Chapter 4 of Martha’s Children, and looking for models in detective fiction

“Of kings and rippers,” chapter four of Martha’s Children, is now available. Think Martha’s the worst thing that could have happened to Ned? Ned thinks so. And then he finds out he’s wrong. If you’re not reading the story, you can start here, and a new chapter goes up every Friday morning.

As I’ve stated earlier, I decided to take some time off writing fiction on this blog in February to consider what sort of fiction works well in serial form on a blog, and what sorts do not. My prime candidate for fiction that does not work well on a blog was detective fiction, particularly of the “whodunit” variety. I figured that the intricacies of plotting, the requirement of inserting genuine clues, and the need to salt the story with red herrings to confuse the reader made this sort of fiction ill-suited for writing on a blog.

But what I “know” and what’s true aren’t always the same thing. So I decided to do some reading in the genre, to better understand its strengths and weaknesses.

At their worst, detective stories are futile exercises in which the reader tries to outguess how an implausible set of clues led to an equally implausible solution to a murder mystery. My recent exposure to this type of detective story was watching the movie version of S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933), starring William Powell as detective Philo Vance, hero of a dozen novels from that era. It’s considered to be one of the great movies of its type. To me, it looks like a period piece, and not a very distinguished one at that. I have to wonder if the critics who liked this movie had read Van Dine’s novels and imported his characterization of Vance into the movie, because Vance in the movie has almost no character. And the murder mystery itself? An implausible juxtaposition of multiple suspects, an improbable coincidence, and an even more outrageously improbable demise.

Myrna Loy's wit in "The Thin Man" is as appealing as her looks

Myrna Loy’s wit in “The Thin Man” is as appealing as her looks (though this shot is not from that movie)

So why was I watching a dog like The Kennel Murder Case? Because six months after he starred in it, William Powell starred as Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934). The trailer for “The Thin Man” shows Powell playing both Vance and Charles. It’s cute. Here’s a link to it. The Thin Man was based fairly closely on a Dashiell Hammett novel, and it is rightly considered a classic. It’s not just the plot, no, clever though it may be. It’s the smart way Powell as Nick plays off Myrna Loy, who portrays his wife Nora as no one’s fool.

It took reading a piece by Hammett’s successor as writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, to explain to me why The Thin Man is a success while The Kennel Murder Case deserves to rot in oblivion. Chandler, who incidentally loathed Philo Vance, wrote, “The technical basis [of a good pulp detective story] was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes.” (From page viii of Trouble is My Business (Vintage, 1992).) Or as I interpret it, the plot’s useful only insofar as it engages the reader’s emotions as well as intellect. I could care less about the people in The Kennel Murder Case, and the most exciting scene is told in a flashback with no dramatic power. Nick and Nora, on the other hand, are a swell couple, and they use their brains and their hearts in dealing with people who have real problems that spill outside of the strict needs of the plot.

It’s nice to know I subconsciously realized this while writing The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge. What’s the plot, after all, but two female magicians going after the magician that’s crossing them both? It’s how Rebecca and Abigail, and their supporting cast, become involved and what they do and why they do it that makes the story. Martha’s Children has an even simpler plot, one I could summarize in one sentence. I won’t, of course, not here, not while I’m still writing and posting the story. Because it’s not just the plot I hope you’re reading for. It’s Ned and Martha and the characters yet to be introduced, and the constellation of connections I will develop among them (to refer to a previous post on writing).

This is why the talk about there being really only four or five plots in fiction is a lot of nonsense. No one writes just for plot, and no one reads just for plot. Writing an intricate detective story may require more plotting, and therefore be more difficult in serial form. (Though the difficulty of managing a different reality for a science fiction or fantasy story is just as challenging.) It will require the writer to be more plodder than panzer. But in the end, it’s only one part of writing a good story.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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4 Responses to Chapter 4 of Martha’s Children, and looking for models in detective fiction

  1. Michael Gutierrez says:

    Dude, you make some good points about why Philo Vance can’t hold a candle to Nick and Nora. I have a couple of things to point out. One of the reasons why Chandler is much, much better than Hammett is because Chandler has absolute control over simile and metaphor. Look at the first page of the Big Sleep: the way Chandler describes the mansion tells you everything you need to know about the story (he’s going to have to rescue the girls because the knight isn’t doing his job). Chandler moves beyond genre fiction and into literature because of metaphor and because of the depth of characterization. I don’t know if you’ve read a lot of modern re-interpretations of the detective novel, but you should check out the following:
    Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (he also wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel)
    Denis Johnson, Nobody Move
    Paul Auster, City of Glass
    David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (one section is a pulp, detective novel)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I have not read much detective fiction at all, Mike, having developed an allergy due to overexposure to Agatha Christie while I was growing up. (Reading James Thurber’s “The MacBeth Murder Mystery” didn’t help.) So your advice on the subject is most welcome.

      I have indeed noted Chandler’s more sophisticated use of language. I envy it, especially because I myself write more like Hammett in that respect. Sigh.

      One reason for writing “Martha’s Children” was to flesh out a character more than I ever did in “Dragon Lady,” the previous serial I’ve posted here. I think Hammett was developing his powers of characterization as he went along, as well, which is one reason I suspect he deep-six’ed his nameless Continental Op for Nick, Sam Spade, and Ned Beaumont of “The Glass Key.”

  2. Michael Gutierrez says:

    The other thing Chandler does really well is use setting to help with characterization. Since he (and you) are writing in first-person, the descriptions of setting are always going to tell the character’s mood, world view, attitude, and emotional state. It also helps with showing vs. telling, since the reader can infer how the narrator views the world, without the narrator telling you how he views the world. As far as serialization goes, do check out Johnson’s book, since it was serialized in the New York Times magazine.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      That’s much of what I like about writing in the first person, though I actually started writing stories that way, with multiple first person narratives, to force myself to consider how characters could misunderstand each other. And now that I think of it, that is something Chandler does better than Hammett, even though both writers confined themselves to just the one first person narrative.

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