Monday, July 22, 2013

Craft Chat: The "Why" of Mysteries and the issue of Immortality

A touch of insomnia this past week found me watching PBS at 3 AM which is how I discovered a terrific Masterpiece Mystery series. ENDEAVOR, charismatic (and handsome) Shaun Evans, explores the early career of detective Endeavor Morse, masterfully portrayed by the late John Thaw in the earlier series, INSPECTOR MORSE.

How does this relate to writing craft?

As a child, I was an avid mystery reader, devouring Nancy Drew, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers. In my late teens through early thirties, books by Elizabeth George, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Dennis Lehane, and Morse's creator, Colin Dexter, sat on my nightstand. Mystery novelists were some of my first instructors on plot, pacing, use of setting to create mood, and developing the character of your protagonist.

Then, one day, I stopped reading mysteries. Why? Pretty much every detective novel I read started out with a death. Not that that initial death is the point of a mystery novel. Mystery novels are most often not about the victims but about the detectives (pro or amateur) who discover their killers. Regardless, all those first-chapter corpses started to bother me. I stopped reading potboilers, stopped watching tv mysteries, like Prime Suspect and Poirot.

Until the wee hours of that recent morning when Shaun Evans' performance revealed this to me: Detectives are often tortured souls because they are philosophers. They embody our need to understand the inevitable outcome of human existence: death. Murder mysteries are not celebrations of criminal cunning but explorations of the minds that seek to figure out a reason one person becomes responsible for another dying. Because if a detective can find this answer, it might point him or her to a reason for living.

When asked the inevitable author question, "Why do you write?" I often tell people that it's my stab at immortality. Yes, it's a compulsion and a (sort of painful) joy, but it is also fired by a need to be remembered, to leave something behind, to prove I existed for a window of time.  Perhaps my occasional discomfort with the murder mystery genre stems from the fact that detective novelists pursue this immortality on both literary and meta-levels. Through the act of writing. The use of death as a plot catalyst. The employ of a hero/anti-hero detective who is both searching for a perpetrator of death and struggling with his/her own mortality or other personal/ethical dilemma. I feel like they are turning a mirror back on author-me and I'm not sure I feel about my reflection.

Gah, this reads like an English paper!

Go watch Endeavor and tell me what you think.

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