Taking a Clue from the Pros
2003, Russ Gifford
all the genre stories, the mystery might have the best known blueprint for a
successful story. Tell an intriguing tale, seasoned with an underlying theme of
danger and liberally spiced with tension, and you have the basis for a great
book. Combine those traits with a great character, and you might have an
evergreen series, if the results of those authors that spend their time on the
bestseller lists are any indication. The stories of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe,
Philip Marlowe and many others still draw readers today. And the stories written
by the man who brought the private eye back into style in the 1970's, and the
woman who put the first female private eye on those same lists, are still
writing their exploits today.
mystery/suspense genre offers a clear outline for would be writers.
Obviously, however, writing any book is difficult, writing a good book is
even harder, and writing a best seller is an incredible feat. Let's look at the
body of evidence compiled by Robert B. Parker and Sue Grafton, and see if we can
find any clues to creating a best selling mystery.
Parker published his 29th Spenser novel, "Widow's Walk," in
2002, and did something he rarely does: he actually built the story around a
murder mystery. Did the young wife kill her aging husband? Everyone thinks so,
and Spenser, hired by the defense attorney, has to find the answer. This is
strange turf for a Spenser novel. In most cases he is seeking a missing person,
or a stolen item, and the murder comes later. 'Mystery' is rarely the driving
force. Frequently, Spenser decides who is the likely culprit, and spends his
time "tugging on loose threads" until he finally forces the bad guy to
Grafton, the creator of the first female private eye to reach bestseller status,
almost always has a true mystery on her hands. In "Q is for Quarry,"
the 17th Kinsey Millhone outing, Grafton has returned to her roots,
looking into an unsolved murder. Unlike Spenser, though, in almost every Grafton
novel the mystery remains until the final scene, following the traditional
formula for the mystery/suspense genre.
We Care About
books, and the other best sellers like them, give us an important first clue:
unlike the traditional mystery novel, the plot might simply be an excuse to
spend time with the lead character! Like youngsters sitting at the foot of an
aged grandparent, we readers are really only buying these books to see what
pithy truths we might glean when we view the world from Spenser or Millhone's
as we see from recent reviews and sales history, that formula has faltered in
recent years. Let's look closely at the problems, and how these best-selling
authors have worked to overcome these issues.
of Mystery Equals Lack of Suspense?
the "bad guy" is often known early on in many Spenser books, the
suspense is generated by the question of Spenser's survival. In the early
stories, before Spenser was a household name, that fear of death or serious
injury carried the series, and served the writer and the reader well. But as the
Spenser books became a fixture, the nature of a continuing series undercut that
strategy. Not much chance Parker, or anyone else, would walk away from a highly
profitable series before the author was ready to hang up his pen for good. Given
Parker's intense love affair with the two supporting characters, and their
success as characters, he isn't likely to kill or maim Hawk or Susan, either, so
that avenue was closed as well.
meanwhile, tried a different track. A number of her stories became "on the
road" adventures, where Kinsey is sucked along in the whirlwind of events,
which prevented a normal structured approach to the plot. Unpredictable things
happen, which Kinsey could only deal with, not foresee. Unfortunately, the
situation also left readers wondering what happened to the forceful character
they liked reading about!
other attempts remained more traditional mysteries. But in an effort to keep the
series lively, the plots suddenly incorporated an additional twist at the end,
surprising Kinsey – and the reader. Unfortunately, these endings were too much
of a surprise, and violated the genre agreement that the ending will provide a
satisfying answer, since they seemed contrived only to fool the reader.
recent outings for Spenser and Millhone have been met with some indifference,
and in many cases, disappointment. Would the market finally put these premier
private eyes out of circulation?
of these authors had proven early on they are grandmaster writers of mystery and
suspense fiction, and neither would willingly be consigned to the
"hack" pile. Watching their efforts to resurrect their series'
fortunes tells us a great deal about what a great P.I. novel requires.
the newest Spenser, Parker clearly makes the effort to re-introduce the concept
of a mystery, and keeps the tension on by drawing out the suspense. By keeping
the reader guessing as to the actual killer, and more importantly, as in all
Spenser books, the reason why someone acts as they do, he successfully keeps the
only did he add the air of mystery, he also brings back a character that could
sow trouble for Spenser, as in a former love interest. Parker also allows the
normally imperturbable Susan to display a jealous side as well.
actions show us that the balance between plot and character are important. The
effort also shows us that Parker knows where his problems lie. Is it completely
successful? No. Is it better than the last handful of Spenser books? Absolutely.
And these are lessons we writers need to learn. Too many of the recent Spenser
novels have been pre-programmed. More importantly, Spenser had stopped giving
readers those deep insights or sardonic asides on his peculiar view of the
world. He no longer described the colors, textures, or clothes in the ironic
sense or style that he used to tell the reader how he really felt about fashion,
or fads. Parker, obviously, could see this loss as well, and moved toward
are things we would be writers also need to learn. Can we infuse our characters
with a viewpoint that helps our readers see the world in a different light? Can
we impart excitement, or displeasure, strictly from our description of the item,
not our statement of our feelings? This
is something both Parker and Grafton previously excelled at. And it is
important. We base our view of the character not on them telling us how they
feel, but by feeling it with them.
problem is inherent to continuing characters: They rarely are allowed to grow,
as that would mean change, and we, the reader, might not come back. That, of
course, flies in the face of the concept of a book, where a character must face
a major crisis, and demonstrate personal growth in overcoming that problem.
Since the series character ostensibly does not change -- much --the impact of
the climax of the previous book rarely has a long-term effect.
Heroes vs. Aging Writers
preventing change encompasses another problem. How do we handle the maturation
of the character as the writer grows older? As an example, Spenser in 1971 could
be a Korean vet, but if that's so, today he'd be older than Dirty Harry, and
less likely to win fights. Parker chooses to still refer to Spenser's aging, but
mainly because his age was a theme from the beginning. Spenser was older than
the "normal" P.I. at the time of his first book, and all the early
books dealt with a man who had made his way in the world by physical means
dealing with the slowing that comes with age. Spenser was in his late thirties,
if not already 40, in his first book.
Parker has aged, there is more rumination in Spenser as well. And, this has also
led to another difficulty: the action has decreased in these later books, as
well as the romance.
her latest outing, Grafton has chosen to meet this challenge directly. She has
sown the seeds of future change for Kinsey. She is foreshadowing these changes,
and providing a hook to bring readers back to the next book. This time, she is
perhaps less subtle than others, leaving many unresolved issues to later books.
If the action or the plot falls short of the goal in a particular story, it
appears Ms. Grafton hopes you'll return anyway, to learn details of Kinsey's
childhood, and how the story of newly discovered family will play out.
perhaps reveals more of Grafton's TV background, but it is a good technique to
consider, since the continuing character shares much in common with a TV show
too, has toned down the violence, and the sex, from her earlier stories. In her
case, however, it seems a bit off. Early on, Grafton made it clear she was
tackling the aging issue. In the first 3 books, each published a year apart,
only three months passed in Kinsey's world. Now, almost 20 books later, only 3
years have gone by.
a good ploy, again, think of the problems this presents for the writer.
Computers and the World Wide Web are not beckoning to give the answers to
Kinsey, as well as a host of other changes in the past 17 years that cannot be
allowed to affect her world. This can be a bit disconcerting for the reader,
since it makes us shift gears, rather than the character. "Why doesn't she
have a cell phone? She could call for help… oh. Right."
both writers, acknowledged as top writers in the suspense/mystery genre, have
taken the effort to re-energize their marquee titles. They have faced the
reality: their recent books were not as good as the earlier ones. They also
acknowledged that the key issue was the characters had to return to what drew
the readers to the first books. Did they succeed? The answer is "yes."
Though both took different paths, they reached the destination. Both of these
are better books than the previous one, and buy each another year.
the Lessons Together
for Parker, who talks of how much he enjoys writing, and how the Spenser books
"write themselves," saw that he needed to make changes to the trend of
the previous books. He chose to branch out, and bring the character's insights
back to the fore, but also to try to introduce a stronger plot, moving back to
the mystery of earlier books. It is easy to see the difference that effort has
also clearly has a plan to reach 'Z', and has taken the steps necessary to see
we get there with her. She chose to change the safe, static structures that
surrounded Kinsey, pushing her into the "real" world, and changing
Kinsey as she responds to these new problems. The response has been positive,
and has resulted in more attention to this book than the last four or five.
these authors are no longer young Turks, desperately hungry for fame and
success, money or recognition, they could have taken the money and ran. Instead,
they are both willing and able to make changes to prolong the public's
interest in their books.
this is the most important thing we would be writers can learn from these
masters: everyone has to work at writing, even the "big guns."
second most important this we can learn, though, is that no matter who you are,
if you work at your writing, you can improve.