Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

The Perversity of Culprits

Posted by midiguru on November 17, 2014

I read a lot of mystery novels. Some are crime stories (Donald Westlake’s very funny Dortmunder books, for instance), but most are whodunits. In a whodunit, the author has to keep you guessing about who committed the murder, and possibly how and why, until the very end.

In real life, most murders are sordid affairs. In a bar fight or a marriage gone bad, there’s seldom any doubt about who did the killing. The authors of whodunits, on the other hand, have to go to great lengths to devise crimes that are mystifying.

As a result, the reader is quite often asked to swallow some strange ideas about human behavior.

John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, was the master of the locked-room mystery. A corpse is found in a room that is locked on the inside, and the reader is assured that there are no false panels or secret passages. How could such a thing possibly happen? The truth, when revealed, is both astonishing and logical — but with one proviso. You’re asked to accept that the murderer would really have done all that tap-dancing and tightrope-walking in order to rid the world of the victim.

In The Judas Window, a man is found, in a locked room, with an arrow driven through his chest. He’s not, in this particular book, alone, and his companion (who has been drugged and is unconscious while the crime is being committed) is soon arrested and tried for murder, because nobody else could possibly have done it.

If you want to read The Judas Window, you should stop here. Spoilers follow.

The solution to the puzzle, when Sir Henry Merrivale (in one of his less slapstick appearances) eventually reveals it, relies on the construction of 19th century home fittings, as the book was written in the 1930s. The murderer has prepared for her crime by unscrewing the outer doorknob in the door (hours or days earlier) and  tying a long piece of string to the inner doorknob. After the victim has locked the door, the murderer removes the outer doorknob and lowers the inner one down on the string. The victim, seeing the doorknob mysteriously dangling, naturally comes over to the door to investigate and leans forward to look through the hole in the latch mechanism.

At this point the murderer fires the arrow through the hole using a crossbow, driving the arrow into the victim’s chest. She then hauls the inner doorknob back up on its string, removes the string, reattaches the outer doorknob, hides the crossbow — and presto, a locked room mystery.

As we savor the faultless logic of the solution, however, we’re asked to ignore the killer’s blind trust in her own luck. First, the intended victim might not even notice the doorknob dangling from the string. That would leave her in a quandary. Second, the hole left when the doorknob shaft is removed is not more than a centimeter across. It’s bound to be very difficult to aim the crossbow through the hole while also looking through the hole — so how is she to judge when the moment has arrived to fire? Third and most egregious, what if she misses? What if she only manages to shoot her intended victim in the arm, or in a grazing wound across his rib cage? If that happens, her guilt will be obvious to everyone.

No, if this woman were really intent on murder, she would choose a more reliable method. The plot of the mystery hangs dangling like a detached doorknob on the thread of her perversity.


Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

Gatekeepers and Glut

Posted by midiguru on October 19, 2014

This fall I dusted off an unfinished project, the first book in a fantasy epic trilogy, and spent a few weeks finishing and polishing it. It’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market, which is booming. Trying to write honestly and accurately from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl is perhaps a bit tough if you’re a guy and over 60, but I think I did okay. (Naturally, I’m not in a position to be objective.)

So now I have a complete novel sitting on my hard drive, and a detailed outline of the trilogy. The next step is to try to find an agent. And that’s where the plot thickens. Because the market is healthy, agents are inundated with manuscripts from aspiring writers. A conservative estimate, based on no data whatever, would be that as many as 1,000 times more YA manuscripts are hitting agent in-boxes as are ever published.

Think about that. You’re a literary agent. In the email every morning you receive maybe 20 query letters from aspiring writers. The next morning, 20 more. This year you have the bandwidth to take on maybe four or five new clients, total. Granted, 80% of those queries will be garbage. You can drag them to the trash without a qualm. But that still leaves 20 queries every week, among which a hidden gem may be lurking.

To make matters worse, your salary is 100% on commission. If you pick what you hope is a winner and put hours and days of work into pitching it to publishers, but it doesn’t find a home, you’ve been working for $0 per hour. The result is predictable: The agent is only going to take on a book by a new, untested author if the book dovetails in a precise way with what publishers are buying this season. If the publishers think paranormal romance (basically, girl-meets-vampire) is a glut on the market, it doesn’t matter how fresh or wonderful the writer’s paranormal romance manuscript is. Sorry, Mr. or Ms. Author — you’re not going to be able to find an agent.

You can self-publish, of course, and do your own book promotion. In the Internet age, the tools for self-publishing are very good. You may sell a few copies, or even a few hundred copies. But you’re never going to see your book on the shelves in Barnes & Noble. That door is shut, barred, and bolted.

Anyway, I’m not into self-promotion. I’ve always felt, rightly or wrongly, that promotion and marketing should be left to those who have a talent for it. I’d rather spend my limited time on this planet actually creating stuff. My goal is to find someone else who will market my stuff.

In a perverse way, though, I’m starting to get interested in taking on a creative project for which there is no market whatsoever. Not just because it’s one less thing to worry about while writing, but because I’ll have no competition. Whatever I do will be, as the Romans used to say, sui generis — of its own kind.

But in the meantime, I have a list of seven literary agents to query.


Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Lowered Expectations

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

Doing a little research into the YA fantasy novel market. (Don’t ask why. Way too soon to talk about it.) Had to share this delightful bit from an Amazon reader review of Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas. Calaena is the girl-assassin heroine of the series, but possibly not a character whose appeal will be universal:

“Celaena’s backstory is gruesome. Her parents were murdered when she was very little, and she was tossed out into the streets. Then an assassin adopted her, trained her up, and sent her out to kill people. She killed and killed and killed…until she was captured and sent to a labor camp at the age of seventeen. That’s a series of unfortunate events, right? That’s a grim, grim, grim life. And yet Celaena is a chipper, cheery sort of girl. She’s not troubled or wounded or broody or damaged. She thinks about murder in the bubbly, uncomplicated manner of a cheerleader practicing for the big game, and her primary concern after leaving the labor camp is eating enough to be svelte and attractive again.”


Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Needed: Big Blue Box

Posted by midiguru on July 10, 2014

I really ought to go back to writing science fiction. In science fiction you get to make stuff up. The trouble with writing about the real world is, you pretty much have to get it right. Or at least, I feel compelled to do so.

I like reading mystery novels, so it would be natural to think about writing one. (I don’t actually like reading science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy genre, SF annoys the shit out of me.) But modern police work is complex, not least for reasons of advanced technology. If I were to try writing a mystery set today, nailing down the details of law enforcement and digital surveillance would be a lot of work, and not very gratifying work. Besides which, crime itself has sort of fallen victim to technology. How can the murderer concoct an alibi when there are video cameras at every stop light and GPS tracking cell phones?

At first blush, then, writing historical mysteries seems like a terrific idea. No fingerprints to worry about, no DNA, no wiretapping. But while the research is a lot more fun than talking to modern cops would be, the need to get the details right is still driving me crazy.

This story, see — it starts in a town in Wisconsin in 1871. Possibly a town called Two Rivers. The truth is, any town in Wisconsin would do. I picked that one by throwing darts (metaphorical darts) at a map.

The difficulty is, I know zilch about Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The bulk of my story is set in Chicago, and finding good research material on Chicago in the post-Civil War period is not difficult. Research on Two Rivers, though? Good luck with that.

I figured, there had to be lumber mills in that area in those days, so let’s use a lumber mill as a dramatic setting. But tonight, while searching the Web in vain for information on the Wisconsin criminal court system in the 1870s, I learned that the lumber mills in Two Rivers went belly up in 1857, owing principally (according to this particular source) to the fact that the nearby forest had been logged out.

The big industry in Two Rivers in the 1870s was a factory that made chairs. It was apparently one of the biggest chair manufacturers in the world.

Chairs — not a gripping backdrop for the opening of a mystery novel.

History is an endless, echoing cavern. Try as I might, I’ll never know enough. What I need is a big blue box — a police call box, one that’s a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. Short of being there and seeing what there is to see, how can you really think you know anything about history?

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

A Taste of History

Posted by midiguru on July 8, 2014

History is not as far away as we tend to think. Once in a while it rises up and gives you a little extra ripple of pleasure.

Right now I’m doing some research for a possible rewrite of a novel I wrote five years ago. The novel is set in Chicago, in 1885. I enjoy doing research, and I’m also somewhat obsessive about wanting to get the details right. If you want to know about the development of the bicycle or the telephone, let me know. Both were new in 1885. The phonograph existed too, but it wasn’t in common use.

The details of daily life are endless. What kind of paper money did people have and use in 1885? That’s a good question. Since my story involves a robbery, I need to know. I couldn’t find any good answers online, and my local public library was mostly a bust, so I availed myself of the inter-library loan system. This is a great system, as long as you’re careful not to lose books. (The fine is $100.)

Today I got an email notification that the books I requested had arrived, so I drove down to the library and picked up a copy of a book called United States Notes, which was sent down at my request from the University of Nevada. The paper is a bit yellowing, the language somewhat archaic, and as it turns out, there’s nothing in the book that’s very helpful. But here’s the fun part:

Flipping to the front, I found that the book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. This is not a Dover reprint — it’s the original damn book. It has been sitting on a library shelf in Nevada since a year before the events in my story.

My grandfather, Frank Aikin, was 20 years old in 1885. But that’s an abstract fact, and anyway, I never knew him. This book is concrete. It’s sitting right here on my end table. History.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

What’s in a Name?

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2014

Five years ago I wrote a historical mystery novel. My agent didn’t think it was marketable, and in retrospect he was right. There were problems.

Ever since, I’ve been mulling over ways to fix it. Last month I figured out what needs to be done, so now I’m ready to attempt a rewrite.

The difficulty I’m wrestling with today is what name to give my detective. All the good names are taken. I think of one that might work. I google it. There’s already an actor named that, or a historical figure from the same period, or a novelist.

In the original version, his name was John Gordon. I like the dark vowels. What I don’t like is “Gordon.” It’s customary to call an adult male character by his last name — and “Gordon” is ambiguous. It could be a first name. And not a very strong or dignified first name — a bit wimpy, in fact. Gordon this, Gordon that. Not good.

It occurred to me that his ancestors might have come from Wales. Morgan is a good Welsh name, but there’s already a John Morgan. There’s a John Corwin. There’s a John North. There’s a John Moore. There’s a John Flint.


Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Bringing It All Back Home

Posted by midiguru on March 21, 2014

Last week in this space I was musing about how the personal life of the detective has invaded the mystery genre. The genre has hybridized with the soap opera. But it’s not just about milk and cookies (though sometimes it is; that’s even worse). Tragedy strikes those around the detective with numbing regularity. I’m reminded of the cliche observation about the old Star Trek series: If an unknown crew member gets into the transporter with Kirk and Spock to beam down to an unknown planet, you know that crew member is going to die.

I’ve read a few more of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels. In one, Gunther picks up the threads of an old, never-solved case, and his memories of the old case flow side by side with memories of his wife dying of cancer during the same six-month period. Then, in another book, a woman Gunther is living with is killed by an insane sniper in the closing pages. Clearly, Joe Gunther has bad luck with women.

What’s worse, this is gratuitous manipulation of the reader’s feelings. The sniper could have missed the woman … but no. Mayor even indulges in two or three pages of pointless, shallow, manipulative suspense by not telling us quite yet which woman died, the current girlfriend or the former girlfriend.

And now I open a novel called Vengeance, by Stuart Kaminsky, an author I’ve never read before, and on the second page this is what I find: “…my wife Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction | Leave a Comment »

More About Mysteries

Posted by midiguru on March 18, 2014

In my ongoing search for new mystery authors, I picked up The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver. It’s a New York police procedural — a bit more gritty than I prefer, but not too gruesome. The chief sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme, is sort of like Nero Wolfe on steroids, or reverse steroids. He never leaves the house because he’s a quadriplegic. That’s weird, but every modern mystery series needs a gimmick, right? A quadriplegic is far preferable to cats.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I ponder the plot, it occurs to me that the main bad guy is using a convoluted method that only makes sense because he knows he’s a character in a murder mystery. If his goal were to kill the guy he has been hired to kill, he wouldn’t have engaged in all of the convoluted nonsense (several other murders) that preceded the hit. But if he had just gone ahead and done the job he was hired to do, there would have been no novel.

His motivation doesn’t even rise to the level of the killer’s scheme in Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. The murderer in that story intended Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction | Leave a Comment »

…and the Mysterians

Posted by midiguru on March 15, 2014

In search of new mystery authors, I have now read three novels by Laura Lippman. I’m giving up on her. Too slow-paced, and when you scrutinize the plots they tend to have holes. I’ll put up with holes in a mystery plot, up to a point — but only if the writing is taut.

Last night I plowed through Lippman’s To the Power of Three. Spoilers follow.

The story concerns a shooting at a high school, in the girls’ restroom. Two girls end up dead, and a third is shot in the foot. The third girl tells the cops what happened — one of the dead girls burst in, drew the gun, fired, then there was a struggle over the gun, in which the shooter got shot. But the evidence doesn’t quite add up. 400 pages later, the third girl gives it up and tells the cops what really happened.

The obvious problem with that thumbnail sketch is that the police don’t really solve the case. They bumble around, and then the third girl has an attack of conscience and tells the truth. Also, there’s not a thimbleful of suspense.

What’s worse, in the end it turns out there wasn’t a murder at all. The first girl shot the second girl by accident, and then shot herself. The third girl then deliberately shot herself in the foot, so as to confuse the police. Her motives for doing so, however, are murky at best. What it amounts to is, if she had told the truth from the outset, there wouldn’t have been a novel.

In the end, it’s revealed that there was a fourth girl in the restroom, who scampered away before the cops arrived. This girl’s presence was key to the whole encounter — but in order to mystify the reader, Lippman has to hide the identity of the fourth girl until the very end. She’s not among the six or eight viewpoint characters who have whole chapters to themselves. When she shows up in the final flashback (popping out of the restroom stall), we’ve never met her, so she isn’t a real character, just a name. When the whole plot pivots on a character who isn’t there, you have a problem.

Along the way, Lippman spends far too much time dallying Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction | Leave a Comment »

Hunting for a Mystery

Posted by midiguru on March 4, 2014

Yesterday I prowled the Mystery section of the local public library, in search of a new author. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries over the years, both classic pulp paperbacks and fat books by johnny-come-latelies. We all have our tasted in mysteries. I don’t care for heavy suspense or oodles of gore, and I find detectives’ sexual exploits tedious — but I do like a good story.

I picked up four books, choosing authors who had a number on the shelf (if you find a good author, you don’t want to just read one book, although I’ve read a couple of great mysteries by authors who only wrote one or two). When I got home, I started with The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. After 35 pages, there’s not a trace of a hint of a crime, nor even anything odd and inexplicable. The viewpoint character is a woman in Edinburgh, Scotland, who owns a quarterly academic journal on ethics. Her boyfriend is a bassoonist. She has a maid who believes in spirit visitations. Yawn. Next.

Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know was heavily padded with 30-year-old flashbacks, which I skimmed, but there was a genuine mystery. The characterization was good, and the ending was satisfying. In retrospect the mystery angle seems quite forced; it only existed because a key character was stubbornly lying about her identity, and at the end I still didn’t understand why she was lying.

Having enjoyed that one, I tried Lippman’s Another Thing to Fall. Again, the writing is engaging — but for more than a hundred pages (in a 300-page book) there’s no mystery in sight. We catch glimpses of a stalker, or someone who is behaving rather like a stalker, but we don’t know who he is or what he’s up to. (Alfred Hitchcock recommended against this technique, by the way. The suspense, he proposed, is greater when the audience does know what’s going on.) Then, abruptly, there’s a brutal murder. And as in What the Dead Know, the ending is rather unsatisfying if you stop to think about it. Lippman is a good writer, but not a great mystery writer.

The next morning I had a go at The Buzzard Table, by Margaret Maron. After a brief suspenseful opening, which is evidently a teaser, we’re plunged into the world — well, really, into the extended family — of Deborah Knott. Unless I mis-read (and I’m not going to skim back through to check), Knott is a district court judge. Evidently in a rural area. In the course of the first 25 pages we’re inundated with fragments of family back-story. Among the people mentioned, most of them very briefly, are Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 104 other followers