The Middle 8

In jazz parlance, the middle 8 is the B section in a 32-bar AABA song form. In the middle 8, the chord progression turns a corner and the song moves off into a different space.

I’ve been working on a plot outline for a mystery novel. Like many mystery plots, it has a middle 8.

Or we could look at it as the second act of a three-act play. Crime caper novels and police procedurals sometimes have more complex structures, but a great many mysteries can be analyzed well as having three acts.

In the first act, we meet the main characters, and Something Awful Happens. In the second act, the sleuth Trudges Around, Interviewing Suspects and Following Clues. In the third act, the Truth is Revealed, the Culprit is Unmasked (which often leads to a Thrilling and Suspenseful Chase), and Virtue Triumphs.

Most mystery writers can come up with Something Awful. And Unmasking a Culprit isn’t that difficult either. But watching over the sleuth’s shoulder as he or she trudges around interviewing suspects can be fascinating and fun for the reader, or it can be deadly dull. That distinction is what I’m meditating on this morning.

In the classic Agatha Christie model, there’s not much action in the middle 8, although Christie’s formula relied on a second murder (usually the death of the person you think is the most likely suspect) along in there somewhere. Mostly, Hercule Poirot just asks questions and uses his little gray cells. In Christie’s capable hands, this formula worked well enough, or at least it was viable 75 years ago, when she wrote her best stories.

Another writer of the same period, Erle Stanley Gardner, probably offers a better model for the modern mystery writer. Gardner was, by some criteria, a dreadful writer. His characters were cardboard, his prose bland and pedestrian. But he sold millions of books — by some estimates I’ve seen, more than 100 million. He got his start in the ’30s and ’40s, before television really took off, and he was supplying for readers exactly the same kind of mindless entertainment we all know and love if we watch TV.

In a typical Gardner novel, there is never a dull moment. Perry Mason and his cohorts dash across Los Angeles in pursuit of witnesses or whatever, and at practically every stop there’s a fresh revelation. The story takes a new twist. (Gardner’s twists tended to be ludicrous if analyzed logically, but his readers obviously didn’t care.) If Perry and his secretary, Della Street, take a break to have dinner in a nice restaurant, it’s a given that before the end of the meal, a waiter will come up and say, “Mr. Mason, there’s a phone call for you.” Things are happening offstage. Whenever there’s a momentary lull in the action, if it’s not a phone call, private eye Paul Drake strides in to alert Mason — and the reader — to fresh developments.

Mason’s client is arrested. In spite of Mason’s advice to remain silent, the client decides to tell his pathetic, unbelievable story to the police. And Drake knows the client is talking, because Drake has an informant inside the police station. Unless Gardner decides to keep the reader in the dark, of course. He was a master of knowing how best to keep up the suspense.

Not infrequently, Mason goes out on a limb. He risks his career by doing something shady or outright illegal. Then he has to dodge the police and the district attorney to save his own bacon as well as his client’s. This is an important concept: Give your sleuth a personal stake in the outcome. It isn’t always possible, but it’s effective if you can manage it.

Any of these events — the sleuth taking a risk, the clueless client making matters worse, the second murder — is a Crisis. The more crises you can stuff into the middle 8, the less it will be a trudge for the reader. I’m sure the ladling out of crises can be overdone. But the reader will a lot more readily accept too many crises than too few!

I would never model a plot on a Perry Mason book (though “The Case of the Clueless Client” has a certain ring to it). But Gardner’s instincts were sound, and readers’ needs haven’t changed much in the past 75 years. Crisis, revelation, reversal — these are the changes that will give the familiar song and dance a sparkling and memorable middle 8.

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