I hope you’re having a lovely Christmas Eve and that you’ll find some books in your stocking. My turn on this blog comes up on the fourth Thursday of every month, which makes me the Thanksgiving and Christmas person. I debated doing a holiday-themed post, since I didn’t do one on Thanksgiving, but I have one on my other blog, a free holiday short story I did as part of a B.R.A.G. Medallion authors’ blog hop. And over the holidays I have more time to read and write, as perhaps you do too, so I chose this time to thoroughly unwrap a favorite book’s structure. If you’re in the mood for something seasonal, here’s a link to the holiday story: https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/indiebrag-christmas-blog-hop-a-free-holiday-short-story)
If you’re in the mood to think about the craft of writing a mystery, keep going.
In previous posts on this blog, I’ve reviewed James Scott Bell’s writing guide, Super Structure, and shared why I love the mystical mysteries of James D. Doss. To teach myself to better apply Bell’s structural signposts, I reread Doss’s first book, analyzing how he used those story-line elements in his unconventional way, long before Bell wrote the book. (FYI: I worked hard to avoid plot spoilers while doing this analysis.)
Bell’s first signpost—The Initial Disturbance
This has to be the rock that starts the landslide of the rest of the plot. It can be a pebble or a boulder, but it shifts the status quo in the world of the protagonist, requiring change and action in response. In the first chapter of The Shaman Sings, the disturbance is the arrival of a coyote near Daisy Perika’s isolated trailer home at the mouth of the Canyon of the Spirits. This book is immediately set up to be deeply mystical and yet also funny. In a few pages of conflict between an old shaman and a spirit coyote—and her own thoughts, her inner conflict—it’s not obvious what the impact of the animal’s message will be, but the feeling is strong: there will be one.
Doss delivers the same disturbance—a premonition of evil—in the point pf view of an Anglo newcomer to the region, police chief Scott Parris, the second lead character. The disturbance comes around a third time in the point of view of a nameless stalker observing physics graduate student in a laboratory at night, a nameless stalker who understands what she’s doing scientifically, and who hears a Voice.
Doss inserts the second sign post—The Care Package—into these scenes. Daisy gives coffee and companionship to the eccentric shepherd Nahum Yaciti who comes to visit, and to share his premonitions. Scott recalls his last premonition was before his wife died. We see him as a man who has loved deeply and lost. We see Daisy as a difficult person but capable of friendship. And we see the student as vulnerable, alone in her endeavors.
Third signpost—Trouble Brewing
This explodes with the murder and then is doled out steadily. It accelerates when the readers knows the cops are after the wrong suspect and that there are three possible candidates for the real killer.
Fourth signpost—The Argument against Transformation:
Scott moved from Chicago to start life over after his wife died. He wants to get away from death and violence. In Chicago he saw enough of that without working homicide, a job he avoided. He hates looking at dead bodies. He’d thought a small college town would be a safe and peaceful escape, but now he has a murder investigation on his hands. Daisy doesn’t want to answer the spirit world’s call. She is old and tired. But the threat of darkness is demanding her attention.
Fifth and sixth signposts—The Kick in the Shins and the Doorway of No Return:
These are hard to pin down, because the book shifts points of view at every turn, even though it’s essentially an interweaving of Scott’s story and Daisy’s story. Scott’s new girlfriend, an investigative reporter following the same crime, plays a major role. A setback that strikes her could be seen as both the “kick in the shins” for all concerned and a doorway of no return for her and for Scott. This event is blended with a reminder of the otherworldly forces at work. Deciding to share her knowledge with the police is Daisy’s doorway of no return. This is also part of the next signpost. (In Doss’s two-protagonist structure, the essential pieces of the story that Bell identifies are all there, but the pacing and placement vary from Bell’s recommendations.)
Seventh signpost—The Mirror Moment:
Scott and Daisy both have visions of the victim that deliver puzzling clues about her. These come to him in dreams and to her in a shamanic journey. When she meets Scott, something extraordinary happens between them at the level of spiritual consciousness. Neither of them can deny the power of what they know and the need to act on it. The argument against transformation has been won by transformation. She has accepted the continuing burden of her gift. Scott is committed to not only solving murder, but accepting that powers he never believed in might help.
Eight signpost—Pet the Dog:
Scott’s mix of patience and impatience with his inept officers, Slocum and Knox, is the closest I can come to identifying a “pet the dog” moment. Slocum’s ongoing incompetence sets many parts of the plot motion, so Scott’s tolerance of this particular cop is a key weakness, and yet a trait that makes the reader identify with him (at least the reader who would find it hard to fire a well-meaning but bumbling subordinate) and that’s the purpose of Bell’s “pet the dog” scene.
The last signposts—Mounting Forces, Lights Out, the Q factor, and the Final Battle
By this point in the book— the part which Bell in Super Structure describes as being like a raft going over a waterfall—I couldn’t slow my reading down even though I’d read the book before. To avoid spoilers I’m making this part of the analysis brief and skipping the mounting forces. Doss integrates the police work and Daisy’s mystical powers into a stunning final battle. He sets up his “Q Factor” at the outset—that thing which the lead can pull out and use to survive and keep going against all odds during the “lights out” moment. Scott, as a dedicated cop, of course has the motivation and the resources. Without the very beginning of the book, this perfect ending that blends both leads’ storylines wouldn’t work. What makes the finale succeed is that Daisy, as a shaman, also has motivation and resources.
A few more words of review:
The complex plot and colorful characters make this page-turning read. Doss never wastes a character. Why have a boring person as the code expert when he could have an eccentric old British hermit, a retired mathematician who is having an affair with young librarian? Why have just any cop mess up a few times when it could be one like Piggy Slocum? And Daisy Perika is no stereotypical Indian wise woman. The Wild West moment between Officer Knox and Julio Pacheco is classic Doss comedy and drama. The way he uses point of view shifts and humor in a thrilling mystery is unusual, but he pulls it off and never misses a step on the path of building a story.
A note to new readers discovering Doss:
This book is now labeled as the first Charlie Moon mystery. When you find Charlie to be a minor character, it may be puzzling, but at the time Doss wrote the first few books, they were called Shaman Mysteries. Then the author found that the shaman’s nephew, a Ute tribal policeman, was taking over, and he followed his characters’ wishes. The series became the Charlie Moon Mysteries, with his aunt Daisy’s shamanism still part of the stories, and with Scott Parris becoming a close friend as well as collaborating in investigations.