Showing posts with label Madame Selina. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Madame Selina. Show all posts

19 July 2019

Dubious Attractions

by Janice Law

I am sure I am not the only writer to be attracted to subjects or genres that I’d be better to leave alone. I write books and stories heavier on character and atmosphere than clever plotting, and my favorite protagonists share a humorous skepticism and a propensity to chat.

Rex Stout
The rational puzzle mystery in not my natural terrain. Sure, I know enough to avoid the locked room. I know my limitations. But just the same I have twice been seduced by the siren song of the Black Orchid Society’s contest. And this, despite the fact that I’m not even terribly fond of Nero Wolfe, however much I may admire Rex Stout’s ingenuity.

Both times, however, I was convinced I had worked out the format. My first attempt, A Taste of Murder, set immediately after WW I in Providence, RI, did have a great logical mind and various errands and investigations that had to be carried out. Just like Wolfe and Archie, right?

AHMM illustration for Taste of Murder
Or not quite. My detectives, and I realize now I had never intended to give one priority, were Professor Hodgkins, a good-natured and erudite history professor with an interest in historical mysteries, and his Aberdonian housekeeper, Jean Galloway. Widowed during the war, Jean has much less education than her employer but a much tougher and more logical mind.

She is a bow to the domestic servants I grew up among, many, like her, women whose men – or potential men – had been lost in the Great War. Hardworking and clever, they were underpaid “help” who, in fact, had all the skills necessary to run the equivalent of a boutique hotel with a demanding set of residents. Put together, Jean and her professor have the Nero Wolfe mind and, depending on the errand, either separately or together fulfill Archie’s evidence- gathering function.

Probably you can already see why A Taste of Murder did for fit the contest requirements, although it turned up in Alfred Hitchcock later. A Fine Nest of Rascals, my next attempt at one of the classic forms, met a similar fate, although I am happy to say it is the cover story of the current July/August issue of  AHMM.

July/August 2019 issue
This time, I believed that I was a closer to the mark, employing my series characters Madame Selina and her apprentice Nip Tompkins in what I’d decided would be their final outing. Readers like to know what happens to characters, and this was a way of showing the resourceful Nip thriving as a cub reporter on the New York Herald and Madame contemplating retirement in the face of the vulgarities of the Gilded Age.

Madame would be the Nero Wolfe character, the brains of the operation, and Nip, who narrates, would run errands for her just as he used to do back when he was operating the bellows and creating the “ectoplasm” that enhanced her seances. I had the lines of authority and command down this time with no subversive ideas about class or gender.

Alas, I had ignored two little difficulties: Nip’s initiative – especially evident with a young woman as charming as Lucy Devereux in jeopardy – and Madame’s signature resource, the seance with Augustus, her pipeline to the afterlife. However intelligent Madame Selina, however careful her ( and Nip’s) researches, a Madame Selina story has to dim the lights and summon the Roman emperor. I can hear Nero Wolfe snort!

Oddly enough I did not see any problems at the time, showing that writers can be blind when an idea is upon them. In both cases, I congratulated myself on constructing a big reveal scene before the assembled suspects and in a variety of small ways developing plots without the chases and action that I usually find so helpful in fleshing out a story.

In retrospect I have to admit that my Professor and Madame Selina, Jean Galloway and Nip Tompkins are maybe best described as Stout-ish characters. They’re doing their best but they are not really suitable for a traditional form relying strictly on logical deduction and, I suspect, most comfortable with clear social hierarchies.

22 January 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 1

by Janice Law

My view of Anna
There comes a time for good-byes in literary relationships. I’ve experienced this twice, first with Anna Peters, a detective who made my first novel a success and who explored mostly white collar crime in seven subsequent volumes. I liked her, I really did, but I’d made a serious miscalculation, I’d aged her with me.

Anna, professional illustration
That didn’t seem a problem when I began, but as the series extended and she got older and more settled and developed back problems, I understood that, despite an Edgar nomination, we had to make a break.

Fortunately for my artistic development and for her personal safety, the series was not the fiscal prop of some struggling publisher nor the passion of a legion of demanding fans. I didn’t need to kill her off, as some writers have done with heroes who hung around too long, but could settle her into a decent retirement.

Madame S in AHMM
More recently, I bid farewell to two characters who have done yeoman work in the short story markets, namely Madame Selina, Gaslight era NYC’s leading medium, and her assistant, Nip Tompkins, an orphan with a good deal of savoir faire. I’ve enjoyed them, and Nip, in particular, has a turn of phrase that is a pleasure to record.

But I have already explored many of the issues of their time, including spiritualism, the aftermath of the Civil War, exploited heiresses, Irish rebels, corrupt politicians, votes for women, and immigration.

There are, I know, fertile imaginations that can ring endless changes on a couple of appealing characters and the sins of a big city. Not me. Nip has grown up and, not having any gift for the spirit world, has entered the newspaper business.

My view of Madame S & Nip
Lucky boy, journalism is in its greatest days, and having appeared in a novella along with Madame S, he will perhaps have an afterlife. We will see.

I have been thinking about good-byes lately, because another big one is coming up: the last of the Francis Bacon novels. Mornings in London finishes the second trilogy with this character. The first trilogy debuted with Fires of London, set during the Blitz when Francis was scraping together a livelihood along with his beloved Nanny, and ends with Moon Over Tangier, when Francis is an established painter with a toxic lover and a big hole in his life following Nan’s death.

I could have said farewell then and had the perfect ending. But these things are not solely under the writer’s control. Francis, gay, alcoholic, promiscuous, and ambitious, was such fun. He was quite different from Anna, Madame Selina or Nip. Although he disliked the countryside and animals, both of which I adore, he was interested in the Greek plays and Shakespeare, and of course, in painting. So am I.

But I did not necessarily want to forge ahead. As a general rule, people of great achievement are more interesting on the way up. Their struggles to succeed are much interesting that the lists of greatest hits of the established artist. The solution was to head backwards, where I felt Francis was both more charming and more vulnerable, the latter an essential for any mystery, caper, or suspense novel. The Bacon books partake of all three.

Last Francis Bacon novel
His biography was a great help in the decision. He was dispatched with a truly funny uncle to Weimar Berlin in his father’s delusive hope that he would come back a heterosexual soldierly type. Then he went to Paris, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties and acquiring some basic art training, before he set himself up in London with his nanny and opened a design studio.

Three venues, three books. It worked out nicely. But now the Second World War is coming, and Francis is about to become an Air Raid Precautions warden and embark on the adventures of Fires of London. Although he’s been good for me, being a finalist three times for a Lambda award and winning once, it’s time to say good-bye.

As consolation, he recently acquired another life in the form of talking books, as the first four volumes have been produced by Dreamscape and are excellently read by Paul Ansdell. Francis could not have been better voiced. My Francis is pleased, and maybe the real Francis Bacon would have been, too.