Ah, Lord Peter, I Hardly Knew Ye
You can’t sell Lord Peter Wimsey to a classroom full of millennials. I’m sorry. You. Just. Cannot. Even A.C. Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” with which I begin my survey course on mystery fiction, is met with cries of “What’s in it for me?” and “It’s just not relatable” (the latter a neologism I cordially despise). Or as Edmund Wilson would have it, “Who Cares who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
Teaching the Golden Age mystery – on which I cut my escapist teeth – is hard, for, as W.H. Auden demonstrated in “The Guilty Vicarage,” it is a socially, morally, and epistemologically normative genre policed by a detective who is an intellectual and social snob. (And Auden was a fan.) And when you think of it in those terms, why should students care? By the time I finally gave up and cut poor Dorothy Sayers from the syllabus, I found myself asking myself why I loved Gaudy Night so much after all.
So is the detective story nothing but a hopelessly nostalgic fantasy of a time and place of an epistemological and social certainty that never was? Well, yes. They wouldn’t call it a Golden Age if it were real, now would they? The entire point of an idyl, whether it sings of Theocritus’ nymphs and satyrs or Tennyson’s King Arthur, is to celebrate a lost state of perfection that never really existed. (Okay, I had to sneak that it. It's the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to introduce one of my abstruse orals topics into polite conversation.) Still, it is no coincidence the Golden Age mystery flourished between the two World Wars – a time of considerable, social, moral, and epistemological upheaval. For the idyl is a profoundly conservative form, which offers the fantasy of a return to a vanished Eden from which we have fallen.
And yes, in the wrong hands, this quest to recover a lost state of grace rapidly turns into a quest to scapegoat the Other. Doyle's assumptions about class and race pop out like a missing stud on a starched shirt front; The Sign of Four is one of the very few texts I consider too racist to teach. However, the very fact that the Golden Age never existed in reality paradoxically opens up tremendous post-modernist literary possibilities for those who write from outside the closed society whose values the Golden Age detective story reinforces.
“Silver Blaze” met with grudging acceptance at best. But Sherlock’s “Empty Hearse” met with no such objections. Many would say (myself included) that Sherlock wound up hoist on the petard of its own cleverness. But “The Empty Hearse” is an elegant homage to fans and fan fiction. (For more on that see Emily Nussbaum’s article in The New Yorker.) The episode is also a slick post-modernist take on Lacan’s and Derrida’s seminal readings of “The Purloined Letter,” in which they demonstrate the inherent instability of the mystery’s central promise epistemological certainty – for (apologies for the ugly flashback to Lit Crit 101), any truth is inherently conditioned by the symbolic order of the subject that construes that meaning. (Okay, that was pretty painless, wasn’t it?)
Thus, according to Derrida (and Quentin Tarantino after him), the purpose of any search for the solution to a puzzle can only be to spin further narratives. Dare I introduce the term “absent referent” here? Or, as Hitchcock put it much more simply and elegantly, the MacGuffin. Manuel Ramos’ “The Skull of Pancho Villa” begins with a wonderful counter-narrative to the tale of how the titular MacGuffin was stolen by a mercenary in 1926 and wound up in the possession of Prescott Bush, “grandfather of you-know-who,” and now rests in Skull and Bones at Yale. Instead, Gus Corral, the narrator claims his Grandpa Alberto, the Chicano flunky who actually dug up the grave, kept it, and it remains in the possession of the Corral family, “stored in various containers like hat boxes, cardboard chests, and even a see-through case designed for a basketball.” The conflicting narratives are in themselves a wonderful commentary on the United States’ relationship with its Latin American neighbors, but the true joy of the story is that those narratives are as much of a MacGuffin as the skull, which has little role in the mystery itself beyond making a memorable return with a “lime-green sombrero with red dingle balls balanced on his slick, shiny head.”
Desideria Belen Ayute, the narrator of Carlos Hernandez’ “Los Simpaticos,” solves a classic Golden Age locked room puzzle halfway through the story, whereupon she breaks the fourth wall to deliver a lecture on why Latinos prefer judgement to puzzles – and why this makes the telenovela their art form of choice. She then goes on to deliver the criminal into the hands of the U.S. courts, not out of any abstract belief in justice, but rather because it makes a simpler and tidier instrument of revenge than picking up a weapon herself.
Then there’s Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I wrote in a previous post about how difficult I found it to write in the first person from any point of view other than my own. Haddon uses the equivalence of the reader and the detective, first pointed out by Tsvetan Todorov, to manage this feat. Christopher’s mindset may be very different from his reader’s, but they are connected by being in the same position as they both struggle to “read” the text of the central mystery. Even more importantly, the very nature of autism means that Christopher’s quest is a fictional demonstration of Lacan’s claims, for Christopher’s cognitive difficulties all stem from the fact that he has no symbolic order to condition his ordering of facts into a narrative that can create meaning.
Perhaps most fascinating of all of these counter-narratives is Randolph Fisher’s extraordinary The Conjure-Man Dies, written during Harlem’s own Golden Age, decades before post-modernism was a gleam in Derrida’s eye. But more on that next time.
Lessons Learned from an Ill-Timed Writing Workshop
Earlier this month I took part in a "first pages" workshop on Inked Voices, a website that facilitates virtual writing groups. This workshop offered feedback from a literary agent for the bargain price of $75.
Unable to pass up such a deal, and desperate to make progress on a novel that has languished for two-plus years, I signed up.
In full disclosure, I was completely unprepared. The workshop evaluated those carefully crafted opening scenes that will either draw in a reader or consign your literary brainchild to the slush pile. My first pages consisted of a brain dump spewed out to test the direction of my latest outline, the fourth or fifth for this project. Submitting that garbage would have wasted everyone's time and my money, so I spent five days (when I should have been reading and critiquing) rewriting my crappy draft. This process left me with just over one week to read and review the work of my fellow participants.
At the end of the two weeks, I had spent twenty hours or so rewriting my pages and critiquing peer submissions. My takeaways from the experience include the following:
Deadlines are my friends. Having a specific submission date kept me moving forward. Even though I posted my pages late, I still made more progress than I would have on my own.
Studying craft is mandatory. Because I've struggled with this draft, I've read several books on structure in recent weeks. Doing so helped me to identify the flaws in my draft during the rewrite, and it allowed me to pinpoint what didn't work in peer submissions.
Apply what you learn. Learning the craft in theory only goes so far. We still have to figure out how to implement these techniques in our own writing. Going in, I had an excellent idea of which aspects of my submission worked and which ones were likely to belly-flop.
Critiquing work builds editorial muscles. We often struggle to recognize the flaws in our own work, but those same errors leap from the page when we didn't commit them. Practicing this type of objective review helps us apply the same critical eye to our own stories.
Different readers offer different value. Even though no one else read my genre (urban fantasy), their feedback as readers provided great insight into which sections needed more explanation. Part of the writing process involves learning how to determine which feedback enhances your vision of the story and which does not.
In the end, the exercise confirmed that I'm not only learning craft, but also discovering how to apply it to my writing and to my reading. Such tangible takeaways can be invaluable when undertaking a project that literally spans years, where the ultimate payoff may go no further than a self-awarded foil star for participation.
A member of the MWA-NY board, Mistina Bates made her short fiction debut in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010) and is currently working on an urban fantasy/paranormal suspense novel. She slings words for a living as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey.
Do You Really Need to go to Another Writers’ Conference?
"But you've written and published five books," my husband said. "Do you really need to go to another writers' conference?" It was a fair question. I've been writing for years. I have a shelf full of how-to books covering every possible subject from poisons to punctuation. There are endless online sources and courses. Did I really need to hear "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know" for the bazillionth time? And on top of that, did I need to fly to Los Angeles to hear it?
Um — yes. Not to compare myself to the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), Roger Federer, but even he needs a little coaching every once in a while. A different voice. Maybe even saying the same thing but in a slightly different way. Or maybe reaching ears that weren't ready to hear it before the bazillionth time.
Last fall, I attended my first writers conference — as a listener, not a speaker — in years. And it was a revelation. The best conference I'd ever attended. I came away energized and with a whole new way of looking at my work-in-progress, which, truth be told, had not been progressing.
Were the speakers especially brilliant? Did they give attendees the secret handshake? The key to James Patterson-level bestsellerdom? In fairness, many of them were brilliant — James Scott Bell, David Corbett, Paula Munier. But, I already owned some of their books. The message wasn't new, but the delivery was. And maybe I was. And that's the difference between simply reading about what you should do and hearing it from the pros. Being able to ask questions. Get personal feedback.
On Saturday, June 3, our chapter is sponsoring a one-day Fiction Writers' Conference at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn. Connecticut may seem like Canada to some of our members — but hey, aren't people going to Canada for Bouchercon this year? As a Nutmegger, I can tell you it's way closer. A short train ride from Grand Central. And way less expensive. Thanks to our president, Laura Curtis, and the rest of the MWANY board, this all-day event which features 10 sessions with publishers and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Black Orchid winners and nominees like Reed Farrel Coleman, Jane Cleland, Charles Salzberg, Lyndsay Faye, Chris Knopf, Dru Ann Love, Tim O'Mara, Jill Fletcher, James Benn, Linda Landrigan, Steve Liskow, Laura K. Curtis, Jason Pinter, and Maggie Topkis is being made available to MWA members for only $65. And that includes a continental breakfast, boxed lunch and wine bar wrap-up. Try getting that in the city 😉
I'll be there, notepad in hand. Listening and not speaking. Except to ask questions and learn from some of the best in the biz.
Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWANY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.
Death and Taxes
Even now, with four books published and a fifth, hopefully, on the way, I worry that the IRS will look at my earnings and will decide that writing is really just a hobby. At which point, I will show them my publishing contracts, and after we’ve all had a really good laugh, I’ll explain that just because writing is a business doesn’t mean it’s a good business and then we’ll look at my royalty statements and we’ll all laugh just a little bit more.
It’s all good clean fun until someone finds the dead IRS agent (fictionally dead, my attorney advises me to tell you. Only and always, fictionally dead).
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that it’s tax season. But if you’ve been waiting for the last minute to file, hoping to find those misplaced receipts documenting your legitimate business expenses, you are officially out of time.
When my first book was released, I realized I should have an author website. It wasn’t fancy (it still isn’t) but it gave readers a place to find me on the internet. It didn’t cost a lot of money and it was a legitimate business expense. At the time, my name was owned by a tax attorney, so I settled for jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. At some point, the other Jeff Markowitz failed to renew his domain name. I swooped in and bought the domain (jeffmarkowitz.com). I kept jeffmarkowitzmysteries as well. After a couple of years, I decided to let go of the earlier domain name. Experts tell us to purchase all the variations on our name, but I knew I wasn’t famous enough for that to apply to me. I assumed that jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com would disappear into the ether.
But I was wrong. I learned recently that someone else now owns jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. I’m pretty sure it’s a Japanese private eye. I’m relying on google translate here, but this is what I found on the home page, under the heading, Points when asking detectives to investigate cheating -
What is needed for cheating survey is "evidence of cheating" where you can apply anywhere you go. Although circumstantial evidence that can be gathered around us is also effective, evidence of flirty taking images of cheating sites themselves in images or images does not allow their opponents to escape. Also, by acquiring clear evidence of cheating, it will make it easier for you to claim consolation fees for partner as well as partner.
Obtain clear evidence that both partners and cheating partners can firmly identify. This is the result of a cheating survey asked for detectives.
That seems clear enough to me. But in an age of frivolous lawsuits, every business needs a disclaimer.
Please be aware that "If you are a detective, you are dealing with a cat naked baby survey."
(You’re probably wondering what you’ll find if you google “cat naked baby survey.” Before you try, let me remind you that your search history may soon be up for sale. This is just the sort of Google search that might haunt you later.)
Considering the role that money plays in crime, you might think there would be a plethora of great accountancy mysteries. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting combination than the deadly mixture of sex, drugs, and tax codes. If you’re looking for a good tax accountant murder mystery, let me refer you to the 1941 hardboiled classic: Death and Taxes by David Dodge.
We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. Dodge knew taxes. In Death and Taxes, James “Whit” Whitney is a CPA whose partner, George MacLeod has been murdered. Whitney realizes he has a responsibility to his dead partner. (In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade famously says, “When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.”)
Dodge wrote four mysteries featuring “tax man turned detective” James “Whit” Whitney. (He also wrote To Catch a Thief, but that’s another subject, for another day).
But there are surprisingly few mysteries which take advantage of the inherent sexiness of accountancy. So I’ve been thinking about writing one. In Death and White Diamonds, I introduced a forensic accountant who plays a small role in the story. I think she could carry her own series.
Miss Khan set up shop down the hall and began the tedious process of sorting through the financial records retrieved from Global Co. It had been her experience that police could be careless when they were logging in financial evidence. After all, most cops couldn’t tell the difference between a revenue statement and a trial balance. Before she began a forensic analysis, she made it a rule to go back through every piece of evidence, to make sure that everything is accounted for properly. She would never again allow a simple police error to embarrass her later at trial. And she would never again complicate that error by sleeping with the officer during the course of the investigation. She had been asked that question once, during cross-examination, and she would never put herself in that position again.
Detectives Johnson and McGowan seemed to Miss Khan to be capable of simple police error. Her face suddenly red hot, Miss Khan realized that she was capable of falling into bed with Detective McGowan.
Perhaps, Miss Khan told herself, the case will be settled out of court.
Jeff Markowitz is a member of the MWA-NY board. You can usually find him at his computer at 5:30 in the morning, plotting someone's murder.