Friday, November 1, 2013

Feast of All Saints, in a cloud of doubt

I have been spending some of my off time typing up the first draft of my novel The Hanging Man into the hated Microsoft Word™. Last night I typed up Chapter 8, so I now have only the final four chapters to convert from my crabbed scrawl into a legible manuscript. I’m at that point in the narrative when—and I recall this quite distinctly—as a writer I lost all faith in the traditional story arc of a mystery novel, where in the end the detective brings clarity and a return to the status quo to the fictional world. A bright shining truth called out to me: there is no absolute clarity for any of us, and life is full of events upon whose peripheries we stand, never to know the motivations of the principle players despite our best efforts. I found that I could not, that is, sew up all the action and the mysteries of my mystery into a nice tidy ending. I abandoned that ship, letting the stubborn crew of rats pilot the vessel into the rocks, etc. Or something. What I’m trying to say is that, as I wrote that section of my novel wherein the confusion and unknowns were thickest, I was spurred on not to resolve and dispel this confusion. The murkiness, the lack of clarity of the situation, the possibility that nobody in the story actually possessed the facts and that the truths sought might not be found, became the interesting thing about the story. I spent the next several chapters offering up several possible versions of the truth, several good suspects for the perpetrators of the various crimes committed in the novel, and let the reader know what the official reports would say. But I did not, in the end, clear anything up. Not really. I’m not sure I know who killed whom or when or why they done it.

As I say, this confusion, this great cloud of doubt, became the thing that I wanted to explore. A detective, at least in a detective novel, is supposed to perform the magic trick of pulling the rabbit of truth from the hat of mystery, right? Bad simile and I apologize, but once I had “magic trick” I felt the urge to go for the clichĂ©. Where? A fictional detective is supposed to cut through the knot of clues and red herrings and say without doubt at the end, “He done it, and here's how; arrest him, gentlemen.” Exit the perp, in irons. I discovered that this sort of third act held absolutely no appeal for me as a writer. On the other hand, learning how much I could reasonably muddy the waters of Wilburton, Kansas was a fascinating experiment. I have no idea if this has made for good fiction. Once again I’ve produced something that is not a detective novel, but is instead a novel with a detective in it. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the fate of these books will be. The first one, The Last Guest, is I think a good book. This new one might be, too. I’ll have to read it first to find that out.

Anyway, spoilers, as the kids say. And I seem to have begun a new novel already, something called Melville Price’s Atlas Of. That novel will contain an extended discussion of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.”


  1. I like the way you say this isn't a detective novel, but a novel with a detective in it.

    I just had the discussion that the book I'm working on right now, is turning more into a swashbuckling tale rather than a romance. And I kind of like it that way.

  2. We can't be led around by genre conventions. We have to write the book that interests us at the time of the writing, whatever it is. I say this as a writer with a miniscule yet dwindling readership, so you can be certain that I am right.

  3. Anyway, this deliberate exploration of the provisional nature of truth in re policework is of course the influence of Leonardo Sciascia; I read two of his excellent books this year.

  4. I, for one, am excited to read this non-detective-novel-with-a-detective in it. I love that you don't follow a mold, mainly because I've never been a big crime fiction reader to begin with. I think if you do put your stuff out there, you'll find an audience that loves your writing because it's unexpected. There are readers who want that, and I'm one of them. Not sure if there's a whole lot of us, but eh.

  5. Michelle, you will certainly see the novel when I've typed it all up and run through at least one revision. I have begun to think about Lightning Source. I don't know. We'll see.