By Helen Currie Foster
October 31, 2022
In an online ad for her Master Class, writer Margaret Atwood (oh, what a magnificent face she has! Sardonic, wise, all-seeing…) declares this rule for fiction: “Hold my attention!”
Like Margaret Atwood, mystery lovers demand of mystery writers, “Hold my attention!”
I get tired of defending our genre. Mystery writers absolutely cater to their readers. They don’t publish exercises in personal navel-gazing–they know their readers could care less about the author’s navel. They know readers won’t give them the time of day–no! Won’t read more than a few pages!–unless all three components–interesting protagonist, vivid setting, challenging puzzle–are present.
Curious, I decided to revisit some of our first introductions to famous mystery protagonists. For example, in 1964 John D. MacDonald introduced Travis McGee–a character lucky enough to live on a Florida houseboat named the Busted Flush–in The Deep Blue Good-By (yes, that’s how the title reads on the cover). https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+deep+blue+good-by+by+john+d.+macdonald&crid=3B3DO804231N&sprefix=The+deep+blue+good-by%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_pltr-ranker-10hours_2_21 As a teenager I was enthralled. Could you live on a houseboat? It seemed an impossible dream. In Chapter Uno, McGee studies tide maps while dancer Chookie McCall, metronome clicking, choreographs strenuous dance steps, before persuading McGee to talk to one of her dancers who has mislaid a bunch of money and needs help getting it back. McGee describes his occupation as finding lost loot and keeping half as his fee. An amazing life. AND–on a boat! Plus, adding to his appeal, McGee shares his prejudices with readers. He’s wary of many aspects of contemporary culture, including “Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants…” So liberating, his list. MacDonald has McGee describe himself for the reader as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, …that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast…” He calls himself a “knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.” Looking in the rear-view mirror at 1964, McGee’s iconoclasm distances him somewhat…but not enough…from the decade’s sexist aspects (think of early James Bond).
Perhaps McGee’s wide-ranging rejection of staid norms presaged the “drop-out” scene just three years later in The Graduate (1967)–Dustin Hoffman driving away from “plastics” and other norms in his red 2600 Duetto Alfa Romeo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/
Fast forward to 1970 when we meet Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way. In contrast to Travis McGee’s extensive self-introduction, we don’t really see Leaphorn in action until chapter 4. If you only read chapter 1 you might assume the protagonist is a depressed cultural anthropologist, Bergen McKee, who feels inadequate both as an academic and in his love life. McKee hopes Leaphorn can jump-start his academic career by introducing him to Navajos who still believe in Navajo witches. He joins Leaphorn’s search for Luis Horseman, Navajo suspect in a knifing, who has fled into the Lukachukai mountains. Horseman’s relatives quietly recount sightings of a Navajo wolf, a big man with a dog skin around his neck, the skull atop his head–a witch.
Hillerman’s powerful setting introduces us to the dramatic weather of Navajo territory, stirring our senses: “McKee had been startled by the sudden brighter-than-day flash of the lightning bolt. The explosion of thunder had followed it almost instantly, setting off a racketing barrage of echoes cannonading from the canyon cliffs. The light breeze, shifting suddenly down canyon, carried the faintly acrid smell of ozone released by the electrical charge and the perfume of dampened dust and rain-struck grass… Then a splatter of rain hit; big, cold, high-velocity drops sent him running to the tent…” Sound, sight, smell, temperature pull us directly into the scene. https://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Way-Leaphorn-Chee-Novel/dp/0062821660/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2M4FSEIW6DUXU&keywords=The+Blessing+Way&qid=1667252978&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjAwIiwicXNhIjoiMS4zMCIsInFzcCI6IjEuMTMifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=the+blessing+way%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-1&asin=0062821660&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Leaphorn’s analytical solution to Horseman’s murder turns on the difference between Navajo and non-Navajo ways. We hear Hillerman’s Navajo characters softly sing their traditional morning song, or their chants against contamination by a dead body. Leaphorn feels there’s something “strangely un-Navajo” about Horseman’s death: “Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation. Nor did they kill for profit. To do so violated the scale of values of The People… Where, then, was the motive?” In this first mystery Hillerman gives us an unconventionally structured, but totally absorbing, introduction to the fascinating landscape and cultures of the Four Corners. I was, and remain, permanently hooked.
Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone first appeared in A is for Alibi (1982). In contrast to Hillerman, Grafton introduces her sleuth on page one: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids.” We learn immediately that the day before yesterday, Kinsey killed someone, and “the fact weighs heavily” on her mind. We learn her housing and car preferences and that she has no house plants. Then she plunges into the tale. How can we not like that intro? https://www.amazon.com/Alibi-Kinsey-Millhone-Mystery-ebook/dp/B002HHPVBC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=AQ6U0I4W0F2P&keywords=Sue+Grafton+A+is+for+Alibi&qid=1667252584&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjczIiwicXNhIjoiMi4xOCIsInFzcCI6IjIuMzYifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=sue+grafton+a+is+for+alib%2Caps%2C224&sr=8-2 Grafton died in 2017, ending her Alphabet Series at “Y.”
A big thank-you to Grafton who, along with Sara Paretzky (who also published in 1982 her first V.I. Warshawski Book 1, Indemnity Only). They helped found the national organization Sisters in Crime. https://www.sistersincrime.org/ Our own central Texas chapter, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, continues that work! https://www.sinc-heartoftexasaustin.com We’ll be signing books November 5 and 6 at our booth at the Texas Book Festival. Please stop by! https://www.texasbookfestival.org/
Donna Leon doesn’t let us meet Venetian police inspector Guido Brunetti until chapter 2 of Death at La Fenice (1992), Book 1 in her acclaimed series, when Brunetti leads a police team into the murder scene at the Venice opera house. We quickly find ourselves in Brunetti’s head: “It seemed, in this moment, that he had spent his entire life doing this to people, telling them that someone they loved was dead or, worse, had been killed.” And as he helps the victim’s wife away from the scene, “He was prepared for this, the sudden blow of reality that sets in after the first shock. It was this that knocked people down.” We learn Brunetti is humane, intelligent, and determined, from his scrupulous procedure, protection of clues, and humanity toward those bearing the sudden burden of a loved one’s murder. But he’s capable of wrath when death is not respected. When the bored ambulance attendants, overeager to move the body, cite union rules to Brunetti, he explodes: “You take him out of here before I tell you to, and you’ll be in jail the first time you spit on the sidewalk or swear in public…” In chapter 5 we meet his aristocratic bluestocking wife, Paola, in their fourth-floor Venetian apartment: “He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back…a mixture that represented…in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.” Venice gives Leon a second weapon, a setting that–peopled by Brunetti and his family–is hard to resist. https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Mystery writers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course. One huge and hopeful lesson: writers can improve. Usually book 2 in any series is better than book 1. In 1945 American critic Edmund Wilson savaged Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries in The New Yorker: “Really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Huh! I’ll bet Dorothy Sayers would win the “who’s still read today” sweepstakes. And I reject Wilson’s description of mystery fiction as “mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/2019/06/18/who-killed-the-classic-murder-mystery-pt-2/ Of course, the man also reportedly called J.R.R. Tolkien’s work “juvenile trash.” You might also be interested in T.S. Eliot’s views on detective fiction. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-makes-great-detective-fiction-according-to-t-s-eliot
But back to the question of improving. It’s true that Sayers’s first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body (1923), includes rather twee dialogue between Wimsey and the poor architect who found in his bathtub a man’s dead body, nude save for his gold pince-nez. “I’m sure it must have been uncommonly distressin’,” says Wimsey, “especially comin’ like that before breakfast. Hate anything tiresome happenin’ before breakfast. Takes a man at such a confounded disadvantage, what?” https://www.amazon.com/Whose-Body-Dorothy-L-Sayers/dp/0486473627/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1YFL5UVDLR7FZ&keywords=Whose+Body&qid=1667252724&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIzLjc0IiwicXNhIjoiMy4yMyIsInFzcCI6IjMuNDgifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=whose+body%2Caps%2C195&sr=8-1&asin=0486473627&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Wimsey, along with his aristocratic bearing, still suffers PTSD from his own WWI service. In the second Wimsey mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Sayers takes on the dreadful impacts of nerve gas, trench warfare and classism, and, in some painfully realistic scenes, the economic difficulties faced by veterans. Remember, she’s writing this in 1928. https://www.amazon.com/Unpleasantness-Bellona-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHRY/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
These days Ghosted, Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer series set in little Coffee Creek, Texas, is nearing completion. As I finish each page I hear Margaret Atwood’s voice: “HOLD MY ATTENTION!”
Wait for it! Take that, Edmund Wilson!
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in Texas Hill Country north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.