Monday, June 20, 2005


As a writer, I've been around the block. I built a reputation on science fiction and whimsical writing back in high school, progressed to suspense and speculative fiction around my college years, and am now running on fantasy literature and metaphorical drama.

Throughout those fourteen years, however, I've discovered that the Mystery genre is a specific Achilles' heel of mine. I've tried penning more than a few short stories along that line, but I almost always never seem to finish them. The ones that I do actually finish don't sit well with me, and the few people who get to sneak them out of my private files haven't been holding back in their criticism either.

All in all, I find it strangely appropriate that the Mystery genre remains a mystery to me.

That, I suppose, only makes it all the more opportune for me to give it another try. I've had a number of observations regarding the genre in the meantime, and I think that I've got a solid enough foundation for another story.

With that said and done, I might as well put down what I have on mysteries to begin with. Hopefully the more established writers may be able to correct me on these assumptions, or maybe I'll simply be able to complete the story and then return to these original observations to see what went right and what went wrong.

1. Edible Length
The first mystery I ever wrote was for my high school publication (or failing that, our annual literary magazine), and got a prompt rejection notice from both entities. The reason? Overly tedious length. The finished product was twenty-three pages long, an incredible achievement in our days of short attention spans.

This really illustrates a fundamental problem with mysteries. Mysteries are a literal compilation of analyses. They have to present the following, all in a single story:

A. The crime itself
B. The circumstances surrounding the crime (i.e. observational and forensic evidence)
C. The discussion of circumstances (i.e. forensic analysis)
D. The enumeration of suspects
E. The introduction and character development per suspect (enough for us to see them as suspects, I suppose)
F. The investigation and its developments
G. The step-by-step revelations
H. The payoff (i.e. resolution)

Stuffing all this into a single piece of writing would obviously defy its classification as a "short" story. Add to that the fact that one needs to build in some personal background events that may or may not have anything to do with the mystery itself, and things get even more complicated. At a glance, there are simply too many elements to work in.

I must point out, however, that the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation does not only manage to pull all this off within a one-hour timeslot, but somehow manages to present two or even three cases as well. Because the show focuses on the investigators more than it focuses on its cases, though, I must admit that it does leave out the D and E elements, and sometimes even A.

My current option (apart from bluntly keeping the story from exceeding a given length) is to serialize things somehow. Splitting up the tale into three or four parts, for example, should be able to contain the length problem and provide for better cliffhangers and a more significant payoff. The problem with serialization is that I'd have to work from a distinct outline and carry enough patience and interest to see the whole thing through.

2. No Noirspeak
If you're wondering what Noirspeak is, it's the brilliant, almost hypnotic use of language that we read in pulp detective thrillers. Here's an example:

I had been stalking the bluebottle fly for five minutes, waiting for him to sit down. He didn't want to sit down. He just wanted to do wing-overs and sing the prologue to Pagliacci. I had the fly swatter poised in midair and I was all set. There was a patch of bright sunlight on the corner of the desk and I knew that sooner or later that was where he was going to light. But when he did, I didn't even see him at first. The buzzing stopped and there he was. And then the phone rang.
- Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

I think that this short passage should give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Noirspeak, you see, has the ability to compress an entire scene description (features, background, atmosphere, and so forth) into single paragraphs, and takes us inside the speaker's mind as an added bonus. It tends to be heavy on the analogy, and inevitably crosses into deadpan humor at all the right moments. Noirspeak is close to an integral part of any detective thriller story.

To put it bluntly, I'm terrible with Noirspeak.

Yet that hasn't stopped me from bringing my clich├ęd mangling of detective language to pen and paper in the last fourteen years.

In hindsight, detective thrillers don't comprise the whole of mystery literature. You don't always have to set a noir atmosphere with a hard-boiled protagonist, after all. Because of this and my earlier hackneyed efforts at the language, I plan to cut out the Noirspeak entirely for my current efforts. If Lillian Jackson Braun can do it, I suppose that I can, too.

3. Modern Methods
Unfortunately for the classic detective, it's not quite the 1950s anymore. The police no longer simply turn up a dead body and wonder what to do with it; They've got fingerprint databases, DNA evidence, and ballistics testing that they can use to figure out the killer's identity.

So, in a world with these kinds of advancements, where should a mystery story's protagonist stand? Private detectives themselves comprise a dying profession. And not many characters outside the police would find themselves in positions where they can get their hands on key evidence.

The protagonist's profession would have to be somehow more subtle, I think. Maybe an overly curious mortician who gets his customer base from the nearby police station. Maybe a prosecuting attorney who figures that he can get more from his own personal investigations than the local law enforcement can. Maybe a janitor who has a remarkable penchant for cases that his bosses can't find out about. There's plenty of fodder there, just as long as the final product makes sure to take this new-fangled modern scenario into account.

4. Baggage Handling
For that matter, mystery fiction has a lot of history trailing behind it. The genre literally dates back to Edgar Allan Poe and the 19th century, and has Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie attached even if we don't get to such "luminaries" as Humphrey Bogart and Perry Mason. Too many people have left their mark on mystery, which makes the contemporary writer's job much, much more difficult.

I think that most readers nowadays have a certain view of mystery fiction: The local police can never get all their facts straight. The woman who walks in the door always has legs "up to here." The crime scene always houses epithelials that can be made to match the perpetrator. Heck, there's always a loophole in a suspect's story that kids like Encyclopedia Brown can always find.

To be optimistic, all this baggage means that there's plenty of room for innovation. The problem involves how to catch everything and come out with something brand spanking new. It's difficult to confound peoples' expectations of "another Sam Spade" or "another CSI", and any similar opinion raised against the final story will imply that it may be a failure in terms of this innovation.

But there you have it, ladies and gentlemen -- some initial observations regarding the genre before I pull up the lapels of my trenchcoat, doff my fedora and go walking in the rain. I suppose that no one ever said that writing was easy.

Additional insights, of course, will be well appreciated at this point. Eventually, though, I'll have to go it alone; in a sleazy, overweight city where the bars are open till noon and where a fistful of bills in the right places can get a man all the friends he wants. It may be a quiet city, but under the cover of darkness God shuts his eyes and grants every man, woman and child absolution for all the sins in the world.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."


eClair said...

I have never tried my hand at that genre. I don't think I am cut out for it. It takes a lot of imagination... I am afraid I don't seem to have that much imagination *laugh*

Then again, I guess I must be interested in other things.

So can I read some of these files? ;)

Sean said...

Er... I conveniently 'lost' a lot of them the last time I upgraded my computer. :)

I'll try to find them, though.