Friday, February 15, 2013

Cozy Mysteries, Guest Protagonists and The Lockridges

One of my early influences were the books of Frances and Richard Lockridge.  They had a strange combination of styles and elements -- firmly cozy mystery and romantic suspense, and yet with elements of arch literary verbal styles and the dry factuality of early police procedural.

Unfortunately, I think that this very combination, which made the books stand out at the time, now makes the series feel even more dated and more inaccessible to modern audiences.  All the same, I was really delighted to see one of their Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries come back into print. (See my tumblr review of  The Dishonest Murderer here.)

Richard Lockridge was a short story writer.  I don't know a lot about him really, except that he was writing short fiction for the New Yorker, and his style reflects that.  He wrote a short story about Mr. and Mrs. North, a charming New York couple who swilled martinis and had cats. (Actually, I don't know if the cats make an appearance in the short story.)

Frances Lockridge was not a writer, but she was an avid reader of mystery thrillers.  She came up with plots, and he started writing them into mysteries, featuring Mr. and Mrs. North.  The Norths were not detectives. They were socialites who befriend a police lieutenant, Bill Weigand.  Bill is the detective.  The Norths tend to just be involved as witnesses or acquaintances of  people in the case.  Though Pam sometimes stumbles into a dangerous situation, most of the time the detecting is done over cocktails.  Bill, and later in the series his wife Dorian, join the Norths and they chat through the case.

Pam North appears to be a ditz, sort of like Gracie Allen.  Her mind seems to flit at random without connection, but Bill has figured out that she just thinks too fast for most people to keep up.  She is always good for bringing a new perspective to the case.

And I will admit without shame that my character Karla (from The Man Who Did Too Much) is partly influenced by her.  (Miss Marple, the other influence, also has a tendency to make leaps that others don't follow, and say things that sound nonsensical.  I like this trope a lot, though it can be over used.)

I think, though, that the most interesting element of the Lockridge mysteries in general is that the recurring characters tend not to be the protagonists of the story.

Enter the Guest Protagonist

This is one of my favorite tropes, and certainly you see it in a lot more series than just the Lockridges.  The main character of the story is a guest in the series: a client, a person who stumbles into trouble.  Sometimes even a detective... or a killer.  You saw this a lot with Miss Marple, the protagonist would be someone else in trouble or trying to solve the case or someone Miss Marple calls in to do the dirty work.  And Miss Marple kind of lurks, saying mysterious things.  You also see it in TV shows that have been running for a long time, and using a guest protagonist allows the writers to do something new.  You even see it as a series formula, as with Columbo, where the protagonist is the guest murderer of the week.

But the Lockridges made a special use of this trope: They used it to add one more subgenre to the mix they already had with the existing characters:

The Norths provided the cozy mystery puzzle element.  Bill Weigand's part was dry, old-style police procedural, and the guest character was almost always a woman-in-jeopardy (or man-in-jeopardy), which made it classic romantic suspense.  None of these three subplots were ever very deep (though sometimes the story would emphasize one genre or character over the others) but the three working in combo kept the story interesting.

This is especially true of the suspense aspect of the story -- which unfortunately was particularly formulaic at the time.  There was always a stock set of characters and you knew exactly every turn just by who the woman trusted or didn't trust. (If she trusts somebody, they're bad, if she doesn't they're good.)  But with the police and the Norths mixing in, you would end up with more variations. 

Another reason this mixture works is because it allowed thrillers and romantic suspense to have the stability of a series.

Normally thrillers and romance don't support a series.  After all, an innocent person only gets tangled in a life-changing event once or maybe twice.  A detective series has to be stable, especially if you have romantic pairings who are not dysfunctional and are really in love.  And even if they are dysfunctional and always fighting, you have to find a way to maintain that status quo -- or else one of two things will happen.  Either you will anger the audience because you raise anticipation without paying off, OR you do pay off, and they feel the story is over.

I love the stability of a Mr. and Mrs. North, or of Nick and Nora Charles, and other detecting couples. There's teasing and tension, but their relationships are solid. They're trustworthy. They're like a security blanket.  And they are just too darned stable to drive the anticipation of a romance plot.  But when you add a guest protagonist, you have a lot more leeway in the kind of plot you can run.  You can create a plot where things change completely for the main character.

I hope to use guest characters to keep the Starling and Marquette series fresh.  And in some ways I've already used it for the first story.  George is like a guest protagonist, and what is very wrong with his life gets settled.  And he's got a long way to go before he really achieves stability in his life. The series will continue to develop that way, but I think even by the end of the first act, somewhere around Chapter 6, the series finds it's status quo, it's direction.

At some point, though, I think that using guest characters could allow something else for this series: A guest character creates brings fresh eyes to the familiar characters and backstory.

When I think about it, some of the most delightful moments in series fiction can be when we get to see a familiar character through the eyes of someone who doesn't know who they are.  The opening of TV show The Saint always would set up a situation (often someone in trouble) and Roger Moore would make his entrance -- sometimes in a flashy or daring way, or sometimes in a subtle and understated way -- and someone would ask who he is, and someone else would say "Why, that's Simon Templar," and Roger Moore would cast his eyes upward, and a little halo would appear over his head, and the music would star, and the credits would roll.

We would often see Columbo first through the eyes of the killer, or of the someone who didn't realize they had a genius detective on their hands.  He'd bumble his way onto the scene to much sighing and eye-rolling on the part of the person who didn't know better, while we the auidence chuckle.

And my favorite entrance for Miss Marple is in a book in which she barely appears, The Moving Finger.  Halfway through the book, as the puzzling story gets more sinister, the Vicar's wife declares that they need to call in an expert.  "But Scotland Yard already sent an expert," says the protagonist.  "No, no, not that kind of expert.  What we need is an expert in Evil."  The characters didn't know what she meant, but fans of Miss Marple certainly knew.

This trope is also appealing in that the main character can then become a marvelous guardian angel to the protagonist -- a miracle worker.  Furthermore, since the guest protagonist doesn't know this person, it makes perfect sense that she doesn't tell this guardian angel about things she ought to.  She has no reason to trust this person, no reason to think this person can help.  So you can ramp up the tension higher without making your protagonist out to be an idiot.  Or at least not much of one.

I can't really use this for Mick and Casey McKee, because Mick is the narrator of those stories. But George and Karla are really suited for the Fairy God Parents role in a light thriller.  But as with Mr. and Mrs. North (or The Saint) I would not want them to receed too far into the background.  I would never want to do like The Moving Finger and have them only make a cameo in a story in their own series.

Because of that, I think this series should be, as with the Norths, a balance of subgenres, balancing a guest character's story with George's compulsive action heroing and Karla's puzzle solving.

Next week I hope to talk more about an odd element of the writing of Richard Lockridge -- his artsy, almost arch writing style and strange blend of objective, omniscient and tight, emotional third person -- all in the same sentence.

I suspect that some of the worst habits I had as a young writer came from Richard Lockridge.  Now, as a mature writer, I think I begin to see what he was doing.

See you in the funny papers.

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