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.

Amanda Flower’s Advice for New Mystery Writers

          Amanda Flower photoThis week I have the pleasure of introducing you to a wonderful mystery writer, Amanda Flower (yes, that’s her real name), who offers readers “witty suspense with hope.”

Amanda started her writing career in elementary school when she read a story she’d written to her sixth grade class and had them in stitches with her description of being stuck on the top of a Ferris wheel. At that moment she knew she’d found her calling of making people laugh with her words. Her debut mystery, Maid of Murder, was an Agatha Award Nominee for Best First Novel.

In addition to her work as an academic librarian for a small college near Cleveland, Amanda juggles three series, including one written under the name of Isabella Allen.          

When I asked Amanda how she would advise those hoping to break into the competitive field of mystery writing, she said this: “The number one thing a new mystery writer needs to know are mysteries. You have to know the genre that you want to write. I’ve been a mystery fan since I was a child and can’t tell you how many mystery novels I have read. I’ve read them for enjoyment, but along the way, I learned the norms and elements that are found in all mysteries. I think this made it easier for me to craft a mystery plot of my own. I know there are certain plot points I need to reach as the author. I’m not saying you can’t break with convention when you write mystery; many bestselling mystery authors have with great success. However, the cliché is true: you have to know the rules before you can break them. So visit your local library, load up on all the mysteries you can carry, and start reading!”

Amanda’s latest mystery, A Plain Scandal, is available now. Three new books, coming out in September, are available for preorder:

APlainDisappearanceA Plain Disappearance (Book Three in the Appleseed Creek Mystery series)

Murder Plain and Simple by Isabella Allen (first in the new Amish Quilt MurderPlainandSimpleShop series)

AndiUnexpectedAndi Unexpected (a mystery for children, ages 8 to 12).

Amanda’s books are available at many outlets, including Amazon, B&N, and Lifeway. Look for Amanda on her website: www.amandaflower.com and on Twitter @aflowerwriter. Follow her on Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Thanks, Amanda! Keep writing!             .                                                                                  

The Mystery of the Brain

Making time to Brain Powerblog has been harder this summer. I’m revising my traditional mystery manuscript, and I’ve become obsessed. After having breakfast and spending an hour or so reading in the morning, I move to my computer where I remain for the rest of the day. Today I made myself promise to make time for exercise. If I were someone else, I’d worry about me. Words like hyper-focus and perseveration would come to mind. 

            I really love revising. Writing a first draft has been described as “starting with nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing (Kathy Leonard Czepiel).” But revising is starting with something (however lame) and polishing it until it shines. Not once has the process felt burdensome. I go to sleep thinking about the book, and I wake up thinking about it. In fact, I often wake up with a new thought or a previously missed insight. This morning I woke up thinking about two needed corrections.  

            That elusive time between sleep and wakefulness often gives rise to creative thinking, but some of the ideas, when exposed to the clear light of day, turn out to be hairbrained. Several years ago, my husband and I were planning a new house, and I awoke one morning with an idea for the perfect floor plan. Absolutely Astonishingly Perfect. But as the mists of sleep fled, I realized that the plan was not only unbuildable but laughable.  

My waking thoughts about the book, however, have been really helpful. Maybe it’s because my mind has already constructed a framework. I’ve heard people say (don’t know if it’s true) that everything our brain registers sticks there permanently. But to actually remember something, we need a connection—a link. Sometimes a tiny fact, thought, or impression can rattle around by itself in our brain for years, and then one day a connection is made and it reappears. This may account for what people call déjà vu 

Have you ever had a thought that nudged you all day, flitting on the fringes of your consciousness but refusing to materialize? Then, suddenly, when you’re least expecting it, a connection is made and the thought springs to mind full blown? It was there all along. It just needed something to attach itself to. 

My protagonist, Kate Hamilton, experiences this phenomenon. As an amateur sleuth, she can only observe and ask questions. But some of the things she hears and observes, having nothing to attach themselves to, remain hidden until her brain makes the connection. One of Kate’s elusive thoughts materializes, leading her to the truth.

Return From Malice

I just returned fromMalicebanner Malice Domestic, the gathering held each spring near Washington, D.C. for fans and writers of the traditional mystery. A recently published compendium of Malice’s twenty-five-year history is entitled, Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea. Maybe not, but traditional mysteries certainly are mine. 

I’ve been reading mysteries all my life, beginning with Nancy Drew and going on to the likes of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and Cyril Hart. When I’d read all there is to read of these classics, I began to mine gold in more modern practitioners of the craft. Now I’m writing mysteries myself, the kind I like to read, where the puzzle is the main thing and violence and sex are mainly “off stage.” 

Here’s my problem: there are just too many good mysteries out there. My “to be read” pile is now twice as long as it was before Malice. I’m losing ground, but happily so because I can afford to be choosy.  

Here are some of the new mysteries I’ve added to my already extensive reading queue:

   All of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books by Laurie King

  All of the Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson (soon on BBC)          

   A Dangerous Talent by Aaron and Charlotte Elkins 

   The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen

    Killer in Crinolines by Duffy Brown

    Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson

        The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

          Low Country Boil by Susan M. Boyer

      Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet

      The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan

      Artifact by Gigi Pandian

      Whatever Charles Todd writes next 

The interesting thing about mystery writers is that, while they plot ingenious methods of killing off their characters, they are some of the nicest people you’d ever meet. One of the nicest is Carolyn Hart, this year’s winner of the Amelia Award (named after Elizabeth Peters’ most famous creation, Amelia Peabody). In her acceptance speech, Ms. Hart said that the traditional mystery appeals to those who wish the world to be a place where evil good triumphs in the end.  

Long live the traditional mystery! And may good triumph, not just in books but all over our world.