Ross MacDonald was a master of the hard-boiled detective genre. This week I re-read The Chill and The Galton Case, and now I’m reading Find a Victim. There would be no point at this late date in trying to imitate MacDonald’s style (though a lot of amateur writers try to do that, with results that are usually laughably inept). What’s still relevant for writers today is his pacing.
A MacDonald story moves forward inexorably, like a 20-ton semi barreling down the highway with nobody at the wheel. Detective Lew Archer trudges forward from point A to point B to points C, D, E, and beyond. Every person Archer talks to has a history and an attitude, and each conversation gives him information that leads him on to the next one.
This is probably not how real detectives work. Archer never seems to go down any blind alleys, and he never wastes a moment feeling stumped. Somebody gives him a word or two about a woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he hops on a plane. Sure enough, that woman tells him something that sends him across into Canada. And so on. It may not be realistic, but it’s effective. It keeps the reader riveted to the page.
Lately I’ve been working on revisions for a mystery novel I’m writing. I’ve started to feel that the second half is boring. It sags. And if you’re bored as a writer, that’s probably a reliable signal that your readers will be bored too.
My story is designed as a whodunit. There are suspects. So of course my sleuth has to track down and interview the suspects. Since most of them are innocent, all this activity leads to nothing. Once the true murderer is unmasked, it becomes clear that the preceding 80 pages could have been ripped out of the book with no loss. Agatha Christie could get away with this kind of structure, but it won’t work today. And let’s not forget, Christie was a generation before MacDonald. In the 1950s he was reacting against a genteel standard that she had pioneered in the 1930s.
I have on my how-to-write shelf a book called Writing Mystery and Crime Fiction. It’s collection of short essays by mystery writers, including a few who are well known and a bunch I’ve never heard of. A writer named Stanley Ellin has this to say: “A mystery story … is, in some way, concerned with a crime.” That’s the whole definition. It could be a caper, a whodunit, a psychological study, or a police procedural. It could be mostly horror and suspense, or a dry-as-dust locked room puzzle.
This definition is freeing. In particular, it omits the probably antiquated notion that the murderer must be unmasked as near as possible to the very last page. MacDonald did some very effective surprise endings — and he generally stopped the story immediately after the surprise was revealed. There’s no denouement. But contrast that with a more modern mystery writer, such as Carl Hiaasen. In Hiaasen’s books you always know who the bad guys are. There’s no puzzle at all to be solved. There is deep uncertainty, sometimes amounting to dread, about what’s going to happen to the good guys, but Hiaasen doesn’t write whodunits.
I think I’m going to have to pop open the hood of my own mystery, grab the wrench and the screwdriver, and get my hands greasy. How would the story change if the sleuth figures out somewhat earlier who the murderer is? I can cut some of the deadwood, the pages of investigation that lead nowhere. Cutting is easy. The question that remains is this: What’s going to keep the reader riveted to the page? Where is the impetus going to come from? MacDonald’s plotting — A, B, C, D, E — is still a viable model. It has to be.