Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing Together

by Eric

It's been a while since Murder in Megara came out so Mary and I have started plotting the next of our John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries. Well, actually we've been plotting to write another book for months but we only now are trying to come up with a plot. Daydreaming about novels is so much easier than getting down to work.

People often ask how two writers can work together on the same project? The first step, as Mary likes to say, is to lock up all the kitchen knives.

Next we settle on a basic idea. In the case of Murder in Megara the idea was to force John to solve a mystery without recourse to his powers as a high official and in a place less familiar than Constantinople. This flowed naturally from the previous Ten For Dying in which he had been sent into exile at an estate near his boyhood home in Greece. In the past we've been inspired by history. Let's do a book taking place during the Justinianic Plague or the Nika Riots! We wrote a book to send John to Egypt and another to tell how he rose from being a slave to advising the emperor. Ideas for interesting mystery puzzles might also form the germ of a book. You'd need to ask Mary how these occur to her. She sees potential murder mysteries in everything. I'll be lying in bed, eyes closed, about to sleep and from the darkness a voice will suddenly say -- "Paperclips dipped in curare!"

I don't think you can chase ideas and catch one. They're like cats. They come to you if and when they want to. One often cited source that's useless to us is the newspaper. Our plots are never torn from the screaming headlines. (Or is that torn screaming from the headlines? ) When did you last see a headline: "Red and Green Factions Riot Outside Hippodrome"?

Which of us usually comes up with the intitial idea? I have no idea! But once it's there, purring and rubbing against our legs, we extrapolate. (My feline analogy will end here because if you try to extrapolate a cat you'd better have a first aid kit handy.)

It goes without saying (and isn't it strange how things that go without saying usually do not go unsaid?) that we sometimes ask ourselves what happens first and if that happens then what? But we also come up with things we would like to see happen during the book, places that would make good backdrops for scenes, characters to bring the book to life. For Murder in Megara we came up with a City Defender who serves Megara as both law enforcer and judge, a corrupt estate overseer, a shady pig farmer, a servant’s unwelcome suitor, a wealthy merchant who spends part of his time as a cave-dwelling hermit, and the criminals and cutthroats populating such a seedy port as Megara. Not to mention two childhood friends whose lives have taken very different paths, and the stepfather John hated.

Okay, I just quoted the publisher's description of the book. But the reason for all those people in the description is that characters are the most important part of most novels. And each character comes with his or her own possibilities, motivations and inclinations, which help form the plot. A story is in lage part the collisions and entanglements of the characters' desires.

Mary and I tend to take notes on our thoughts and trade them back and forth via email. I wonder how long of a detour those emails take to traverse the two feet between our desks? After a time we amalgamate the notes and start talking. We manage to construct a rough plot outline before entering into hand to hand combat (remember the knives are safely locked away.) This outline is divided into scenes -- no details to speak of, mainly just who does what and when and where. Enough to get started, but not so much as to take the fun out of "discovering" the story as we subsequently write it. We might know that John is going to visit a wealthy merchant in town and discover an important clue, but we don't necessarily know exactly what turns their conversation will take. That's the fun of the writing.

So far as individual methods go, Mary thinks and thinks and then whips through a scene before going back to rewrite. I tend to scribble notes and do my rewriting slowly as I go along a method made possible by word processors. When I typed I spent most of my time half covered in Wite-Out. Once we finish the scenes we've chosen to work on we turn them over to our co-writer for "editing" which can be light or heavy. We trade edited versions back and forth until we both like them.

The further we progress in the outline the more the projected story tends to change. We add, and subtract, scenes and characters, and we might even find out we've initially tabbed the wrong person for the murder! Yes, it has happened and no, I'm not going to reveal who did or didn't do it!

Our discussions are almost always about ideas, settings, characters, plot twists, clues. Those are what most readers, including myself, read for, not for individual words or niceties of grammar. I don't much care if a writer hangs an occasional participle so long as I give a hang about the characters. Which is not to say we don't pay any attention to using good grammar and effective words, but that is just the polish. Flaubert was perfectly entitled to his eternal quest for "le mot juste" but if you ask me he's caused aspiring writers a lot of grief! Luckily Mary and I both agree on not being carried carried away with style or we'd never get anything done.

Having said all that I'm not sure I've said much, or that there is much useful to be said about writing methods. Another thing Mary and I agree on is that writing can't be taught. Neither of us has ever taken a writing class or attended a workshop. (I admit to reading two books about writing in my life: Writing Pulp Fiction by Dean R. Koontz and Stephen King's On Writing.) The creative process is a mystery. Everyone will have a unique way of writing, developed only by writing, rather than thinking about it.

Now I will check my email to see if Mary has sent me any thoughts about the notes I just sent her on the new book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review: The Kidnap Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

Not to put too fine a point on it, Kaspar Kenting is a rotter. There are hints he has affairs, it is well known he gambles too much, and furthermore he is not very nice to his wife Madelaine. So it is not surprising that when he is kidnapped from his bedroom more than one member of the extended household mutters good riddance.

One of them is Madelaine's neurotic brother Fraim Falloway, who lives upstairs in the Kenting house with their mother, herself quite unwell. Kaspar's broker brother Kenton has charge of the Kenting finances and administers them jointly with Eldridge Fleel, lawyer and family friend. The pair recently refused Kaspar's demand for an outrageous amount of money and this, coupled with certain evidence on the scene, leads to an initial conclusion the kidnapping is bogus and Kaspar is using it as a way to get $50,000 to pay off his debts. However, after a quick stagger about the household Philo Vance begs to differ and as usual he is right. It is not a simple kidnapping case at all.

My verdict: Without, I hope, giving too much away the reader should remember there is no honour among criminals and this novel amply demonstrates it. As usual Van Dine offers a fair bit of misdirection (although one incident is virtually pointed out to be such via Vance's observations on it, a misstep on Van Dine's part IMHO) and DA Markham displays his usual impatient patience with Vance's refusal to even hint at his theories on whodunnit and why. To my surprise there is gun play, demonstrating Vance is not just an airy utterer of arcane knowledge and thus displaying a hitherto overlooked aspect of his character.

ebook The Kidnap Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Tales of Terror and Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle

by Mary

Some time ago I noticed Conan Doyle published more than one collection of short stories involving protagonists other than his most famous creations. I am reading them as I find them and now here are a few comments about the mystery section of his anthology Tales of Terror and Mystery.

Monsieur Louis Caratal and his companion, newly arrived in Liverpool from central America, must get to Paris without delay. Thus Caratal charters a special train to London at a cost of some fifty pounds, a significant sum pointing to the urgency of their journey. However, the train becomes The Lost Special somewhere between St Helens and Manchester, the only trace of its passage being the body of its driver at the bottom of an embankment. It is not until some time later that the truth comes out and even then it's as the result of a confession rather than the investigation.

Narrator Doctor Hamilton recalls when, newly qualified, he was reluctant to go into medical practice (a strange confession after all those years of training!) and thus is attracted by an advertisement seeking the services of a strong and resolute medical man who must also be an entomologist, preferably a coleopterist. As it happens, beetles are a particular interest of his and he successfully applies for the post. The advertisement was posted by a titled family and its object is to avoid a family scandal involving the poster's brother-in-law, he who is The Beetle-Hunter.

In The Man With The Watches the titular corpse is found shot to death an hour into the London- Manchester rail journey. A couple who entered the compartment in which the body is found have disappeared and so has a man from the next compartment, yet no passengers were seen to leave or join the train at the one stop made before the grisly discovery. Where are the missing trio of travellers and why is the dead man in possession of no less than six gold timepieces?

Narrator Mr Colmore arrives at Thorpe Place, near Evesham, to take up the post of tutor to Sir John Bollamore's two sons, aged eight and ten. Sir John is a solitary, withdrawn widower and the household leads a quiet life. One day the younger boy, Master Percy, falls into the mill-race but is rescued by Colmore, who is then summoned to Sir John's study to describe the incident. He therefore enters a room in which nobody other than his employer and an aged servant who cleans it have set foot in three years. It is here Colmore sees The Japanned Box, which Sir John keeps by him at all times. Then one evening he hears a woman talking in the study. Who is she?

The village of Bishop's Crossing is home to much-loved Doctor Aloysius Lana, whose olive skin led to his nickname of The Black Doctor. Dr Lana receives a letter from Argentina and breaks off his engagement to Miss Morton, whose enraged brother Andrew declares the doctor deserves a good thrashing. One night Dr Lana's housekeeper meets Andrew -- who is carrying a hunting crop -- at the gate of the doctor's garden. Dr Lana is discovered dead next morning and the evidence points to Andrew being the guilty party. But was he?

Archeologist Ward Mortimer is appointed curator of the Belmore Street Museum following the unexpected resignation of Professor Andreas. The greatest treasure in the museum is The Jew's Breastplate, a gold artefact decorated with a number of valuable gems. Soon there are two burglaries, both of which focus on the breastplate. How is the miscreant getting into the well secured and guarded museum? And why doesn't the culprit just pinch the breastplate and be done with it?

My verdict: An uneven collection, but I spent an interesting hour or two reading it. Most readers will guess the solutions but one or two twists along the way may be more difficult to rumble and I found it a refreshing change from Holmes and company.

Etext: Tales of Terror and Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

After less than a week Nurse Bosworth, employed to care for the two young sons of Mr and Mrs Francis M. Reed, becomes so nervous she leaves their employ. She believes a crime has been committed in the Reed's house in Beauregard Square. It's certainly an odd household -- she and the children are locked in at night, all the servants have been dismissed, the phone wires are cut, and the boys' parents are extremely jumpy and look positively ghastly.

Enter Nurse Hilda Adams, who occasionally assists the police with information discovered via her professional role. Sent by Detective Patton to replace her colleague, she finds the house to be just as described and so starts her investigation on what is going on. This comes to cover such conundrums as the "basement ghost" seen in houses in the square, where and why the boys' dog disappeared, and explanations for various strange events at night.

Eventually she solves these and associated matters such as the reason the boys' mother sleeps in a cot at the head of the stairs, why all the carpets and most of the furniture has been removed, and what forces the Reeds to keep their lights blazing all night.

My verdict: The clever unexpected solution to this multitude of mysteries explains all the strange events, yet it would likely not occur to most readers. There is a sort-of clue early on that might put them on the track to guessing what is taking place in the house, but I should have liked one or two more obvious pointers. The closing revelations certainly surprised me! More I shall not say about this tightly written and genuinely suspenseful novella for fear of revealing too much.

Etext: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

by Mary

Narrator John Farringdale kicks off his account by explaining he has been persuaded by old friend Frederick Ellingham to relate the details of a tragedy that occurred at Scarweather, a tragedy in which both men were heavily involved.

Farringdale then introduces his two great friends at university: his cousin Eric Tallard Foster and reader in chemistry Ellingham, an older Rennaissance man with a wide and astonishing variety of acquaintances. Foster, although studying medicine, is also keen on archaeology, and it is this interest that leads him to make the acquaintance of Professor Tolgen Reisby via their memberships in the London Archaeological Union. In due course Foster is invited to visit Scarweather, Reisby's home near the northern England fishing hamlet of Aberleven, and a friendship develops, as a result of which Farringdale and Ellingham also meet the Reisby family.

The first hint of unusual undercurrents swirl by when Ellingham reveals to Farringdale he had seen the professor in a sailors' eating house in Poplar. Ellingham takes Farringdale there to lunch, despite the place not being as he puts it "a proper scene for a young gentleman". By chance they observe the professor playing chess there and given Poplar is not the most salubrious area of London, it seems Reisby is one of those eccentric academics so often found in mystery fiction and doubtless also in real life. In any event, the friendship between the three young men and the professor and his wife flourishes and the trio soon become visitors to Scarweather. Before long the aforementioned tragedy occurs. World War I intervenes and so it is only years later that the characters return to Scarweather and unravel the nature of the tragedy.

My verdict: Once past the first couple of chapters the pace, while still unspooling slowly, picks up and the reader is treated to one or two nicely done pen portraits of characters as well as interesting details on how an archeological dig is conducted. At one point Farringdale asks the rhetorical question "who could have suspected...the gathering elements of a dark and appalling tragedy?" Astute readers will be already be suspecting ahead of him, but part of the twisty ending may well catch them by surprise despite pointers earlier towards at least part of the revelations. A matter that intrigued me, and one no doubt rooted in the social conventions of the time, is that nothing is done when the solution to the tragedy is uncovered, the reason for lack of action being concern about ramifications for relatives. While this gives readers an ethical point to ponder, it will also disappoint some. Thus I reluctantly award this novel a B, with the hope of better liking the next I read by this author.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: The Winter Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

A house party is under way at Rexton Manor in the Berkshires to celebrate the return of Carrington Rexon's son and heir Richard from his studies in Europe. However, Rexon Senior is nervous about his fabled emerald collection, given the mixed bag of café society guests. Philo Vance will easily blend in and so agrees to keep an eye on the situation.

The story gets off to a mysterious start, for the first person Vance and his personal advisor and friend Van Dine see on arrival at the extensive Rexon estate is Ella Gunthar, companion to Richard's invalid sister Joan. Ella is figure-skating alone on a pond in the woods to the music of a portable gramaphone. The large house is full of Bright Young Things, including singer Sally Alexander, treasure hunter Stanley Sydes, and gentleman jockey Chuck Throme. In addition, the Rexon family physician Dr Loomis Quayne pops in regularly to visit Joan.

It is not long before dark events take place. The guard of the wing in which Carrington Rexon's gem collection is kept is found dead at the foot of a cliff in suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of suspects, not just the guests but also Eric Gunthar, Ella's father and overseer of the estate workers, and Old Jed, a hermit who lives in the woods. Then Carrington Rexon is knocked out, the key to the gem room stolen, and his collection rifled of its choicest items. Much more will happen before Vance is able to aid the local constabulary in unmasking the murderer and thief.

My verdict: This is a particularly interesting novel in that while it has plenty of dialogue its style is telegraphic, and there are no footnotes or learned ramblings by Vance. The introduction explains when Van Dine died suddenly the work had reached his usual second stage of writing, meaning it lacked "the final elaboration of character, dialogue, and atmosphere". Van Dine fans therefore have the extra treat of in effect looking over his shoulder as he works.

Shorn of its usual elegant encrustations, then, the plot of The Winter Murder Case is revealed naked to its bare bones but it is still intricate enough to give the reader a chance to deduce the solution before it is revealed. A vital clue in plain sight and misdirection aplenty makes this Philo Vance adventure a valiant last hurrah.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams

by Mary

Since it was published in the 1950s, Death of a Viewer hangs its toes over the precipice marking the end of the Golden Age of mysteries, but what the hay says I, let's agree this entry is grandfathered into that general area of interest.

Captain Oswald Henshaw tells his lovely young wife Sandra their financial resources are gone but suggests if he sees her in compromising circumstances with Ewen Jones, Member of Parliament for an East London constituency, there could well be financial benefits. Ewen's father is Lord Bethesda and his stepmother is worth half a million, so naturally they'd want to keep scandal -- such as Hensaw bringing an action for alienation of affection against Ewen -- from breathing nastily on the family name, not to mention the effect of such a proceeding on Ewen's political career.

Amateur sleuth Major Roger Bennion becomes involved in the case because Ewen lives in one of a number of houses built by Bennion Senior. Located near the London docks, these homes with their little gardens are let to the aged and infirm at the affordable rent of six shillings a week, repairs and rates being paid for by their landlord. Bennion occasionally inspects the houses to see all is well but on this occasion he arrives to visit Ewen, who as an MP is much better off than the other tenants, in order to ask him to move out of the house he is occupying so Lord Bethesda's elderly gardener Daniel Floss could retire and he and his wife live there.

Having obtained his tenancy in a sly and roundabout way, Ewen refuses to leave but suggests Bennion visit Welton Priory, the family home, to discuss the matter with his father and (a nice touch, I thought) the gardener. It seems several Labour MPs are shortly to meet at the priory to secretly discuss plans to ginger up the party. Bennion's presence will suggest the gathering is the usual type of house party — and while he's there perhaps he'll be able to persuade Ewen's father to buy him, Ewen, a house or give him a generous allowance! The Henshaws will also be attending, and thus the wheels of the plot begin to turn.

The viewer's death occurs in a room full of people watching TV and with very little to initially go on except a scrap of paper and a house full of suspects. Other deaths follow and Bennion and Scotland Yard's Superintendent Yeo and Inspector Allenby cooperate to solve the crime.

My verdict: This novel will remind readers of the unrest in the air in the 1950s as Lord Bethesda's guests discuss the abolition of hereditary titles and the monarchy, financial reforms to reduce or even pay off the National Debt, and changes in trade unions connected to their right to strike, while also expressing disgust at looming possibilities for easier divorces and the legalisation of what is quaintly described as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of these matters might well make the legendary retired Cheltenham colonels who so often write to the editor of The Times weep with joy, but alas they tend to swamp parts of the earlier part of the novel and do not add very much to the plot.

However, once we get to the actual detecting the story runs along nicely. More than one guest has what they might see as good reason to act against the deceased, so most of them are suspected at one time or another and the solution roars up after an unexpected twist that caught me by surprise. I regret to say however that on the whole this novel is not one of the best I have read.

Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams