Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Here's a reply to T Campbell's excellent essay on mystery comics.

OK, I think I know why this jumped out at me: "It's interesting that you wrote mostly about cozies and not other kinds of mysteries"

I understand why you turned quickly to television - your premise regarding challenging legions of fans who are able to communicate and compare notes is stronger if you consider it in terms of a TV show such as "Lost."

Personally, I don't buy into the notion of equating a webcartoon reading experience with that of a TV show. For one, the TV show is actively promoting the interactivity of the internet as part of the entire experience. Witness the impending release of a book that's actually a fictional work of fiction.

Then, there's the nature of that particular TV show: Its purpose is not to bring you to a definite ending, it's to have an ongoing series of red herrings and twist and turns. All that contributes to the overall interactivity of the thing. And if interactivity is your goal, then the challenge isn't to create a great mystery story to challenge those legions, it's to come up with a continual series of plot points designed to induce conversation.

And to do that then the larger the cast, the better. Within each person's story you can hide clues and weave false trails. You can build the conspiracy. You can generate more heat, and therefore more interest, more conversation.

I think that's different from mysteries. And generally, I don't think TV is a good example of mystery writing.


As you point out, it's easy for an ongoing series to become formulaic. Lately, I've been watching "Numb3rs" on CBS. I love the premise: an amateur detective with a special skill (in this case math) who is able to plug into a police procedural (in this case through his FBI brother).

Again, good premise but they're having a problem pulling it off. There's not enough time in a single episode to give due to both the cozy elements of the amateur detective and the hardboiled elements of the police procedural. There's no one point of view. Sometimes you're following one brother, sometimes the other. Like "Lost," they're relying on a number of characters to give them material to fill up the series.

In the end, each gets short shrift. Nuances of relationships are developed with all the subtlety of a jack-booted thug.

And character is where television mysteries struggle the most. You mention a few successes: Colombo, Murder She Wrote's Fletcher, CSI's Grissom - another to add would be Monk. Those characters are actually actors who've brought a unique voice to the person they're playing.

In an ensemble cast like Lost or Numb3rs, it's hard for individual voices to adequately develop. It seems to me, it's more like throwing spaghetti on the wall: Get a large, diverse number of voices on the screen so you don't have to worry so much about one character connecting with a large number of people - you have a number of characters so you give viewers a choice of who they'll identify with.

And that's fine, but what's lost is the challenge of creating a memorable character, someone like a Poirot or Marple to bring clarity to a confusing web of lies and false trails. Someone you look forward to listening to, a character you desire to follow - maybe even imagine to be Watson to the Holmes.

Certainly the detective is the advocate of reason, but it's the strength of the character who makes you want to stick around to the end.


And that leads me to where I disagree with one more thing: The notion that "The true hero of a detective story is not the detective, but detection itself. For all the quirks of a Holmes or a Grissom, ultimately he is just a means to an end."

I've argued elsewhere that to write a good mystery you need a solid premise, a plausible "vehicle" for your character to become involved in mysteries. The most obvious and easiest vehicle is for your character to be a policeman. For amateur detectives, that vehicle is far more difficult to construct - but it can be constructed.

However, you could have the best vehicle in the world but if your character is boring and predictable, then there's no reason to take that vehicle for a ride.

Holmes and Grissom are not interchangeable but they are both essential to drawing in the reader. Holmes is passionate: he thrills in the hunt and is driven to despair and depression - sometimes relieved by drugs - when he has no quarry to chase. Holmes would delight in the crime labs of CSI, but eventually he'd be driven from the lab into the streets.

Grissom is the cool voice of reason, an attractive scientist who seeks to confirm theories with facts. He follows a trail whereas Holmes seeks to match wits. Both characters have appeal, but in different ways.

The vehicle for the character helps define that character - but in the end is not necessarily the defining element of that character (Look at Tony Hillerman's books starring the Navajo detectives Leaphorn and Chee). Sometimes it's the other way around - the character PROVIDES the vehicle (witness the antiques rogue Lovejoy).

What's special about Grissom is how the actor has defined and differentiated the character from those around him. He shines in an otherwise homologous cast. Some of that has to be due to the writing: listen to all the characters' voices, their delivery - it has to be very challenging to come up with distinct characters who have so many demands placed upon them (they need to explain forensics procedures, move the plot along, and each of them has to be capable of delivering a "zinger" statement to make you want to come back after the commercial break).

The only other character to truly stand out is the young lab assistant who is being groomed as a field agent. Why? Because the writers found another vehicle, another voice in his character - that of the absolute beginner. It's a great foil to Grissom's voice of experience.

And homologous is how I'd describe most of the characters on TV. To a certain extent, that's a problem of the performance medium. You need to have characters acceptable and understandable to a wide variety of viewers.

But to do that, you lose the opportunity of have an Aurelio Zen, a Travis McGee or Peter Diamond, Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin. There has never been an actor large enough (in life or girth) to adequately portray Wolf. And Goodwin was modeled after Humphrey Bogart - that's not a wish to be fulfilled anytime soon.

You find these characters in books, in great writing. Certainly TV, film and plays can give you tips and ideas for presenting the story. But it all starts with the writing.

Finally, regarding the forum user who gives away a clue - that's a spoiler! Some like that kind of thing - others do not. That's why it's also very popular to give a spoiler alert.

The beauty of the internet is you can choose your own experience. Obsessively nitpicking over the details is only one variation.

they need to explain forensics procedures, move the plot along, and each of them has to be capable of delivering a "zinger" statement to make you want to come back after the commercial break

In my opinion, it isn't needed. In fact, it was a big turn off for me from CSI.

And it would be interesting to create a mystery that left people who obsessed over the details in the lurch as to what would happen.
It is intresting you mention the dynamic of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. While there was an older series before 1980 or so (before my time), more recently there is an A&E make of a few Nero Wolfe novels. Reruns are currently airing on The Biography Channel and there's a few seasons on DVD. Would Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Goodwin surfice? Seeing the two would be a better match.
I saw bits of the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe series. I liked his father as Ellery Queen, but I just couldn't buy into him as Archie.
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