The Problem With Series Mysteries: Who Changes?

woodeneye

 

Writing is all about the protagonist, right? And that protagonist goes through some turmoil–yes, simplifying here–and then, abracadabra, she goes through some fundamental change by the end. Succeed or fail, she changes in some deep way. Got that? Never varies? Rules of the game and all.

Except. Except. Really? What about Sherlock Holmes? Wow, he really grows and matures, huh. Joe Friday (if you’re old enough to remember Dragnet)? Yeah, goes home from the precinct a changed man at the end of each episode, hoo boy.

Uh. No. Holmes is pretty much always Holmes. Lights a pipe, grabs his violin and waits for the next client. Friday has to be one of the most colorless, blank slates of all the slates out there. Throws the crook in jail, gavel bangs to show justice will be done. Onward.

So when writing a series mystery, as opposed to a stand-alone, if it’s not your detective who changes, who does? In modern mysteries, of course, we’ve seen more changing. The sleuth–whether amateur or pro–becomes harder drinking as life’s harsh realities set in, leaves the spouse (or the spouse is killed: cautionary note to those thinking of marrying a detective), retires vowing to never touch another case, develops PTSD or OCD or another DSM classification. As I think about it, the changes never seem to be all that positive: “Hey, honey, I feel like the world has become so much cleaner and brighter since that blackmailer fell off the bridge, let’s get a puppy!”

An argument could be made that in a classic mystery series, the “protagonist,” the one who changes, is the “antagonist,” the evildoer who has been brought to justice in some way. But unless the killer goes through a substantial psychological change or breakthrough, isn’t the change really external: he goes to jail, gets sent to the gallows, falls off the bridge? (I’m never walking across a bridge if I forget to pay the gas bill on time, by the way.)

What then creates the epiphany or recognition that “story” supposedly demands? Traditionally, a mystery–whether puzzle or police procedural–brings about not change but a return to stability. Yes, even in the traditional hero story arc, there should be the return of the hero, bringing back the grail or ring or sorcerer’s stone, to the land where she began and that’s stability. But she’s supposed to have changed in some way. She recognizes her own strengths when she thought she had none. She appreciates Kansas. She’ll never go hungry again, damn it.

Can the change occur in those characters surrounding the mystery? In Nicholas Blake’s The Widow’s Cruise, the character who seems to have the most change is a young man who starts as a stuck up little prig, all ego and cockiness, who falls for an older woman only to have her end up dead and himself suspected for a time. Blake describes him at the end as having matured. But do we feel this changes the outcome of the mystery that much? Could he have stayed cocky and the mystery still pleasingly resolved? Absolutely.

Now, I’m supposed to give you the answer. Well, I can’t because I’m struggling to figure it out. Maybe in a series, change isn’t really the answer–although that means I’m going to have to ditch a passel  of books on how to write that I own. Or the change may come to the community as a whole (although in the previously mentioned Blake book, they just continue to cruise the Aegean). Or the “protagonist,” the object of change is just that–an object. The blue carbuncle? The apportioned will? The body in the library?

In my own work, I suspect the neighborhood of The Blue Moon might be the “character” most “upended,” as Lisa Cron phrases it in Story Genius. Yes, my protagonist will change a bit more than Holmes or Miss Marple. But not so much she can’t go on to sleuth out another day or mix another cocktail. (Trigger warning: if this series ever flies, it’s not a cozy. Swearing will ensue.) Cheers. And if you do have the answer, I’m all ears (not really, I have fingers, toes and other body parts, too).

 

Villanelle For “The Black Dog” (version 2)

weepingbuddha

 

You’ll go through each motion, one by one,

As dark night gives way to blacker day.

You begin with “I’ll live,” as you’ve always done.

 

Pull the cord, raise the blinds, turn away from the sun.

Step into the shower.  Coat the  pain in wet spray.

You must go through each motion, one by one.

 

Clothing. Face. Don’t cry or mascara will run.

Room’s a damn mess. Make the bed anyway.

Mutter “I’ll live. I’ve always done.”

 

Don’t break the routine or the black dog might run

Up your back, clamp his teeth, rip the mask clean away.

So just go through each motion, one by one.

 

It’s not like you’re out buying pills or a gun.

Safety comes from not wanting to cause a display.

Keep on with “I’ll live.” As you’ve always done.

 

 You’ve been here before, seen how the thing’s done,

Studied the lines, know the acts of the play:

You’ll go through each motion, one by one

And repeat, “I’ll live.” As you’ve always done.

Not All Days Are Today

Each goes to our own corners,

This welcome May-warm April Sunday.

My husband claims the bed,

Supine, hands crossed over belly,

Feet crossed at ankles,

A double helix at rest.

The old, skinny cat

A circle in his heated bed.

No day too warm for his frail bones,

Head resting on a catnip mouse almost

As old and skinny as himself.

I take to the couch,

Stretched into a stick

Under the window beneath the sumac,

Listening to a house sparrow whistle

Without lips.

The day shapes itself into and around us,

Resting with us into the afternoon.

Snippet 2 of Taoist Mystery: Being With Nothingness

Obviously, the only reason I’m putting a few of these very first draft, rather random sections of my work ‘in progress,’ I’ll call it loosely, is to find out whether any readers out there would be the slightest bit interested in continuing if they stumbled across this: would you want to know any who, what, why, when, where? Please remember, compassion is a very mindful trait.

Snippet Two:

And now I was staring at a ditch that didn’t exist yesterday at the edge of a woods that was mostly brush and scrub pine with a roommate who I didn’t even really know at a retreat lead by a mad monk. “Everything changes.” “Accept the Now.” I was trying very, very hard to do just that but  was also thinking about why the ditch had appeared, who had put it there and where did it begin? Or end? Somewhere up in the pines above the dunes. Without saying more, I began to climb the hill. Sam followed, his rolling lumber heavier than mine as was his breathing. As the hill went up, the path turned from slushy grass to rocks and then to no path at all. But the ditch was still there beside us providing a trail when the trail had given up.
Finally, we stopped. The ditch stopped. The trees stopped.. We were in a clearing, a hole in the woods, nothing but dirt and a few wisps of bad grass with a few stumps dotting it. And at the very edge of the ditch, face down, head on one side, torso the other, lay a person. Or “once was a” person because she looked very, very dead. I knew I was letting my expecting mind get in the way. There really wasn’t any certainty that the body was a she. There was very long white-blond hair but it wasn’t like I had never run into a metal band before; and the figure was slight and didn’t look very tall but one of my favorite friends was a 5’ 3” drag queen so that meant nothing. And really, even the “dead” part, was I so sure about that? Who knows how comfortable lying face down across a ditch to sleep off a drunk might be, after all?

A few years before, I had taken a CPR class and I remembered at least the first part—the whacking and shouting part. To be absolutely correct I should first shout “Call 911” to Sam but there were no cell phones allowed at the retreat so that seemed a bit needlessly dramatic. I skipped straight to step two: I walked over yelling “Are you ok? Are you ok?” and started hitting the—person—on the back with the palm of my hand. Hard. There was a girl in the CPR class who had just said in a quiet voice “are you ok?” and she got reamed out by the instructor. I wasn’t making that mistake. “Are you ok?” I screamed as loud as I could and thwacked the—person—again.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sam snarled. “You can tell she’s dead.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘she’? Aren’t you bringing your expectations to this? Shouldn’t you approach it with ‘beginner’s mind’?”
“Well, she or he or it is still dead.”
I paused my back slapping, looked at the unmoving—body—the new position I had just promoted the person to.
“Yeah. What do we do? We can’t call the police; there’s no phone anywhere around. And in all the good detective shows, you learn not to touch the body, so we shouldn’t, but…”
“But you’re really jonesing to find out whether it’s a he or she, aren’t you?” Sam said, tilting back his neckless chin to peer down his nose at me. “Well, do it. Don’t keep me waiting,” he went on, smiling like the good little enabler he was.
I thought about at least waiting until we told Leon, the director of the retreat, the “monk” who ran the place like Mussolini on meth but I wasn’t sure the “mad monk” would be the best person to do the turning over. I already had him pegged as a main suspect. So my slapping hand now became my turning hand and I rolled the—woman–because she had now had a second promotion—over.

The Parable Series: My Kingdom for…

Wang_Zhaojun

My student recently reminded me of one of my favorite of the Tao parables:

An old man had built up a very wealthy life, owning many fine horses, and one very fine son. One day the latch on the horse corral was left open–quite possibly by the very fine son, but we’ll let that go–and the horses all ran away. The townspeople were all so sad for the man and cried “on, how awful for you.” The old man simply said “maybe.”

A few days later, the horses suddenly reappeared and not only did they return, they brought a bunch of wild horse friends with them (you know how horses party). This meant that the man now had even more wealth because more horses, more wealth, right, not accounting for oats, etc. Now the townspeople were so happy for him: “Look how lucky you are! Not only did your horses return, you have so many more. You are such a lucky man.” And the old man simply said “maybe.”

Wild horses need to be tamed so the very fine son took on the job of teaching the wild horses to play nice. As he was trying to ride one of them, the horse reared up, throwing the very fine son off and to the ground, breaking the son’s leg in several places–a very bad break in seemingly so many ways. Once again, the townspeople cried out “oh, we are so sorry for you, old man. What terrible luck this is to have your son so injured. How terribly bad and unlucky.” And once again the old man (I wonder whether he was getting tired of the nosy townspeople by now) simply replied “maybe.”

The very next day, while the son lay incapacitated in his bed, the soldiers of the king strode into town: “The king has decided he isn’t all that pleased with the country next door and is declaring war. All able bodied young men, especially very fine ones, must report immediately for duty.”

Except for the old man’s son who was, although still very fine, not at all able bodied and was not taken off to die in the not very fine war.

My Ukrainian Jewish grandmother when asked about her health or her children or her very fine husband who was a diamond auctioneer (which meant she had a couple very fine trinkets) always just responded “eh. So-so.” Because one shouldn’t ever brag about one’s luck. What might seem a piece of good fortune one day might be a piece of dreck the next. Just ask a Mega Lottery winner. Maybe.

Snippet from early stages of my Taoist mystery

The ditch didn’t exist yesterday. Then again, I didn’t exist yesterday, at least not the “I” that was standing at the edge of a ragged ditch stretching from three feet to my left up the dunes into the trees. Right. Everything Changes. I knew that part. But a ditch doesn’t just become a ditch overnight.

Sam came up behind me.

“That ditch wasn’t there yesterday.”

He bent over the edge, looking into it as if the answer to its birth would be gazing up at him from its bottom.

“Nope.”

“Well, how did it get there? Who dug it?”

“Everything Changes,” I said, knowing that I might as well just have said “Your mama’s so fat….”

“Don’t give me that crap. A ditch doesn’t just become a ditch overnight.”

Excellent. Something we could agree on out here in the middle of nothing at the end of nowhere.  Sam and I had come out here so he could ‘find’ himself. And the first thing we found was a ditch.

‘Bash It Out Now; Tart It Up Later’

Whether or not that’s really what Nick Lowe used to tell the bands he was producing, it’s an excellent method of doing…well, just about anything. So here goes, bashing:

I want to write. I want to write daily. I want to write as “the thing I do.”

I don’t want to do this because I’m a good writer. Once I might have been an ‘ok’ writer but that was in graduate school so maybe I’m just remembering the hubris of every grad student in literature. Mercifully, I didn’t save any of my writing from 40 years ago so I’ll never be able to dismay, despair or disabuse myself of this idea. No, I’m a pretty bad writer.

I don’t want to write because I get pleasure out of it. Writing sucks. Writing is hard. Writing is both torturous and tortuous because it twists my brain into the kind of little bundles socks and underwear come out of the dryer in. I hate sitting in front of a keyboard or picking up a pen whether I’m writing a blog piece, an email or a birthday card. I used to tell my students that was what made me a good writing teacher: I knew just how much they hated it and wanted it all to just go away. No, I don’t get pleasure out of writing.

I want to write because writing is there. Inside my head, thoughts are thoughts and they can grow and play and saunter around all night but they are never ‘there.’ Never within a moment; never here. Only by writing them down do they become the plum, become the juice of the time that I have right now as I dangle on the vine between the tiger above and the tiger below. I want to write because writing is being.