Monday, November 23, 2009

Through the Looking Glass...

...with apologies to Lewis Carroll...
Most of the time, I write about different aspects of crime fiction, or different kinds of characters, or different themes that run through crime fiction. Those are all important elements of well-written mystery novels. But it’s also important to remember that crime fiction is a way for the novelist to hold up a looking glass to the world. Often, what we see in mystery novels is the author’s way of showing us ourselves. What can be just as interesting – and fun, too – is when the mystery novelist becomes not just the author of a story, but the subject, too. What happens when the mystery novelist turns the looking glass around? How are mystery writers portrayed in crime fiction?

Some authors poke fun at themselves and at writing mysteries. Agatha Christie does that with two memorable characters. One is the incomparable Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective novelist. She appears in seven Christie novels, including Cards on the Table (in which Oliver makes her first appearance), Dead Man’s Folly and Third Girl. Ariadne Oliver is a successful novelist whose sleuth, Sven Hjerson, is the bane of her existence. She knows little about Finland, yet she created a Finnish sleuth. Hjerson also has several eccentricities that drive Oliver crazy; yet, her fans love him, so she’s forced to keep writing about him. She can imagine dozens of plots and stories, and it’s only when she starts to write that she’s able to focus and create a coherent story. She focuses much more on the overall plot than on minor details, so she sometimes gets small facts wrong. Of course, she’s regularly corrected by readers who pay attention to her mistakes. She’s seldom organized and she’s uncomfortable when asked how she writes. She’s a comical character, and yet, she’s also intelligent, a shrewd judge of people and often has flashes of insight for which she’s not always given credit. Many people claim that Ariadne Oliver was Christie’s parody of herself, and there’s a strong argument for that.

Christie also created the character of Mr. Clancy, a detective novelist who appears in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Madame Giselle, a French moneylender, while she’s en route from Paris to London. Mr. Clancy, a fellow passenger on the fateful flight, is, as he puts it, not a tidy man – he’s certainly not a neat dresser. He’s constantly thinking about his characters and plots. He’s so absorbed in thinking about murder mysteries that when he hears of Giselle’s death, he’s utterly fascinated by the ingenious method used to kill her. In fact, his morbid curiosity and his familiarity with the way Giselle is killed (she seems to have been killed with a poisoned dart) make him a major suspect in the eyes of Inspector Japp. In one especially comical scene, Mr. Clancy is desperate to think of a good name for a character. So he wanders around the streets, looking for inspiration. Unbeknownst to him, he’s being followed by two other fellow passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, who’ve decided to do some amateur detecting. They find his aimless wandering and muttering to himself (at one point, he says, “Why won’t she speak?”) very suspicious, until they learn that he’s going over the finer points of a plot in one of his novels.

Ariadne Oliver and Mr. Clancy were Christie’s way of lampooning mystery novelists, and as such, they make us laugh. We also see the quirky side of mystery writers (and other writers, too) in Caoline Graham’s Written in Blood. As that novel begins, the Midsomer Worthy Writer’s Circle is having a meeting to try to decide whom they’ll invite to speak at their next meeting. Each of the members of the Circle is a writer or aspiring writer, and each one has quirks and eccentricities. After bringing up and then dismissing several candidate speakers, the group finally settles on Max Jennings, a successful writer who lives relatively nearby. One of the group members, Gerald Hadleigh, has a history with Jennings, so the group delegates him to write to Jennings and invite him to speak. That’s the last thing Hadleigh wants, as he has reason to hate Jennings. He doesn’t want the group to know what happened between him and Jennings, though, so he reluctantly invites the author. To Hadleigh’s surprise and consternation, Jennings accepts. On the night of Jennings’ visit, the group assembles and there’s an interesting discussion about writing. Late that night, after the meeting has broken up and the group gone home and to bed, Gerald Hadleigh is murdered. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Troy have to unravel the complicated relationships that exist among the offbeat members of the Writer’s Circle in order to figure out who killed Hadleigh and why.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Bore, we get yet another picture of writers and writing. Excitement comes to Lochdubh, a small Scottish village, when John Heppel offers writing classes for aspiring novelists. Heppel’s a newcomer who’s written a novel, and also written for a television soap opera, and first, Constable Hamish Macbeth thinks that none of the locals will be interested in his classes. Surprisingly, the first class is filled with aspiring authors who want to become famous. They all want Heppel to read their work. Macbeth senses trouble when Heppel is harshly critical of his students’ writing and worse, denigrating to the students. After the second class, which is just as disastrous, Macbeth visits Heppel to warn him to stop humiliating the villagers, and asks him to return the money they paid for the classes. Heppel’s angry refusal worries Macbeth, and the next day, his fears are justified when Heppel’s found dead. Now Macbeth has to find out who killed Heppel, all the while hoping that it wasn’t one of the villagers.

There’s a similarly unflattering portrait of a mystery writer in Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer. That’s the story of Sir Oliver Farleigh-Stubbs, a very successful detective novelist whose books sell thousands of copies, even though they’re not well-written. He’s overbearing and obnoxious, and succeeds in alienating nearly everyone around him, including his family. On the night of his 65th birthday party, Sir Oliver is poisoned by a cocktail. Inspector Meredith is faced with a number of suspects, since Sir Oliver was much-despised. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of a potentially very valuable manuscript of a book that Sir Oliver had written years earlier but never published. Certainly Sir Oliver doesn’t present a very sympathetic picture of a mystery novelist, but as Meredith investigates, we do get an interesting glimpse at the world of bestselling thriller writing and publishing.

Another perspective on the world of mystery writing comes from J.L. Wilson’s Autographs, Abductions and A-List Authors. That novel takes place at the Mystery/Romance Writers and Readers national convention, at which the prestigious Silver Stylus Award will be given in different categories. B. R. “Bea” Emerson, an up-and-coming author, has been nominated for a Silver Stylus in the romantic suspense category. At a cocktail party, she meets another, much more famous, author who is one of her competitors for the award. While Bea’s getting an autograph, the author suddenly dies. Since the two women were competing for the same award, Bea becomes a suspect in the other woman’s death, and she’s soon arrested. Detective L.J. Remarchik becomes romantically interested in Bea, despite the fact that she’s a suspect, and he begins to work with her to find the real killer. As the two investigate, readers get to meet an interesting assortment of different writers with colorful characters.

Quirky, funny, work-obsessed, eccentric; crime fiction has shown mystery writers in all of these lights. What do you think of the looking glass that crime novelists hold up to themselves?

15 comments:

  1. I like that the writers you mentioned weren't taking themselves too seriously. Writers can be analytical anyway, and it's fun that they scrutinized themselves, too. It brings the reader in on the joke--another nice aspect.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. Elizabeth - I like it, too, when writers don't take themselves overly seriously. It's one thing to take one's writing seriously; it's another to take oneself too seriously. And when they let readers "behind the scenes," and, as you say, in on the joke, so much the better : ).

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  3. Ah, very interesting post (well, they always are at this blog!). I read a marvellous novel last year called The Mystery Writer by Jessica Mann. It is a layered, lovely way of looking at the mystery writer as character. Jessica Mann wrote a non-fiction book about the evacuees in WW2 who were sent to Canada/USA on huge boats. That experience gave her the idea of writing a novel about that time, which is the first part of the plot of The Mystery Writer - two Cornish boys are evacuated on a ship, which then sinks - one survives - which? After some other events, we move forward into the present day and, among other plots, Jessica Mann comes into the story doing research for a book on the evacuee children during the War. In the process she comes across the mystery in the novel, and becomes involved in it.
    Jessica Mann has great fun with these concepts but the book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. My review is at Euro Crime if you want to find out a little more about it before taking the plunge!

    I also read a book that had a good premise but I didn't enjoy it all that much. It is by Paul Johnson and is quite recent. It may be called The White Devil - The White Devil (as in Webster) comes into it anyway. The main character in that novel is a crime fiction writer who realises that people he knows are being murdered in ways he's described in his books. (Or something like that! It is one of these "life imitates art" stories.) Gradually he realises he is next, etc. This book is much more commercial than Jessica Mann's - more of an airport, racy thriller for which you definitely have to suspend belief. I think there is now a sequel.

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  4. Just remembered! A very funny, highly enjoyable and very short novel about a crime writer is The Herring Seller's Apprentice by Len Tyler. I really think you'll like that one, Margot, it is so witty and clever, light as a breeze. Lots of lovely touches, as well as mini-pastiches of the writing styles of some of the big names of detective fiction.

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  5. Maxine - I'm so glad you commented; every time you do, I learn about new titles, or get reminded of books I know, but slip my mind while I'm writing. It's funny you'd mention Johnson's The Soul Collector . I'd thought of it while I was preparing this post, but since I haven't read it, I didn't feel that I could comment on it intelligently. I'm glad you brought it up, though, as, from what I've read and heard, it does pull one into the thriller-writer's mind. The Jessica Mann novel's been on my TBR list for a bit, so I'll definitely read your review and probably bump it up : ). I hadn't heard of the Tyler, so there goes another addition to the list. No wonder I always appreciate your responses to my posts so much :).

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  6. I enjoy reading books that have a writer as a character as long as the writer isn't someone wallowing about in constant angst. I like the writers that are written tongue-in-cheek when the author pokes gentle fun at what it's like to write. Talk about the piles of crumpled balls of paper. Talk about pacing the room while muttering pieces of dialogue or working out the next plot point. Talk about the horror of realizing your talent has inexplicably left the building. I think most writers get a kick out of it and many non-writers like having a small window into our strange world.

    Elspeth

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  7. Elspeth - Ah, yes, the process of writing! That's one of the things that really appeals to me, actually, about Christie's depiction of Mr. Clancy. He mutters about plot points, his flat is littered with crumpled paper and half-eaten food, and he's obsessed with his work in progress. While his character is quite eccentric, it gives the reader a look at what it's like to be a writer.

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  8. I am reminded of Shadow by Karin Alvtegen a psychological thriller which gives an interesting slant on writers.
    I can't recall all the details but the more famous a writer becomes the more ruthless they are to preserve their legacy. Shadow was nominated for the International Dagger this year and is well worth reading.

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  9. Maxine's Paul Johnston book was called The Death List and I read it because the hero lived just opposite the apartments I lived at as a teenager. Or was it the crazed villain, which is more likely considering the area.

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  10. Norman - Thanks for the correction on Maxine's Johnston book; since The Soul Collector was also about crime novelists, I made the mistake of thinking that's what she meant. I'll have to try The Death List; after I read your post, I looked up a bit of information on it, and it sounds interesting. Also thanks for mentioning Shadow. Again, that's a book that I'd heard of, but haven't read, so I didn't feel comfortable commenting on it. That's the beauty of it when folks like you comment; you fill in the gaps : ).

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  11. Margot I would never correct Maxine, she is a treasure and right about the link with Jacobean literature. I only remembered the book because the hero writer lives on Denmark Hill, where I used to live. When I returned to the area after a gap of over 40 years I found that hill was strangely a lot steeper.

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  12. Norman - You're not the only one that sort of thing happens to! When I was at university, there was a hill between the residence halls and the cafeteria. Walking up it when I was a student was easy. The last few times I've been there..... not so much. Isn't it interesting, too, that there are those personal connections we make between our own lives and what we read. Some more fodder for my blog, I think : ).

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  13. ...and Norman, you're 100% right about Maxine : ).

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  14. Finally got round to this post. Interestingly, my review for tomorrow is about a Swedish writer who not only wrote under a pen name, she also includes an eccentric female mystery writer (a parody of herself whose name is based on the same letters).

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  15. Dorte - Thanks for the "peek" at what you'll be reviewing. I'm looking forward to it : ). Of course, I always really enjoy your posts...

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