Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark ;-) but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series ;-)

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)

october-8-challenge-chart1

 

Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

b9285fde1ac615cf34c4f1df824fcda8Miss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. ;-)  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.

october-8-challenge-chart1

Miracles For Sale (1939)

Miracles For Sale 

14806Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.

Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for GildaCover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.

And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB.  Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet.  Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.

miraclesforsale1939_ff_188x141_071020130425Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.

Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events.  You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.   

Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.

There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.

I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is.  If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely.  I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act.  There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.

At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.

Browning_1939_MiraclesForSale_1As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show.  Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point.  That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked.  There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.

But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled.  I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.

If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.

Points of Interest:

5845664999_350ae6cd42_mI’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy.  Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.

My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.

I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.

x-miracles-for-sale-jWhy is that?

Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW.  It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered.  This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.

I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little.  This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function.  When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out.  Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery.  In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened.  In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded.  That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.

While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure.  You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie.  Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.

As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times.  I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?”  I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure.  It’s just too damn tough.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale.  You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.

There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one.  I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.

Notes For the Collector:

1289890045Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.

Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting.  All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.