Monday, 11 July 2011

The Invention of Murder & The Thin Man

Annoyingly, I have misplaced my copy of The Invention of Murder. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, then put it down but I cannot recall where it is. It's a mystery, although one hardly worth the attention of any of the real and fictional sleuths detailed within. I feel like a should know where it is, I should be able to recall where I put it, but the information remains just out of reach. It's an incredibly frustrating feeling and yet it's a state of mind that I actively seek in puzzles and mystery stories.

I've always been somewhat partial to quizzes and puzzles, and to mystery stories. I learned cryptic crosswords from my Dad, who would do the crossword in the New Zealand Listener every week. It was a source of some pride to me when I was able to complete this on my own, and then I graduated to the daily Dominion cryptic, when I was working at Butterworths in the late 80s (for the benefit of you lousy kids, this was before the internet when we had to make our own time-wasting distractions during work hours). 

These days I like to do the crossword in the Private Eye – I particularly enjoy the way that some of the clues are also topical (and often smutty) jokes. Typically I get this down to the last couple of clues before never quite giving it up, puzzling over the final handful of empty squares at odd moments before the next edition, trying to force the answer out by act of will. 

I am, however, horribly bad at figuring at mysteries and “lateral thinking” puzzles. I can remember a series of books when I was a kid called Two (or maybe Five) Minute Mysteries, anthologies of short puzzle type stories, usually hanging on some ridiculous puzzle. In one I recall that the clue was a message typed by the deceased in his last gasp, supposedly revealing of the secret plans, stolen gem or something of that sort. He had typed the world “cane” but when they searched for a cane, they couldn't find one. Where was the maguffin actually hidden? The true location was a weather vane – the dying man had, perhaps excusably, mistyped, and the v key sits next to the v on a typewriter keyboard. Yeah, that's what I thought to: bloody smartarse.

Later, I discovered SF, which has always borrowed heavily from pulp crime traditions, and a lot of classic SF authors used to double up as detective stories. I remember in particular a series of detective stories by Isaac Asimov set on Mars, I think, and a lot of other SF seemed to feature cops and robbers. 

It's only recently, though, that I've gotten interested in classic crime fiction. A couple of years ago I read a bunch of Raymond Chandler novels, and then I dipped my toe into Dashiell Hammet and Dennis Wheatley (perhaps not quite so illustrious as the others). In fact, I spotted a copy of The Thin Man – by Hammet – at the Amnesty International book sale and picked it up as it was only 50p, or something. (I got a whole bunch of interesting books at that sale, and I intend to do a “The Pile! Woe is me!” type post fairly soon.)

Myrna Loy, Asta the Dog & William Powell in The Thin Man movie (which I have not seen)
I might as well come out and say that I am struggling to write a detective style novel right now. It is in fact a sequel – of sorts – to my story “Insured... For Murder!” which appeared in Premonitions, and follows the classic private eye clichés pretty closely. I'm a little worried about it, as the world-weary sleuth is such a terrible cliché but I am trying to study plot to see if I can get a better handle on how to put one of these things together. The nitty-gritty of the mystery is one of the things I lile most about the genre, but I struggle a bit with plot. I want to write the sort of story I'd like to read, something surprising and thought-provoking, maybe verging on the satirical or surreal, but something that doesn't stretch my credulity. I've managed it a few times in the shorter form at least, so I know I can do it.

To this end, I've been reading these books with a critical eye, trying to get at what I like, and how I can do it. Here are some ideas I have gleaned so far:
  1. Real crime is sordid and awful and tragic, and no one comes out of it unharmed. Good crime writers understand this, I think; even in something as apparently innocuous as A Peter Whimsey mystery, crime seems a sad, pointless and desperate business.

  2. It's all about characters. The Two (or Five) Minute Mysteries I mention up thread werelike cryptic crosswords, based on very mechanical matters with a dressing of sleuthing. In both real crime and the best crime writing, it's all about the characters, their rivalries, their passions, their moral motivations and peccadilloes. This is what drives a plot ahead, what makes crime happen in the real, what motivates action and reaction. Strong characters provide strong plots. 

    I think this is particularly important in an SF context: the cool SF idea is just a concept without an interesting character to interact with it. A crime plot, in fact, works very nicely in an SF situation, because both genres are based around investigation: SF investigates a novel social or technological idea, while crime investigates human motivations and moralities. 

    Furthermore, crime asks its characters “how far would you go?” and the extremity this suggests is encouragement for a SF writer to explore all the logical consequences of an idea. Fuck sober and responsible speculation: that's the sort of boring stuff that scientists write when they try their hands at SF. Give me far out ideas, but also give me a serial killer, corporate and political corruption, envy, lust and greed. We can all imagine a sensible world of moderate liberality and control – we live in one, more or less – but what happens when all this shit gets in the WRONG HANDS. The sorts of books I'm thinking about inlcude Neuromancer, Altered Carbon, the best P K Dick novels, some of Jack Vance's best SF – the Alastor novels, for example, or maybe some elements in Durdane (the traitor within is a classic Vance plot move).

  3. Crime is small scale. I suppose as a variation on the above, crime happens to individuals, not organisations or nation states or armies or anything like that: that becomes a thriller, I think, which has it's own rules. I'll have more to say about thrillers sometimes soon, I hope.

  4. Don't let the mystery get in the way of a good story. I am amazed by the number times clues are dropped in the laps of the great detetctives quite by chance. Marlow will get a call from some hood connected with the case who'd heard that Marlow was snooping around. Whimsey will call in some contact to help in special analysis or surveillance.

    All of them will providentially notice some small detail which unravels the entire plan. In fact, this is the origin of the word “clue” or “clew” - the ball of twine with which Theseus navigated the labyrinth. The string should be easy to follow: that's not the challenge. The challenge is killing the Minotaur that lies at the centre.

  5.  The detective character should be somewhat unwillingly involved. This isn't true of all of them, but Sam Spade and Nick Charles are not entirely happy to get wound up in the plots they finally unravel. Marlow forever gets dragged in a a little deeper than he expected. They are all pushed on, though, by a combination of necessity – often under suspicion for the crime they're trying to solve – and something in their character that won't let it got. Sam Spade hangs on for a possible pay out from the falcon, Nick Charles can't resist the mystery, Marlow is a white knight despite himself. 

    This also drives the plots in interesting ways. The detectives desire for a cautious life and the motivation to move on are forever in conflict, which leads to bad choices and half-choices which have unforeseen results. Whimsey is a little more distant from the events, however, more like the outsider detective and not quite as much part of the mystery as the classic pulp private eye.

    6. Crucially, everyone has a dirty secret. Even if they didn't commit the crime, there's still something they want to keep out of the public eye. This is the basis of most of the red herrings. (I'm going to have to reformat this bit later...)
That's it so far, a work in progress, I suppose. This what I like to think about while I'm doing the initial plotting. It feels very deliberate and stodgy, hard going at this stage, before characters and setting properly take shape, and this helps form a back ground of my thinking and is as good a way to avoid actually working on the story as any other. I can in fact walk away from this feeling quite righteous, that I've made progress, without actually writing one word of novel tonight.
Sigh! I need to get my head down and get on with it. That's the hard part, as it goes!


  1. Interesting stuff. One day I'm going to get around to writing my Ancient Greek Detective Story That Overturns The Cliches Of Ancient Detective Stories, so I'll follow this with interest.

    At the moment I'm reading David Simon's non-fiction "Homicide: A year on the killing streets", which I'd recommend for all sorts of reasons.

  2. I'm a big fan of The Thin Man. I also have not seen the film(s).

    "These days I like to do the crossword in the Private Eye – I particularly enjoy the way that some of the clues are also topical (and often smutty) jokes."
    I like it when the Eye crossword turns the smut around on you, too - that is, the clue tricks you into thinking the answer is going to be something rude, but in fact is quite innocuous.

  3. Thanks guys. I really ought to read some current crime fiction, but I find the historical distance helpful in sorting out the shape and form of the work without being distracted by the contemporary stuff. I really felt that both Zoo City and The City & The City were very weak in their crime plots - I'd determined to do better than that! But it's early days... still trying to etablish the initial conditions before setting things in motion.

    I also have a collection of Dashiell Hammet short stories (also picked up at the Amnesty Sale for 50p) which I'll get to eventually - suffering a bit from pile overload at the mo.

    This week's crossword down to the last clue: Nick, about to lose control, doing a U turn.

    It's is exactly that horrible itchy mystery feeling that I love and hate so much!


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