Monday, February 19, 2018

Playing Fair

I did enjoy Charlotte's post about her dislike of 'fuzzy endings' - where the author hasn't really told you what happened and you have to make up your own mind - as well as the comments about it afterwards. 

They seemed to echo something I'd been thinking of writing today - the question of what a detective story ought to be.   Perhaps Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism summed it up in her defense of the three-volume novel: 'The good ended happily, the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.'

It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who made the first attempt in his tongue-in-cheek '10 Commandments for Detective Fiction.'  They included prohibitions like, 'Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable,' 'No undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end,' and 'No Chinaman must figure in the story,'  - possibly a dig at the Chinese opium dens that featured in Sherlock Holmes' cases and then became a feature much imitated in the 'penny-dreadful.'

The great thing about having rules is the effect when someone breaks them.  When Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, transgressed by breaking the first commandment, 'The criminal must be someone mentioned in the first part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to share,' the shock propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list.

Now, of course, rules have been long superseded.   As Butch Cassidy was told, 'There are no rules in a knife fight' and in crime fiction today anything goes.  In some of the very best crime novels we know right at the start 'whodunit,' and the suspense is about the why or how.

But I still have an affection for the classic type, and I was wondering how other writers and readers today feel about Knox's commandment no 8: 'The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.'

I've always felt when I was writing a book that I have the intelligent reader at my shoulder.  I want to conceal the villain from them so that they don't guess who it is too early and I will do my very best to mislead them, but I like to think that the clues to the answer are there if they want to follow them.  I try to play fair but I can go to elaborate lengths with red herrings  - I remember rewriting one scene half-a-dozen times so that the clue I ought to give them remained unnoticed.  But I couldn't get any satisfaction from the reader who says, 'I didn't guess' if I had actually cheated.

Is this an idea whose time has passed?  What do you think?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Recreating Sherlock and Having Fun With It.

By Vicki Delany

Now that I’ve switched my focus from darker, grittier crime novels (standalones like More than Sorrow, the eight novels in the Constable Molly Smith series) to cozies, my only aim as a writer is to have fun with it.

And I’m having a lot of fun with the Sherlock Holmes Bookshops series, in which the third, The Cat of the Baskervilles, came out this week.

There isn’t much hotter in the world of popular culture today than Sherlock Holmes.  The continuing popularity of the original books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the massive number of modern short story collections and pastiche novels; two TV series, several movies.

I’m a writer and I’m also a keen mystery reader. So when I was looking for inspiration for a new series, I thought a bookstore would be fun.  And then the idea popped into my head: A bookstore dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.

When I started to do some research on that, I quickly discovered it’s not such an unfeasible idea.  You could easily stock a store with nothing but Sherlock.  Not only things I mentioned above but all the stuff that goes with it: mugs, tea towels, games, puzzles, action figures, colouring books, cardboard cut-out figures. The list is just about endless. Throw in nonfiction works on Sir Arthur and his contemporaries, maybe a few books set in the “gaslight” era. And, presto, a fully stocked bookstore.

And thus was born the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium.   Because cozy lovers (and me) love food to go with their reading, I put Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room next door, run by her best friend Jayne Wilson.

Every book and every piece of merchandise sold in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium exists in the real world (with one exception as readers of Body on Baker Street will understand).  I haven’t read all the books I mention, and I’m not necessarily recommending them, but I enjoy dropping the names of books into the story as customers browse and shop and ask Gemma for suggestions: something suitable for a middle aged man laid up after falling off the roof; a book for a friend who loves historical mysteries; a YA with a female protagonist; even a hostess present for a hated mother-in-law!

My original intent when I began the series, was that the main character would be a normal cozy character. A nice young woman who owns an interesting bookshop, lives in a pleasant community (in this case, on Cape Cod), and has a circle of friends.

But, by the time I got to page 2, Gemma Doyle had become “sherlockian”.

And that’s been enormous fun to write. Gemma has the amazing memory (for things she wants to remember), and incredible observational skills, and a lightning fast mind.  She is also, shall we say, somewhat lacking on occasion in the finger points of social skills.  Jayne is ever-confused, but loyal.
Sometimes Gemma’s observations don’t go down well with a skeptical police officer:

“It was perfectly obvious,” I said. “I smelled flour, tea, and sugar the moment we came in. Those are normal scents in anyone’s house, but tonight they’re of a strength that indicates they’ve been recently dumped from their containers. Overlaid with the odor of rotting vegetables, by which I assume the fridge door has been left open. I keep meaning to eat that kale because it’s supposed to be healthy, but I really don’t care for it.
“We can also assume that our intruder is a nonsmoker and doesn’t apply perfume or aftershave regularly. Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained for several days, although the forecast did call for some, so they didn’t track mud into the house. The flour! An unforgiveable oversight on my part. You will, of course, want to take casts of footprints that have tracked through the spilled flour and sugar.”
“It didn’t get on the floor,” Estrada said. “But it’s all over the counter.”
“As the front door appears to be untampered with, and I don’t hand spare keys for my house to all and sundry, I’ll assume our intruder came in through the back door. Therefore the kitchen would be the logical first place to search.”
“Enough, Gemma,” Jayne whispered to me.
“I only want to point out the obvious facts.” I’ve been told on more than one occasion that some people don’t understand my attention to detail and thus misunderstand the conclusions I draw from it. I have tried to stop, but I might as well stop thinking. And this didn’t seem like a suitable time in which to stop thinking.
“The back door’s been forced open, yes,” Estrada said. “I’ll admit, that was a good guess.”
I was about to inform her that I never guess, but Jayne elbowed me in the ribs.

                                                                                Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, reimagined as modern young women just trying to get on with life.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Uncertain Endings

Three times lately I've read mysteries where the ending is up to my imagination. How everything turns out is entirely up to me.

The three books have one thing in common. I will never buy another book from these authors.

Seriously. Fuzzy endings are to be expected in most of The New Yorker short stories and a great many literary books. But when they occur in mysteries I feel betrayed. I don't think I'm unusual in this reaction. We're living in really uncertain times. It's as though we are required to realign our thinking on a daily basis.

Coping with the Orwellian nightmare thrust on us by politicians is bad enough, but we can't open the paper or click on our websites without another icon biting the dust.

I believe so many of the best-sellers right are mysteries because--usually--we know who the good guys are and blessedly, they know who the bad guys are. Villains are brought to justice. The world is aching for stories that draw a line between good and evil.

Recently a friend of mine--another writer--whose father had left at an early age said during an acceptance speech for an award that he learned what men were supposed to be like by watching old westerns when he was a little kid. He had no other role models.

Simplistic? Sentimental? Probably, but he could have done a lot worse. I adored the old Gunsmoke series. And how about the lovable bumbling Columbo who had an uncanny ability to smoke out evil-doers?

I realize that I'm confessing to a broad streak of immaturity, but I insist on proper endings. No one has to tell me the world exists in broad strokes of gray. I can put up with an unhappy ending if I must, but please, end the story.

Fairy tale touches still happen. People still do wonderful things. I read a newspaper article last week about a UPS driver who walked eleven miles to work every day. He was too ashamed to tell anyone he couldn't afford a vehicle. When his co-workers found out about it, they secretly started a fund to buy him a car. The unveiling and his expression of deep gratitude was posted all over the web.

People still care and cry and feel. My idea of an ideal ending was that of the men's snowboard competition at the Olympics and Shaun White's extraordinary display of emotion. For an instant we were allowed to view what was at stake internally after physically dedicating one's life to performing in a single event. For an instant we could participate in his joy and his embrasure of people who had made it all possible.

And this is the end of this post. In case you're wondering how it's all going to turn out in the long run, I'll be back in two weeks.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Little Voices Inside My Head

The little voice in the back of my head began whispering to me around page 200 of the novel I’m writing. I’ve heard the voice before, and like the other times, it began like a bad radio transmission: static muffling a cryptic message.

As always –– when I plant myself in front of the computer to compose, print the hard copy, read that with pencil in hand, and compose again –– the whisper isn’t so distant. Static fades. Eventually the whisper turns to a shout. Plot twists and turns come into view.

I grew up on a steady diet of Conan, Agatha, and detectives like Spenser and Kinsey. I experienced all kinds of plots, from the traditional mystery, to the intricate and complicated, to, dare I say, even the outlandish.

Plot, I’ve come to believe, is simply the natural sequence of events done by people whose personalities dictate said sequence.

Common sense? Of course. But I’m a genre writer (proud to be one, in fact), and even though I consider myself a character-driven writer, I know there’s an unspoken agreement between my reader and me. I’m tasked with having something to say about a contemporary issue, creating a characters you want to spend time with, and keeping you on the edge of your seat while we follow the story together to the end. These tasks are things I’m more likely to be aware of before I start a novel. When working on the book, the end game changes: I’m focused on telling the story as clearly and economically as I can.

So now, around 200 pages in, the little voice is shouting: Would he say that so easily? Wouldn’t the suspect have acted differently? Should she say this?

Revision turns to rewriting. Revision, thanks to the whispers, is truly a re-envisioning of the work. I'm adding scenes and rewriting to make suspects better drawn and clarify the logic behind the sequence of events.

Because of this, composition rarely feels like forward progress. Rather, reclining on my sofa, manuscript pages on my clipboard, pencil cutting words, adding words, drawing arrows, the voice becomes louder and writing becomes clearer and more focused. And I trust that the plot will come into light.

Sometimes, all it takes are the voices inside my head.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day!

I’m taking a break from working on my book, which is due very, very soon, to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day. My hero, Snoopy, does it better than I can so here’s a short video for you.

Last time you heard from me, I was in a sorry state, quite convinced that I was doomed. Things are looking brighter now. I had a bit of an epiphany regarding the last bit of the book, which I wasn’t terribly happy with. I’m not quite at the G&T stage, but I’m getting there.

I don’t have much else to say right now. I thought you’d enjoy this clip from the TV show “Mike and Molly”, one of the funniest ones on writing I’ve seen. Makes me laugh every time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A SPECIAL special guest blogger: Deborah Atkinson returns!

I am thrilled to tell you that one of our former bloggers is returning today for a special appearance. If yours truly weren’t such a dunce, you would have been reading this on the first weekend of this month — but I got my dates wrong. So I am happily giving up my regular Tuesday spot to my good friend to bring you what I promise is something out of the ordinary for Type M. So take it away, Deborah!

Deborah Atkinson weaves the legends and folklore of Hawaii into suspense-filled contemporary crime fiction. Atkinson lives in Honolulu, Hawaii and is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, University of Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, and a recipient of the University of Hawaii’s Meryl Clark Award for Fiction. Her books include Primitive Secrets, which is the introduction to the Storm Kayama series, The Green Room, which was a Book Sense Notable pick, Fire Prayer, and Pleasing the Dead. Visit for more information about her work.


Thanks, Rick, for asking me to be your guest blogger today. It’s great to be back among my mystery/suspense colleagues. I have missed you all!

Some of you know that the reason I have been missing from the mystery scene is because our family struggled with our younger son’s opiate addiction. It’s true that addiction is a family disease; the fear that he would overdose and die before he could overcome the incomprehensible pull of the drug ran our lives. Andrew has just passed his fourth birthday of sobriety and is doing well, and he has worked hard at it. You may already know that an opiate addict relapses an average of eleven times, and each relapse is life-threatening.

Though my mystery writing stalled, I wrote about our family’s struggle with Substance Use Disorder, hoping that what we learned along this long path (and it is long—much longer than the average 28-day treatment program) might help other families shorten their own roads to recovery. As I learned more about the problem, I realized how little most people know about it—including doctors and some “specialists.”

Recognizing a substance use disorder in a family member is difficult, and that is only the first step of a long journey. Even after you recognize the problem, where do you go next? And how to get your loved one to go along with the idea? He or she is in the deepest denial of all. There’s even a term for denial of a mental illness, anosognosia.
I collaborated with several addiction specialists on this book, which I’m calling Feathers in the Soul: A Guide for Families Struggling with a Child’s Addiction. It is complete and I’m looking for a publisher. I hope other people can learn from our experience and avoid some of our mistakes. Knowledge is how we as a culture and society will conquer this rampant scourge.

My favorite genre, though, remains mystery/suspense, and I am looking forward to returning to this group of down-to-earth, enthusiastic and erudite storytellers. Just so I didn’t get swallowed in the often-heartbreaking reality of addiction, I also wrote a thriller titled Impact Zone. It, too, is complete and looking for a good home.

Here’s a short synopsis. The protagonist, Hawaii native Rod Tautala, is in recovery. (Surprise!) But Rod’s real problem begins when an army buddy calls and announces that he’s mailed photographs from their time in Afghanistan. The package includes pictures of Rod’s older brother Cliff, who died there. Rod is leaving for Honolulu to visit his sick father and he asks his best friend, Sam, to pick up the package. The next day, Rod learns that Sam has been stabbed to death in front of Rod’s apartment. Stunned, Rod also finds himself guardian to Sam’s precocious and grieving sixteen-year-old daughter, Bahati, who pressures him to find her father’s murderer.

Rod and Bahati must return to Hawaii to uncover a scheme involving hundreds of millions in cash skimmed from the U.S. government during Rod’s tour in Afghanistan. (This part is based in reality.) Not only is Rod’s army buddy implicated, but Rod’s brother may also have been involved—and it looks like the helicopter crash that killed Cliff wasn’t an accident after all. Of course, a cadre of nasty killers within the U.S. government are hunting Rod and Bahati, who must overcome internal and external demons to survive.

Thanks again Rick, for asking me to guest blog. I hope to see you all in libraries, bookstores, online, and at mystery conferences. Read on!

Monday, February 12, 2018

To splash out or not to splash out?

This year here in Edinburgh, Scotland, we are celebrating the centenary one of our most famous novelists, Muriel Spark. In 2008 the Times newspaper named Spark as No. 8 in its list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945." She is possibly most well know for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. However, Spark is quoted as saying her favourite of all her novels is The Driver's Seat. The Driver's Seat involves a killing and is often referred to as a “whydunnit”, so I think I can legitimately sneak Spark into the Type M for Murder blog ;)

However, I'm not writing about Muriel because of her writing but because of her dress. You see, in 1951 and very early in Spark's writing career she entered a short story competition run by the Observer newspaper. She came first out of 6,700 entrants, including many from well-established writers. The win changed the course of her writing life. Now at this time she was also struggling financially. But instead of being sensible and using the very considerable prize money of £250 to pay her gas bill or buy food she treated herself to a very expensive, beautiful blue velvet dress and a complete set of Proust's 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'. I saw the very dress she bought this weekend in an exhibition about Muriel's life and writing at the National Library of Scotland. It is indeed a very lovely dress (as you can see from my photo). My question is this, was it a crime for her to have splashed out like this when she was so close to the breadline? What would you have done with the money – £250 is probably worth about £5500 in today's money? Would you have been sensible or splashed out on something special. If you had splashed out, what would you have bought?

I think, like Muriel, I may have treated myself to a posh new frock 😉