Showing posts with label Montague Egg. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Montague Egg. Show all posts

09 January 2016

Of Lords and Eggs


by B.K. Stevens

Mystery short stories offer us many pleasures, including the opportunity to enjoy, briefly, the company of protagonists who might drive us crazy if we tried to stick with them through an entire novel. I was reminded of this truth recently when I reread a Dorothy L. Sayers story featuring Montague Egg, a traveling salesman who deals in wines and spirits. Most Sayers mysteries, of course, center on another protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. As almost all mystery readers know, Lord Peter is highly intelligent, unusually observant, and adept at figuring out how scattered scraps of information come together to point to a conclusion. Montague Egg fits that description, too. Both characters are engaging and articulate, both have exemplary manners, and both sprinkle their statements with lively quotations. More important, both Lord Peter and Montague Egg abide by codes of honor, and both are devoted to the cause of justice, to identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And Sayers evidently found both protagonists charming: She kept returning to them for years, writing twenty-one short stories about Lord Peter, eleven about Montague Egg.




Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories
But while Sayers also wrote eleven novels about Lord Peter, she didn't write a single one about Montague Egg. I don't know if she ever explained why she wrote only short stories about him--I checked two biographies and didn't find anything, but there might be an explanation somewhere. In any case, it's tempting to speculate about what her reasons might have been.She might have thought Egg lacks the depth of character needed in the protagonist of a novel. That's true enough, but she could always have developed his character further, given him more backstory. She did that with Lord Peter, who's a far more complex, tormented soul in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon than he is in Whose Body? Or perhaps she thought all the little quirks that make Montague Egg such an amusing, distinctive short story protagonist would make him hard to take if his adventures were stretched out into a novel. Yes, Lord Peter has his little quirks, too, but I think his are qualitatively different. For example, while Lord peter tends to quote works of English literature in delightfully surprising contexts, Montague Egg sticks to quoting maxims from the fictional Salesman's Handbook, such as "Whether you're wrong or whether you're right, it's always better to be polite." Three or four of these common-sense rhymes add humor to a quick short story. Dozens of them might leave readers wincing long before a novel ends.



I did plenty of wincing when I decided, not long ago, to read Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (not a mystery, but protagonist Lorelei Lee does go on trial for shooting Mr. Jennings, so I figure I can sneak it in as an example). For the first thirty pages or so, I relished it, laughing out loud at Lorelei's uninhibited voice, at the absurd situations, at the appalling but flat-out funny inversions of anything resembling real values. Before long, however, I was flipping to the back of this short book to see how many more pages I had to read before I could declare myself done. Lorelei's voice, which had been so entertaining at first, had started to get on my nerves, and her delusions and her shallowness were becoming hard to take. I couldn't understand why this book had been so wildly popular until I found out it had originally been a series of short stories in Harper's Bazaar. Well, sure. A small dose of Lorelei once in a while can be enjoyable, but spending hours with her is like getting stuck talking to the most self-centered, superficial guest at a party. If you ever decide to read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I recommend reading it one chapter at a time, and taking at least a week off in between.
There could be all sorts of reasons that a protagonist might be right for short stories but wrong for novels. I wrote a series of stories (for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) about dim-witted Lieutenant Walt Johnson and overly modest Sergeant Gordon Bolt. Everyone--including Bolt--sees Walt as a genius who cracks case after difficult case. In fact, Walt consistently misunderstands all the evidence, and it's Bolt who solves the cases by reading deep meanings into Walt's clueless remarks. A number of readers urged me to write a novel about this detective team. (And yes, you're right--most of these readers are members of my immediate family. They still count as readers.)

Despite my fondness for Walt and Bolt, though, I never even considered writing a novel about them. I think they're two of the most likable, amusing characters I've ever created. But Walt is too dense, too anxious, and too cowardly to sustain a novel. How long can readers be expected to put up with a detective who's always confused but never scrapes up the courage to admit it, no matter how guilty he feels about taking credit for Bolt's deductions? And while I find Bolt's self-effacing admiration for Walt sweet and endearing, I think readers would get fed up with his blindness before reaching the end of Chapter Two.

I think these two are amusing short-story characters precisely because they're locked into patterns of foolish behavior. As Henri Bergson says in Laughter, repetition is often a fundamental element in comedy. But this sort of comedy would, I think, get frustrating in a novel. Readers expect the protagonists in novels to learn, to change, to grow. Walt and Bolt can't learn, change, or grow without betraying the premise for the series. So I confined them to twelve short stories, spread out between 1988 and 2014. In the story that completed the dozen, I brought the series to an end, doing my best to orchestrate a finale that would leave both characters and readers happy--a promotion to an administrative job for Walt, so he can stop pretending he's capable of detecting anything, and a long-awaited wedding and an adventure-filled retirement for Bolt. I truly love these characters. But I'd never trust them with a novel.


Other short-story protagonists, though, do have what it takes to be protagonists in novels, too. Lord Peter Wimsey is one example--in fact, most readers would probably agree that, delightful as most of the stories about him are, the novels are even better. Sherlock Holmes is another example--four novels, fifty-six short stories, and I think it's fair to say he shines in both genres. I considered one of my own short-story protagonists so promising that I decided to build a novel around her. Before I could do that, though, I had to make some major changes in her character.

American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi first appeared in a December, 2010 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine story, now republished as a Kindle story called "Silent Witness." Positive responses to the story--including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society--encouraged me to think I might be able to do more with the character. It also helped that one of my daughters is an ASL interpreter who can scrutinize drafts and provide insights into deaf culture and the ethical dilemmas interpreters face. And I like Jane. She's smart, she's observant, she has acute insights into human nature, and she has a strong sense of right and wrong. In "Silent Witness," when she interprets at the trial of a deaf man accused of murdering his employer, she wants the truth to come out. She definitely doesn't want to see an innocent man go to prison.

Image result for b k stevens silent witnessBut the Jane Ciardi of "Silent Witness" is mostly passive. She's sharp enough to figure out the truth and to realize what she should do, but she lacks the courage to follow through. Her final action in the story is to fail to act, to sit when she should stand, to convince herself justice will probably be done even if she remains silent. I think all that makes Jane an interesting, believable protagonist in a short story that raises questions it doesn't quite answer.

I don't think it's enough to make her a fully satisfying protagonist in a novel--at least, not in a traditional mystery novel. In what's often called a literary novel, the Jane of "Silent Witness" might do fine--another protagonist paralyzed by doubt, agonizing endlessly about right and wrong but never taking decisive action. The protagonists of traditional mysteries should be made of sterner stuff. So in Interpretation of Murder, I made Jane regret and learn from the mistakes she'd made in "Silent Witness." We find out she did her best to correct them, even though it hurt her professionally. And when she's drawn into another murder case, she works actively to uncover the truth, she comes up with inventive ways of gathering evidence, and she speaks out about what she's discovered even when situations get dangerous. I can't be objective about Jane--others will have to decide if these changes were enough to make her an effective protagonist for Interpretation of Murder. But I'm pretty sure mystery readers would find the Jane of "Silent Witness" a disappointing companion if they had to read an entire novel about her.

  
Have you encountered mystery characters who are effective protagonists in short stories but not in novels--or, perhaps, in novels but not in short stories? If you're a writer, have you decided some of your protagonists work well in one genre but not in the other? If you've used the same protagonist in both stories and novels, have you had to make adjustments? I'd love to hear your comments.