displaying deep knowledge of complicated texts, impressive mental agility, and penetrating insight into human nature. By the time he's finished, the two men are friends again, relieved to put their differences behind them. The dispute about the car has no relevance to the novel's central mystery, to the murder that hasn't yet been committed. But the scene has served its purpose. We like and admire Rabbi Small and want to keep reading about him. And, once again, the cat is safe.






Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
A week or so ago, I bought Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, embarrassed to realize I'd never read it. It's a mystery classic, I'm a mystery writer--high time I get down to business and read Rebecca. I started reading and felt the pull of that famous first sentence, of that haunting opening description--the trees, the smokeless chimneys, the threadlike drive, the nettles, the moonlight. Next comes the second chapter's account of a couple living in a comfortless hotel, welcoming boredom as an alternative to fear, waiting impatiently for newspapers that bring them scores from cricket matches and schoolboy sports--not because they care about such things, but because trivial news offers some relief from the "ennui" that otherwise envelopes them. Then Chapter Two merges into Chapter Three, into memories of a time when the narrator was dominated by the repellant Mrs. Van Hopper and felt incapable of fighting back. That's as far as I've gotten.

   
I'm not saying Rebecca isn't good. The quality of the writing impresses me, the situation beginning to develop in Chapter Three intrigues me, and generations of readers have loved this novel. There must be wonderful things lying ahead. But I've got to admit I missed a Save the Cat scene. As I read the opening chapters of Rebecca, I kept waiting for the narrator to do something.She didn't.
 

That, I think, is the essence of the Save the Cat scene. As Snyder says in his definition, "the hero does something"--his italics. Or, as the befuddled chairman in Banker says, "Do something, Tim"--my italics.

I think readers are drawn to protagonists who do things. I'd guess that's probably true of most readers, especially true of mystery readers. In mysteries, after all, there's always a problem to be solved, an injustice to be set right. Sitting around and feeling overwhelmed by circumstances doesn't cut it. Feeling sorry for oneself definitely doesn't cut it. If we're going to commit ourselves to spending time with a protagonist, we mystery readers want it to be someone who responds to a tough situation by taking action. We can forgive a protagonist who makes mistakes. Passivity, though--that's harder to forgive.

I fully intend to read the rest of Rebecca. But not yet. While I was browsing through my bookshelves to find examples for this post, I got hooked by a protagonist who does things, who knows how to save a cat. I'll finish reading Rebecca right after I finish re-reading Friday the Rabbi Slept Late.