If I could be anything, if I could have any occupation in the entire world, I’d be a mystery writer.
As a reader, I’ve been devouring detective fiction for over four decades. I started, as so many readers do, with Nancy Drew (her shift dresses! Her convertible!), and then quickly switched allegiances to the more effervescent and adorably human Trixie Belden (her brothers! Her curls!). In high school, it was Agatha Christie. In college and grad school, Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Discovering Dorothy Sayers was like money falling from the sky (Gaudy Night is still a near-annual read), and now, in my fifties, I am in love with Tana French’s Dublin murder squad, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody books, and Louise Penny’s Gamache series. Do I get excited about other genres of fiction? Of course. But this summer, during my head-first plunges into the new Jackson Brody and then the new Gamache, I forgot to eat, which in my world is just this side of a miracle.
And then there is my utter devotion to Law and Order in all its incarnations and to Foyle’s War (when I imagine God, he looks exactly like Foyle), and my much mocked but unshakeable infatuation with Murder, She Wrote.
But I am ninety percent sure that I will never write a mystery, let alone a mystery series, and that little, leftover ten percent is almost certainly composed entirely of wishfulness.
It’s a shame, too, because there are aspects of writing detective fiction that I think I’d be good at. Building suspense, for instance. I could do that, creating sentences like live wires running through fog, sentences full of tension and sibilants and ominous hush. And bringing a detective to full-blown, complex life, with her obsessive nature and her dark past? I could do that, too, although given my sensibilities and track record, she’d more likely be fresh-faced and optimistic with a quick wit, a faith in fundamental human decency, and a happy childhood. Still, that could be interesting, right? A detective like that?
There is a large part of me that believes I was born to write those sentences, to create that detective. Detective fiction is my calling. The problem, of course, is plot.
Once, starry-eyed, I asked the author of an ingenious and intricate historical mystery series how she writes her books, and she said, “I start with the body, a dead body that was murdered in a cool way turning up in an interesting place, and then I work backward to figure out all the twists and turns and chess moves of how it got there.” I could tell by her voice, by the way her eyes gleamed, that she found this piecing together of plot not only fascinating but also fun. To me, however, it sounded not only impossible but also—boring. [Read more…]