When you think about any mystery series that you love, it’s all about the characters. Sure, you pick up that first book because the story sounds intriguing, but you keep coming back for your new best friends. Think about the classics – Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael. In a lot of ways, the mystery is just the vehicle that lets you watch your favorite characters in action. Sort of like the bun is really just the transportation device for the hot dog. You hope it’s a really good bun, accompanied by cheese, relish and ketchup, but you’re really there for the hot dog, aren’t you?
Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. But the best hot dogs…I mean, characters …drive the story and keep you coming back for more. They are real and sometimes extraordinary people with their own concerns, problems, relationships, and jobs. As a reader, I’m there to find out how the story unfolds, but I’m riveted by the personalities of the players. Waiting for Sherlock Holmes to insult Inspector Lestrade or hurt Watson’s feelings is big part of the experience. Watching Brother Cadfael work in his herb garden or discover the existence of his son is as fascinating as learning about the crime. Knowing Miss Marple knits and watching her hide a razor sharp mind behind a façade of “fluffiness” is what makes the mystery come alive…and keeps me thinking about the book long after I’ve closed the cover.
I love all kinds of characters, but I have a soft spot for amateur sleuths. Murder is not part of their “real” lives, and they aren’t paid to go to a crime scene or figure out whodunit or put their lives on the line. In these stories, the murder is an extraordinary and unpleasant event – and not just for the dead guy. In my novels, Jocelyn Shore is a high school history and French teacher who has better things to do than to go around looking for killers, but who finds she just doesn’t have much choice. In DEATH ON TOUR, her Egyptian vacation is interrupted by the murder of one of her fellow tourists, and she has to figure things out in self defense. In DEATH MAKES THE CUT, the murder is more personal. When a close friend is killed and is suspected of drug dealing, Jocelyn has to get involved to clear his name. But she also has classes to teach, kids to protect, school politics to navigate, and a faltering romance to resolve.
The trouble with amateur sleuths in a series is that, after a few books, you have to start wondering why bodies like piling up like firewood in autumn wherever this supposedly average, normal person goes. It’s one reason I put Jocelyn in somewhat different locations in each book. (In the first, she’s in Egypt, in the second, she’s back home in Austin, and in the third, she’s visiting a ranch in central Texas.) However, when I really love a character, I’m willing to forgive the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. (For those of you who don’t remember the television series “Murder She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher was a writer who lived in a small town – a very small town – and yet who managed to stumble over a body every week. In fact, Cabot Cove probably had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation.) To me, that’s a very small price to pay for the pleasure of spending more time with my favorite amateur sleuths.
Besides the classic characters I’ve already mentioned, some of my newly discovered amateur besties are G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor (WICKED AUTUMN), Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore (THE NEXT ONE TO FALL), and my fellow Algonquin Redux pal Rochelle Staab’s Liz Cooper and Nick Garfield (WHO DO, VOODOO?). I know there are more wonderful new amateurs out there – who are your new favorites?
Memory is a funny thing. Why do we immediately forget the name of a person we’ve just met? Why is the name of the last book we read just on the tip of our tongues? Why have our car keys somehow skittered away on their own? Is this kind of thing normal or could it be (sharp indrawn breath) a sign of aging?
I’m in the middle of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, in which the author explores the “art and science of remembering everything.” I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction, but this fascinating and well-written book has kept me captivated from the start. The most interesting premise (and one I’ve actually been able to remember) is that humans are very, very good at remembering spatial details, humorous images, and anything to do with sex. Skipping the last two for second, think about the last time you visited someone’s house (even if it was for the first time). Can you picture the entryway? Do you remember the general layout? For example, I bet you can recall where the kitchen was and remember details even down to where the sink was in relationship to the refrigerator. We don’t try to memorize those things – they go into our brains naturally. However, less concrete information such as the series of random digits in a phone number or someone’s name just slip away like water.
One of the techniques used by contestants in the USA Memory Championship (and yes, that’s a real thing) is to associate something you want to remember with a vivid image in a specific location. Meet a guy named Mark Baker at your company kickoff? Picture him in a white baker’s hat carrying a loaf of French bread with a giant neon green check mark on it. Put him in your company’s meeting room or even in a toilet in your company’s bathroom (remember how humorous images work). There’s an image you’re unlikely to forget.
When you think about it, coming up with both a vivid image and a location from your memory is an act of creativity. And it’s what mystery writers do best – creating vivid images of people and actions anchored in memorable settings. Think about your favorite novels – Miss Marple in St. Mary Meade, Brother Cadfael in Shrewsbury, Kevin Corvelli in Hawaii. I think it’s why so many people prefer real books to ebooks. Having something you hold in your hands makes the words real. The location on the page (so intangible in an ebook) becomes a memory prop. How often do you think of something you’ve read and picture where you saw the words on the printed page? When I flip back through a book to reread a paragraph, somehow I know it was about two-thirds of the way down on the right-hand page. So…readers and writers have a built in advantage when it comes to memory. So why is my own memory so poor?
I think it boils down to paying attention. Half the time, I’m “multi-tasking” – by which I mean I’m thinking about one thing (often a plot twist or character) while I’m doing something else. So I walk into the house and drop my keys in the mail pile. I don’t “forget” where they are – I’m just unaware where I put them. The same goes for meeting people. I’m too worried about remembering my own name or I’m distracted by everything else that’s happening. I don’t take the time to focus on a face, to transform the new name into a vivid image in a memory place. The good news is that, according to Foer anyway, practice really does help your memory improve. For me, I think practicing being present – being aware of the here and now, concentrating on what I’m doing or who I’m meeting instead of on my own inner world would be of enormous value. So that’s what I’m going to do…right after I work out this one hitch in my latest plot.