Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade
By JOHN DeMERS
The genre that I choose to work in – traditionally called the “mystery novel” but more and more called “crime fiction – has transformed itself over the past 50 years, from pulp claptrap written quickly for money into, many would argue, the closest thing we have to what once was mainstream fiction. Though considered “literary” in their day (oh, these categories!), such novels of the early and mid 20th century were primarily driven by plot and character. The author’s “style” was a function of how he or she treated plot and character, how he or she chose to make those two things operate on the printed page.
Today’s crime fiction – or suspense novel, or thriller, or whatever – is driven by plot and character. And if that seems a given, a yawner, then it’s worth remembering that today’s literary fiction quite often is not. Experiments with form, with language, with narrative structure have moved to the forefront, thus (almost by definition) making the unseen author the actual protagonist. It is the adventure of a writer doing writing – which, based on my 35 years of experience, ain’t really much of an adventure. We writers make our heroes cops, private eyes, soldiers, spies and assassins for a reason. By every normal measuring stick, that’s where the action is, not at our desks.
Following this logic, the suspense in any suspenseful situation comes primarily from plot – from something that happens, not from how much heavy breathing we pour into describing it. I find that I do a lot of heavy breathing in the first draft – word, words and more words – and then I cut most of them out. Some editors and readers might prefer I didn’t, but I do and I will. Something about the simple march of terrifying events strikes me as more dramatic than all kinds of silly “feelings.” In other words, I get tense best when I read something like: It was pitch-dark in the room. The curtain moved. A man stepped out, holding a gun. Sorry, that’s what scares me. Not the picture of some writer saying: Here look at me, I’m writing!
There are two main dramatic components in modern crime fiction, at least as I see it and definitely with names I’ve personally given to them. Kids, don’t name these things at home. These are the components that all modern masters – you know, the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva – have a flair for giving us, almost always in the methodical, workaday language I’m talking about. Be on the lookout for these components. They’re absolutely WHY we keep turning the pages.
Peter Ustinov as Dame Agatha’s Hercule Poirot
THE TIGHTENING NOOSE: No, every book isn’t about a hanging. But whereas the old-fashioned Agatha-Christie-style British mystery was about following clues, sidestepping “red herrings” and peeling the onion till you reach the truth, the modern American version is about continuously raising the octane. There is danger at the start, sure, a suggestion of menace, most often directed at someone other than the protagonist. But that danger, that evil, gets closer and worse with every page, constantly more personal, till only one person is in the sights. Yep, it’s the protagonist, the person we identify most deeply with. The whole universe is aligned to kill or maim him, hopefully for some reason we can understand and believe in. The mantra of every great read today might be: This time it’s personal.
THE DANGEROUS SECRET: The question, no matter how much we hear the word still used, isn’t usually “whodunit” anymore. The thought of having a completed crime and a novel that’s primarily an exercise in identifying the criminal strikes me as archaic – and yes, lacking in American octane. Rather than a completed crime, the best books have what I call a “dangerous secret,” something dark and unknown that’s out there, waiting to be discovered but also committed to destroying anyone who tries.
Of course, Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code did this better than anyone, though any “Pendergast” novel by the duo known as Preston-Child (the series began years ago with Relic, which may have cost me more sleep than any other book) will be a textbook lesson as well. Steve Berry is a great example of using little-known bits of real history, the same thing James Rollins does with little-known bits of real science – thus picking up the mantle of the late-great Michael Crichton. To this day I don’t know what was true and what was made up in thrillers like Jurassic Park, because Crichton made me buy it all.
I have a few final thoughts about this protagonist – yes, in several senses, the hero – of modern American crime fiction. Yes, he usually is still a he, though Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta can balance that budget almost on her own. And yes, he usually still is a cop or private eye or some other “occupation” that puts him regularly in harm’s way. But two strange and wonderful things have happened.
One is the “amateur sleuth,” a dumb-sounding antiquated phrase to describe people in other, non-violent walks of life who are “drawn” or “dragged” (favorite words) into narratives filled with personal risk. Technically, Chef Brett Baldwin in my Marfa Shadows and the novels that follow is an “amateur sleuth.” If anything, I sometimes think he needs to be more of a professional chef, since he and his sidekick Jud Garcia are always being drawn or dragged away from Brett’s restaurant Mesquite into something ending in bigtime bloodshed. But real chefs are actually like real writers, no matter what line reality TV keeps trying to feed us. They are serious, day-to-day, consistent workers. They are, by crime fiction standards, boring. Brett, I suppose, will always be MIA from his restaurant.
And second, these men and women we follow have gotten extremely complicated of late – and I mean in a good-verging-on-great way. Think of the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe-Mike Hammer model: almost always single men, with no ongoing relationships (women loved quickly becoming women killed quickly, an act of dazzling narrative convenience), with no children, living in a rented room with a small rented office, owning only a car and a handgun. Sheesh, too simple! Today’s sleuths and amateur sleuths not only often have spouses but ex-spouses, not only in-laws but ex-in-laws, plus children who look at them and make them feel bad more days than not, unrealized dreams, broken pasts, night sweats and histories of substance abuse, mortal combat or, best of all, both.
Every day in every novel, they face these personal demons and, if only for the moment needed to do what needs to be done, stare them down. By becoming less generic “heroes,” these men and women have, in the truest sense, become heroic.