Showing posts with label Kate Morton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kate Morton. Show all posts

28 September 2023

The Art of Misdirection

Mention red herrings in mysteries, and one's mind turns naturally to Agatha Christie, she of the artful misdirection, the nasty suspects, and the unexpectedly important clues. But Kate Morton's new Homecoming, provides worthy competition and adds two interesting twists to the old formula.

For one thing, there are no obvious villains. For another, all the victims are genuinely, a reversal of the common pattern, most felicitiously summarized in one of my favorite mystery titles, Nobody's Sorry He's Dead. In Homecoming, by contrast, everyone is sorry and so they should be.

But what of suspects? Here again Homecoming has some surprises. The venue is a small town in the Adelaide Hills of Australia in the late 50's. Everyone knows everyone and most are on good terms, while those closest to the victims are almost uniformly decent, public spirited, generous, and kindly natured. Little joy there for the unfortunate detectives. 

The case, concerning a mother and three of her children found dead after a picnic and a fourth child, a weeks old infant, missing, not only proves impossible to solve but becomes a famous true crime novel, a bestseller in both Australia and in the States, home to its author, Daniel Miller. Like the rest of the characters, he is a decent fellow, a careful researcher, an empathetic interviewer, and altogether an ethical journalist.


And here is the other clever touch, his book becomes a trusted source for one of the key protagonists in Homecoming, Jess Turner-Bridges, the grand daughter of Nora, who is the sister-in-law and aunt of the victims. In 2018, when the much loved Nora takes a serious fall and winds up in grave condition in the hospital, Jess returns to Sydney from London where she has been working as a journalist.

Nora's fall soon triggers Jess's investigative instincts, because it occurred on the dangerous attic stairs, long forbidden to the household. Why had Nora, well into her eighties, risked those stairs? And was there any connection to what one of her carers describes as an upsetting letter from South Australia, location of the small town where the famous case occurred fifty-nine years earlier?

Inveterate readers of mysteries will know that Jess's questions will eventually lead to at least a partial solution of the case, but the unraveling entails a complex narrative skillfully done. Events of the 50's are relayed by our omniscient narrator, while we have Jess's perspective on contemporary 2018 events in London and Sydney. 

We also have old documents and newspaper reports and most importantly, Daniel Miller's book, As If They Were Asleep, which is Jess's bible for most of her investigation. Chunks of Miller's narrative form a counterpoint to her personal life, her memories of her grandmother and of Polly, her absent mother, who has a complicated life story of her own. 

Throughout the book, the consequences of romantic disappointments, bad advice, and a desperate longing for children confirm the notion that domestic life can have as high stakes as any thriller. Homecoming delivers a good story while showing that there are still new ways to outwit the reader and to keep mysteries mysterious.

30 July 2013

Show and Tell

       Show. Don’t tell.
       Every aspiring writer has encountered this admonition. Campfire stories are “told” (“suddenly it turned out that he was the murderer!”) but good short stories and novels require a stepped up game plan. “Showing” rather than “telling” requires more than relating a plot; it requires building the story, revealing the plot through the interaction of believable characters. This rule can sound simple. In practice it can be anything but.

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
        Every writer has his or her own approach to building a story and breathing life into characters. A particularly unique approach was that employed by my favorite mystery writer(s), Ellery Queen. As explored in previous articles, it is well known among the fans of Ellery Queen’s mysteries that the authors behind the curtain, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, wrote as a divided team. Dannay supplied detailed plot outlines that “told” the underlying story in a bare-bones narrative, and from these Lee wrote the finished mystery novel, building the story and giving life to the characters who, through their actions, “showed” the mystery to the reader.

        This division of labor was certainly a peculiar one. Dannay, the consummate editor during his tenure as editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, was nonetheless seemingly uncomfortable with the narrative process. And Lee’s son Rand has observed that, by contrast, Manfred B. Lee “could not plot to save his life.” But it was Lee who was gifted with the ability Dannay lacked, to build the stories and the characters that would ultimately breathe the needed life into Ellery’s escapades. Bickering aside, it was a particularly symbiotic literary marriage. Little wonder, given this, that after Lee died in 1971 there were no further Ellery Queen mysteries even though Dannay lived on for another eleven years. His plots would not have been enough standing alone.

       All of this is not to belittle Dannay’s contributions. The outlines he prepared were anything but inconsequential. They set forth the intricate and at times downright convoluted plot lines for which Ellery Queen is famous. They were also no small enterprise. We know from an article by Frederic Dannay’s sons Douglas and Richard, which appears as a chapter in The Tragedy of Errors (Crippen and Landru, 2000), that the outline for The Player on the Other Side was 42 pages long, the outline for And on the Eighth Day, 66 pages, and the outline for The Fourth Side of the Triangle ran 71 pages. The Random House first editions of these novels, in full, run 213 pages, 191 pages and 183 pages, respectively. In other words, each novel was only three to four times longer than the Dannay outline on which it was based.

     While Dannay's outlines for those three Queen novels have never been published, the outline for what would have been the final Queen novel, The Tragedy of Errors, is set forth as the first half of the Crippen and Landru volume of the same name. From that outline it is easy to understand how much Lee would have been expected to add to a final work. Dannay’s outline is 52 pages long. The story? Well, it’s intricate and clever, as one would expect of Queen. It is premised on allusions to the works and life of Shakespeare, and it gives us numerous characters who strut and fret their time on the mystery’s stage. But in outline form the characters are cardboard. They needed Lee, who died before the outline could ever be transformed into a full fledged novel. 

       A note to the purists out there -- I recognize that The Player on the Other Side, And on the Eighth Day, and The Fourth Side of the Triangle (discussed above) were largely drafted by other writers during the time that Lee suffered from writer's block. But the point remains that Dannay’s ingenious plotting, standing alone, was never enough. It was the addition of character and descriptive prose, generally Lee’s province, that gave the breath of life to the mysteries. 

       An analysis of the works of Queen is interesting since the Queen library, unlike most other works, was constructed under this formula that clearly divided the two building blocks of narrative writing: plot, on the one hand, and story and character development, on the other. The ability of Dannay and Lee to separately allocate these tasks is not a luxury to which the rest of us can resort. We, by contrast, usually have to do the whole thing ourselves, even if we are better at one half than we are at the other. No matter how great our plot may be, it won’t capture the reader without believable characters through whom the story progresses. And no matter how developed our characters may be, they can’t propel the story without an underlying imaginative plot. 

       Two recent mystery novels illustrate this principle all too clearly. Each focuses on a nonagenarian central character, each involves a story with flashbacks to that character’s youth, and each centers around an underlying mystery that is probed by the other characters in the story. One of these mysteries works. The other (sadly) does not. 

       I don’t like saying anything negative about someone else’s work, particularly when that someone is Hallie Ephron, award winning mystery writer and mystery reviewer for The Boston Globe, but her recent mystery There Was an Old Woman (not to be confused with Ellery Queen’s 1943 novel of the same name) just did not work for me. I thought the central character, a spry ninety-two year old, and the underlying story of strange happenings in a shore community on Long Island, were intriguing; certainly enough so to make me commit to handing over the full price of the novel after reading the free sample offered up on my Barnes and Noble Nook. But ultimately the story fizzled -- Ephron tells the story but she doesn't show it. Had I been asked to review this work prior to publication my advice would have been that even at 273 pages it may be too short. Either that or those pages weren't utilized efficiently. When I reached page 273 I left behind two dimensional cardboard characters, many of whom had behaved bizarrely and with motivations that were “told” to us by the author but not “shown” through the actions and interaction of the characters. When secrets were revealed I wondered why would the character have done this? What justifies behavior that differs from that which we have seen before? When flashbacks to 1945 occurred, centering on the famous Empire State Building airplane crash, I was perplexed: how does this progress the story? Why is it important to the plot? When characters revealed a hidden agenda I was confused -- where was the evidence of this aspect of the character’s personality? Where were the clues to this? The book is unfortunately only an outline of what it could be.  The author tells us a lot, but shows us very little. 

      By contrast, Kate Morton’s new mystery, The Secret Keeper, at 445 pages, is a marvelous gem of a mystery. Here, too, the central character, a matriarch approaching her 90th birthday, is at the heart of a mystery that her children must solve. Here, also, the narrative shifts between the central character’s youth, in World War II England, and present day London. During the course of the novel we watch as characters who behaved one way in their youth change, and behave differently over the course of time. But Ms. Morton puts so much time and care into the development of her characters that we, the readers, know them. We listen to them, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate, even anticipate, the changes they undergo during the march of time. We understand where they have been, why they react to matters as they do, and why they ultimately change as the world around them changes. By the end of this lovely mystery we leave enchanted by what we have read. The loose ends have been successfully tied, and we are sad to say goodbye to characters with whom we feel we have lived.

       When I read There Was an Old Woman I found each plot twist jarring and inexplicable. I was rolling my eyes. When I read The Secret Keeper the plot twists made perfect sense and I found myself constantly nodding my head and smiling in agreement. As between the two, most readers, me included, prefer the latter. That’s what well developed characters will do for a story.