Blog Posts are Murder

Musings on the genre by Annette Yourk

There were three murder mystery writers in my last course. That was a first, so I thought I’d blog about it. I’m not an expert or a junkie (aside from my Minette Walters phase) but I enjoy a good mystery from time to time.

Annette Yourk. Photo by Penny Apple Photography of Quadra Island, BC

Annette Yourk. Photo by Penny Apple Photography of Quadra Island, BC

I compared types of prose, creation and handling of character, and the role of setting and landscape. I read three selections: In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George of the Inspector Lynley series. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin, creator of John Rebus, and Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard.

Elizabeth George is all over character. She begins laying the foundation for a project not with idea or situation, but with character. Character is story in George’s book.

We care what happens to characters. But, before we can care, they must become real to us. Characters effecting events and events affecting character hold a story together.

George’s 25-item prompt list stimulates ideas for creating a thorough character analysis (a narrative that runs 7 pages or so). She knows her characters inside and out, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. She reveals their inner workings through characterization and dialogue.

Ian Rankin’s top character, Detective Inspector Rebus has been working hard for Rankin over 19 titles. Rebus is stubborn, hardworking, and unapologetic. His language is colourful and clever; his attitude, feisty. He’s a terrier with a bone when it comes to unfinished business, but he also has an unexpected cultured side.

Father Terry, on the other hand is a considerably less overt protagonist when displaying character and personality. He is an enigma. He reveals little. Is he likable, compelling, redeemable? The reader is never quite sure.

The mystery genre requires conflict, suspense, crisis and resolution. There is a demand for problems to solve, tension, plot reversals, crises, shifts in status quo etc… It keeps writers and readers on their toes. Most of the narrative in mystery/crime fiction plays out in scenes and dialogue, immersing readers in unfolding events, characterization, twists and developments.

What if you need a break from the action?  Setting in narrative can illuminate everything from character to theme. Setting is where the story takes place, but each of the story’s individual scenes also play out in a particular setting be it a parking lot, an elevator or the Scottish Highlands. Setting creates atmosphere, triggers mood, and stimulates emotional response. But we have to slow down from dialogue and action to get a look at it.

In the Elmore Leonard novel Pagan Babies the setting is Rwanda in the aftermath of the worst massacre ever seen. Forty-seven bodies lie dead on the church floor and Father Terry’s neck is on the line. He has to get out of Africa asap. Enough conflict and crisis for you?

Father Terry lives in a village with markets and grass huts in a region populated by soldiers, murderers and wary victims, yet we don’t get a picture of place. We see more of Africa when Father Terry is back in Detroit thinking about Africa. An effective contrast of locales, but is the reader being deprived of landscape and setting taking a larger role?
There are portions of narrative summary that provide backstory, context, exposition, and internal monologue, but the bulk of prose is scene, action, dialogue, resolution, complication….

Likewise with Rankin and Rebus. We get updates, backstory and recall from past incidents. We have low action scenes carrying information-rich conversation, but not much mining of landscape. Is that a loss?

When I picked up the Elizabeth George book, all 600+ pages of it, I knew I would get landscape. Sure enough, George gives time and clout to setting and landscape. Did I read all 600+ pages?

What kind of a reader are you on the subject of mystery and murder? Do you want to fly along on the chase through dramatic scenes and dialogue or put up your feet up and settle in for more layers and a broader vista?

Annette Yourk, April 8, 2015