Truth and Consequences

SherlockHolmes“Everybody, sooner or later,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Wonderful quote. I’ve used it as one the chapter headings in my mystery novel. For those of us who view the universe as having moral underpinnings, it is quite true. There is, or there will be, an accounting.

On earth, however, the guilty escape judgment on a fairly regular basis. We’ve had recent evidence of this in several highly publicized trials where, in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence, the defendant has gone free—judged, if not exactly innocent, at least not guilty in terms of the criminal justice system. Many serious crimes are never solved. This is reality. 

But in the traditional mystery novel, the guilty must be punished—or at least led away to be punished somewhere beyond the scope of the story. Evil upsets the moral equilibrium of the fictional universe, and if that equilibrium is to be restored, the truth must come out, the victims vindicated, and the evildoers punished. What drives the classic mystery story, in addition to the solving of a puzzle, is the resolution of chaos and the reestablishment of justice and order. The world is not the same as it was before—lessons are learned, consequences are felt, characters grow in some way—but harmony reigns once again. 

Until recently, that is. Today’s mystery novel reflects the culture in which we live. Who is to say, the modernist asks, what is “right” and what is “wrong”? What if everyone in the story is seriously flawed? What if there are no consequences? 

Like so many others, I was captured in the web of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. She had me from the first sentence: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” But the ending of the novel (spoiler alert!) was disturbing. Indeed there was no ending but merely a reshuffling of the characters on the stage—no one held accountable, no one having learned a thing. 

As I turned the final page of the book, the sensation I felt was exactly like turning off a radio just before the final note of a song. I felt the need to sound that final note myself, if only in my imagination. So in my head I’ve written a short addendum to Gone Girl, a final chapter in which the characters sit down to a banquet of consequences.

Call me old-fashioned.

 

What I Wish I Had Known, Part IV: G. M. Malliet

 

G. M. Malliett

G. M. Malliet 

 

This week I have the privilege of introducing you to award-winning mystery writer G. M. MALLIET, whose books, written in the tradition of Agatha Christie, are set in the U.K. 

Malliet’s first mystery, Death of a Cozy Writer, was awarded the prestigious Malice Domestic Grant, followed by the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.  

Her current series, set in the fictional English village of Nether Monkslip (don’t you love that name?), features Max Tudor–Anglican priest,  former MI5-agent, and village heartthrob. The third book in the series, Pagan Spring, hit the bookstores just this month. Life is good for Vicar Max Tudor.PaganSpring Reveling in his new-found personal happiness with Awena Owen, his life holds no greater challenge than writing his Easter sermon. But when murder invades his idyllic village of Nether Monkslip, Tudor’s MI5 training kicks in. But can he restore peace to the village and still manage to finish his sermon? 

When I asked her what she wishes she had known starting out as a writer, Ms. Malliet said: “I don’t feel I made any huge mistakes along the way to publication, other than occasionally losing faith and belief in myself that I would get published one day. I knew I had a story I liked (Death of a Cozy Writer) and I hoped that one day someone besides me would see some benefit to themselves in representing or publishing my work. There were days when the sight of yet another rejection letter in the mail when I came home exhausted from work pretty much broke my heart. It’s funny but now that I write full time, I have days when I am tired, but I never experience the soul-destroying drain I felt working a “money job” (writing advertising copy). So my advice to new writers has to be the old adage about never quitting. I wanted to quit a hundred times. I would swear I was going to pack it in. But I didn’t want to reach the end of a long life knowing I’d never done what I most wanted to do. That was the only prospect I could not face–somehow I felt I’d sacrificed too much already to just give up trying.”

Malliet’s many fans (myself included) are so glad she persevered! If you love maps as I do, check out the wonderful interactive map of Nether Monkslip at www.gmmallet.com. And look for Pagan Spring at your favorite bookstore or on Amazon.

Making An Impression

DeepSouthThis past summer I attended my high school reunion and reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen since that warm day in June when we wore our caps and gowns and promised tearfully to keep in touch forever.  

Old friendships are worth reviving. Childhood friends are members of a club to which no one else has admittance. But as we relived the past, one thing became clear: although we share a common experience, our memories are unique. Things that made a lasting impression on me simply washed over others, and vice versa.  

Experts used to believe that the human brain was like a filing cabinet, stocked with tiny, individual memory folders. Today scientists tell us that the process of collecting and storing memories—those experiences, perceptions, and sensations that change us forever—is far more complex. The memories we retain are those that imprint themselves powerfully on our brains, sometimes without our conscious knowledge. 

My mother suffered from dementia. Gradually she lost the memories her brain had stored in her ninety-six years of life. But two things remained–even after she’d forgotten that she’d married my father and bore a daughter (me): a Norwegian prayer she learned as a child—Jeg er liten men jeg vil, alltid høre Jesus til—and a funny little saying I imagine she heard in her teens: I love you much, I love you mighty; I wish my pajamas were next to your nightie. Now don’t get excited, and don’t lose your head;       I mean on the clothesline and not in the bed 

The word love was the trigger. Her face would light up as the tiny electric impulse crossed a synapse in her brain, retrieving the memory and sending the words to her lips. In the second decade of the twentieth century, those words must have made quite an impression on a girl who’d skipped three grades in school and entered senior high at the age of thirteen. Knowing my mother, she would have chosen something else to be her final memory. But apparently we don’t get to choose. 

As I am reworking the opening chapter of my mystery novel, my goal is to leave an impression on readers, one that will grab and hold their attention. Words are powerful. They conjure up images and evoke sensory impressions. Sometimes it is the words themselves—their sound and rhythm—that make an impression, apart from what they signify. Words have made an impression on me: 

“There was a Chinese immobility about her face, and an upward slant of the dark blue eyes. On her head she wore a fantastic Chinese hat of jade green cardboard.” Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun  

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan: A Vision in a Dream 

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Holy Bible, Isaiah 6:1, NIV 

“There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice  

“Traditional Botswana men like ladies who are more traditionally shaped. You and I, Mma. We remind men of how things used to be in Botswana before these modern-shaped ladies started to get men all confused.” Alexander McCall Smith, The Full Cupboard of Life 

“You may be able to write a novel, you may not. You will never know until you have worked very hard indeed and written at least part of it. You will never really know until you have written the whole of it and submitted it for publication.” Ngaio Marsh, Death on the Air and Other Stories   

What words have made an impression on you?