The Ones That Stick With You

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

We begged at age three, “Tell me a story.”

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

And Hansel fooled the witch and escaped. Jack chopped down the beanstalk and escaped.

We mystery readers read a vast number of mystery novels. Fifty percent of adults say their favorite book genre is mystery/thriller. In 2020 mystery e-book sales appear to have increased by13% and thrillers by 15%.

We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.

Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?

If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”

Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim.  Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.

On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.

I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.

I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.

What about The Nine Tailors (1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.

Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.

I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped. Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.

I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.

I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.

PLAIN OR FANCY?

by Helen Currie Foster

Mystery readers are tetchy. We want an interesting plot with a fair shot at noting each clue—but don’t want to guess whodunnit too soon. We’re prepared to care about the protagonist, the sleuth, perhaps the victim. We hope some characters will intrigue us; others should do their part and get offstage.

Of course, setting is key. We may want a mystery set in our own state—or on the far side of the world. We demand accurate detail; we’re slow to forgive mistakes. We want to feel we’re actually in the setting: riding the Cornwall train with an exhausted Cormoran Strike, in the basement of the Russian Club with Peter Wimsey, escaping from a southside Chicago industrial complex with V.I. Warshawski.

So for setting, how much description is too much? Do you find yourself sometimes turning the page, skipping the paragraph describing the view from the ski-lift, the row of shops in the village, the squalor of the factory yard?

Recall Oliver Strunk’s Rule 6, Do Not Overwrite (Section V, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders”): “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Oliver Strunk’s Elements of Style

The Wild Places: 9781783784493: Amazon.com: Books

Yes, but sometimes a writer stops us in our tracks with beauty. Take Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (my favorite, describing hikes in Britain)or The Old Ways, or Landmarks. Contrary to habit I scribbled many quotes in the back of my copy of The Wild Places. He describes moonlight on a freezing night atop a mountain: “trillions of lunar photons pelting on to my face and the snow about me, giving me an eyeful of silver…”

An eyeful of silver! He writes of hiking an eroded old seabed, “We moved through dozens of weathers.” Of a frozen waterfall: “A hard portcullis of ice, beautifully mottled by dark figures of thaw.” Can’t you see it? Feel it? He quotes Stephen Graham on the rare moment when we feel part of nature: “‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’”

The great door, that does not look like a door!

Maybe our sleuth lacks the time, is in too much peril, to describe moonlight “giving me an eyeful of silver,” or the moment when she or he, lying beneath a tree, momentarily sensed “the great door, that does not look like a door…” Too contemplative, when the sleuth has no time to contemplate.

A mystery setting has additional jobs besides painting the landscape. Ideally it draws us straight into the plot, shaping our view of the characters. Here’s the beginning of Sayer’s Strong Poison:

Mystery Monday: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers | Ms M's Bookshelf

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no signs of fatigue.

He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.”

Already we’re caught, sensing the prisoner’s peril. Immediately we must turn to the next page.

Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:

The Ghostway (Leaphorn & Chee, #6) by Tony Hillerman

“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.

He’d noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.

“Hey!” he’d yelled. “Come here a minute.”

Joseph Joe remembered that very clearly. The driver looked like a Navajo, but yelling at him like that was not a Navajo thing to do because Joseph Joe was eighty-one years old, and the people around Shiprock and up in the Chuska Moutains called him Hosteen, which means “old man” and is a term of great respect.”

Hillerman has us. Shiprock silhouetted against a sunset, the Chuska Mountains, Navajo tradition being violated––we’re hooked by this authoritative voice placing us where we wanted to be, in Navajo country.

Strunk has other words for us writers as well. His Rule 14, Avoid Fancy Words: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” I checked: “word” itself is Anglo-Saxon. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=word

This instruction helps mystery writers follow several other rules, such as not overwriting, and choosing powerful verbs and specific nouns. See page two of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind:

Amazon.com: The Dark Wind (9780062018021): Tony Hillerman: Books

Lomatewa glanced past the rabbit brush at the second boot. It matched. Beyond the second boot, the path curved sharply around a weathered granite boulder. Lomatewa sucked in his breath. Jutting from behind the boulder he could see the bottom of a foot. The foot was bare and even from where Lomatewa stood he could see there was something terribly wrong with it.”

Here he uses mainly (not all) Anglo-Saxon words, though some traveled from Latin through old French.

When I’m writing I’m always aware of Strunk’s strictures (uh-oh, late Latin). Indeed, I should probably reread him every week. But in working on this seventh mystery I also hope to discover “an eyeful of silver”, or “the smell of charred stone”, or move through “dozens of weathers,” or more.

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You can find more information about Helen Currie Foster at helencurriefoster.com