Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thoughts on the Premise of a Mystery Series

The title of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man does not refer to its hero Nick Charles. It refers to the object of the investigation. However, this is ambiguous, partly because Hammett doesn't necessarily want you to zero in on one suspect. So Hollywood chose to assume it referred to Nick, and named all subsequent stories variations on "Thin Man."

The title of my current work-in-progress, The Man Who Did Too Much, is not ambiguous that way. It refers to one of the central characters. Since it's a story with multiple points of view, however, it could refer to him as a main character, or it could refer to him as a subject of mystery and revelation.

And I'll be honest with you, until recently, I wasn't sure which of those it was myself. As I write, I am constantly making choices about point of view and revelations, and of course red herrings too. All these choices go back to the basic question of who and what the story is about... and about the premise of the series as well.

The premise of a series is like The Dude's rug, it ties the whole thing together. It's what we attatch to, and think of when we think of a whole series.

With the modern cozy mystery, the premise is generally defined by a "hook." It's a very practical an descriptive thing: a millionaire cartographer detective, or a scrap-booking detective or a cat groomer detective. (A whole series about cat vacuuming? That's almost scary.) You don't know from the hook what the detective is like, but the reader is attracted first by the subject, and then gets to know the characters.

In the old days, it was very different. Since it was normal for a publisher to allow the audience to discover the series over many books, many of the great series didn't have any hook at all. If you were to describe them in the sort of practical terms I used above, they would sound really boring: Miss Marple was a small town spinster. Hercule Poirot was a retired Belgian detective. Ellery Queen and Lord Peter Whimsey were young men who dabbled in criminology. Columbo was a LAPD detective.

In stories like that, the hook is in the flavor and the character traits -- nothing that can go into a logline or blurb properly. But once people experienced it, they were hooked. Then all you had to say was "A new Miss Marple" or "a new episode of Columbo" and that was it.

Those stories have a premise which goes beyond a hook. (Series with hooks can also have deeper premise -- and those that last generally do.) For instance, with Columbo, the premise of the series is about arrogance behind murder, and how that very arrogance will fold under the superior pressure of humble persistence. The Miss Marple series is about Nemesis; the fuzzy pink shawl is a disguise. Since the authorities tend to fall down on the job, she is the disguised goddess of divine retribution. She notices all and she does not flinch. The Nero Wolfe series, on the other hand, isn't about justice at all - not as a series (some individual books are). The Wolfe series is about Archie's herculean task of wrangling Wolfe into doing his job so they can pay the bills.

Each individual novel will have its own premise, and the series may have additional common threads, but the flavor of the overall series will be something that can drive the series from story to story.

And that's the kind of series I want to write. So....

(NOTE: I am mulling about the deeper nature of the series for my current book. I do not give any plot spoilers in this post, however some readers like to discover the nature of a series for themselves, and those readers may want to skip the rest of this.)

This brings me back to the title of this book. The Man Who Did Too Much. Is that the subject or the object of the story?

From the start, I've thought of the answer as "both." It's a dual protagonist story, and so it works both ways. However, the question has persisted for me when I think about the series. When ever I come up with a new title, it falls into "The Man Who..." pattern. Is that right for the series? It seems wrong, considering who the protagonist is, but no other titles appeal to me.

After all, it's clear that Karla is the actual detective. She fits into a long tradition: the apparently dizzy but really very bright observer. Pamela North, Miss Marple. But since I like cozy adventure, another tradition also seems to fit her: the slightly dizzy dame who gets herself into fixes and calls on her mysterious secret agent friend to help.  It's the lighter side of suspense -- where the story is driven by the character's tendency to get into trouble.

And I hope it's not a spoiler to tell you that that is not the right pattern for Karla.

Oh, sure, she will get herself into sticky situations, but only after it becomes necessary, later in the story. But as an inciting incident? Has Miss Marple ever started a story by getting herself in a fix? While Pam North was once or twice menaced by a bad guy, she did not create those situations. Her natural habitat was her own living room at martini time. And though Karla has guts, she is practically agoraphobic. She's like... Nero Wolfe.

And what is Nero Wolfe (and Miss Marple and Mrs. North) but an Armchair Detective. And what do armchair detectives have? Someone else to do the work -- to bring the mystery to them.

I finally figured out that if this story has a classic meddling amateur sleuth model, then the person who gets himself into trouble is George. His whole life is one mass of trouble. He can't help but inject himself into the lives of others. Furthermore, while he has brains and knows how to use them, he prefers not to. He leads with his heart every time.

So I have finally accepted the idea that this series is about George -- not just the first book, but the whole series. It may be in Karla's pov a lot, and she may be the detective. But George is the seeker. George is the catalyst.

So in the end, even though there are plenty of books with similar titles, I think I will have to stick with THE MAN WHO DID SOMETHING OR OTHER as the title pattern. And the series will likely be called "Starling and Marquette."

The underlying premise of a series is also important because it provides conflict to the series. If it's rich enough, it will hold up through a long series.

For instance, the immediate problem of the beginning of this story is that he and his not-quite-a-girlfriend need to face their feelings for each other. If that's all there is to it, the story is over as soon as they either say "I love you" or break up.

But when the dynamic of the story is based on the fact that George, who seems so controlled and polished on the outside, has a heart which is an utterly out-of-control mess; that's an eternal struggle. It doesn't matter if he makes the right choice, he will always be struggling. And for Karla her scattered hermit tendencies are in conflict with her keen observations and honest compassion (not to mention her need to make a living). These are the kinds of conflicts which drive new action.

And knowing this ties the whole series together.

See you in the funny papers.


R. Doug Wicker said...

Camille—I wish you the best of luck establishing a "brand" for your new detective series. May this series be long, fun, entertaining, and very, very profitable for many years to come.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, I hope this does well too. I think it's the most commercial thing I write. It is slow going, though, because there are a lot of layers, and also it's the kind of book which depends a lot on timing.

And with my mystery short collection made free by Amazon today, I can hope for a little more visibility in the genre.