Law or Justice? What Do They Mean to Mystery Writers?

by Janis Patterson

One of the reason mysteries are so popular, according to some, is that they give the reader satisfaction by putting the world in order, rectifying chaos and ensuring law and justice prevail. That may be partially true. Why partially?

Because law and justice do not mean the same thing. In theory they should, but because laws are controlled by humans and justice is a cosmic concept, their applications and results often vary widely. For example, take the case of a sadistic mass murderer who tortured several people to a prolonged and agonizing death. He is caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced, either to death or to life in prison. The law has been satisfied, but it hardly seems justice that a man who gleefully and deliberately caused such unspeakable fear, pain and death to many should either die on a clean operating table with an injection that puts him peacefully to sleep or lives an admittedly restricted life in prison, but one with food, shelter, TV, books, schooling, visits from friends and loved ones… Justice? Would it not be truer to the principle of justice for him to undergo what he made others suffer?

Now I am not debating the pros/cons/desirability/arguments for or against capital punishment. That is just an extreme example of the difference between what some people see as the rule of law and what others perceive as justice. The same principles could be applied to the theft of an apple pie.

So how what can mystery writers take from this? In the classic A. Conan Doyle series about Sherlock Holmes I seem to remember several instances where Sherlock bent or even ignored the letter of the law in the interests of justice. So, if memory serves, did Ellery Queen. Such an attitude can also be found in writers of every era, though I will admit they are rare.

There are those who say that justice is an unattainable goal, and that what the law metes out is right and proper and makes us human instead of beasts. There are some who say making the punishment fit the crime is justice. Personally, I lean a little bit both ways – and that’s not easy! – but my personal feelings aren’t the subject of this blog.

There was a time when a hungry person stole a loaf of bread they were hung or transported to the Antipodes. Now a vicious mass murderer can be incarcerated and well taken care of for life. Two extremes, admittedly, but on often our civilization and our perception of right and wrong are defined by extremes.

It is said that it is neither politicians nor historians who create history – it is the balladeers, the poets, the tellers of stories. As writers we are in control of every story we write. Each story is a world we create and good, bad or indifferent we decide what happens. That is an awesome responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly.

I can’t tell you what is right or dictate what you write, but when your sleuth/policeman/protagonist decides to follow the letter of the law with no regard for heinousness of the crime, or said sleuth decides to ignore the law and proceed with his understanding of justice, be careful. What you write may someday influence our guideline for society.

The Case for Standardization

by Janis Patterson

As a raging individualist I stand up for self-expression. That said, I also stand up for ‘normal’ punctuation and formatting. I do not see that as a behavioral oxymoron.

As writers we want our stories to be read, and in these days of literary bounty that’s getting harder and harder. It should be obvious that one way of achieving this end is to make the reading experience pleasant and easy, right? Well, there are those who apparently didn’t get the memo. Several times in the last few months I have read stories with ghastly formatting – I’m talking about deliberate formatting choices, not the weird kinks all electronic platforms toss at us occasionally. And I’m not going to mention the misspellings, the homophonic mayhem and just general wrong-ness, either. My blood pressure won’t take it.

Why on earth do people make deliberate formatting choices that make their books difficult to read? My guess is that it’s the same reason teens (as well as some older people) dye their hair kelly green and burgundy and other unnatural colors. They want to stand out, to shout ‘I’m different.’ Unfortunately, all too often in books the message comes through loud and clear – and what could be a good story is lost in an impenetrable sea of ‘individuality.’

When I worked in a literary agent’s office several decades ago (back in the bad old days of trad/paper pubbing only) we got an over-the-transom submission of what – from the blurb – sounded like a decent story. Except – the manuscript was a mess. He used standard quote marks, but every first line of each paragraph was flush with the left margin, while the rest of the paragraph was indented half an inch. Reading that was work, but even though I stopped after about ten or twelve pages I could see that it could be a good story with a little work – and proper formatting.

Being of a helpful nature, I sent the manuscript back with a note, explaining what I thought the ms needed, including standard formatting. I got back an excoriating letter, calling me a frustrated writer (I had sold half a dozen books by then, though none through the agency where I worked), accusing me of being hidebound and unwilling to accept new things, even of trying to stifle his creative genius and hide it under a blanket of conformity.

He, he said, knew better than I because he was a teacher of language and literature. (At one of our local junior – excuse me, community – colleges, I learned.) He also said he would take his book to those with the intelligence to appreciate it.

I never heard of him again.

I still believe that non-standard punctuation, misspellings, and incorrect word choices can kill a story, no matter how good it is, especially in today’s book-glutted world. Reading should not be work.

The Tyranny of Deadlines

by Janis Patterson

If you’re a writer, you have felt the heavy hand of a deadline. Whether dictated by a publisher or self-inflicted, they are always there, overshadowing your life, waiting for you like Nemesis. And, sadly, it seems like the more productive you are, the closer they come together, squeezing more and more words out of you. It’s a vicious circle.

That said, I pride myself on never missing a deadline… at least, not by more than 18 hours for a book – with one exception. I had been in a car accident close to deadline and pretty much slept through it. Since I had been very reliable up until then the publisher (I was publishing exclusively traditional then) was very understanding and we worked things out. During my recent hospitalization I was on deadline (several months away) but knew there was no way I’d be able to make it, so I contacted the publisher (a different one) and ended up buying back my contract. They understood and have offered me a new contract since then, so everything turned out all right.

There are horror tales about deadlines, though; the worst one I have personal knowledge of was years ago, during the print-only era. I had been contracted for a book and, as I had a lot of things on my plate, had finished it early. (My habit is to finish a book, then let it go cold for at least a week or two to cleanse my mind before going through the first self-edit.) My editor called me one day, quite distraught and almost crying.

Publishing schedules then were pretty much immutable things, set up months if not years in advance. She had long before contracted a book from an author with whom she had never worked before. That day was the author’s deadline. The author had called the editor, saying she had had a lot going on and hadn’t finished the book, but she would be sure to send the manuscript along as soon as she did. She was, she announced proudly, almost half through with it! The editor told her not to bother and I never heard of that writer again.

Knowing that I usually wrote ahead of time, my editor called me and begged to know if I had a finished book. She was, I realized, crying so of course I told her that the rough draft was finished, but it needed work. She told me about the publishing schedule and the perfidious writer and that the book needed to enter the system that day. Well, I’m good, but I’m not magic, so I told her I needed at least two days to get it into a publishable form and ready to mail to her. (No email in those primitive days!) She agreed, so I cancelled everything I had on deck, made a pot of coffee and sat down to work. Twenty-four sleepless hours later, exhausted, I sent the manuscript off by the fastest mail possible (horribly expensive, but she personally reimbursed me for that.)

In a way, though, I’m sorry I did it. There was a lot more that could have been done with that book; I could have done a better job. Even though it was a good story at heart it’s not one of my better efforts, and I feel that. On the other hand, that editor was able to salvage her publishing schedule with just a little juggling, which saved her reputation and maybe her job. And after that incident that editor thought I walked on water. Every book I submitted was an automatic buy – and at a larger advance. The only bad thing was that just two years after this she retired and went off into another field. After a while we lost contact. And I never was able to sell another book to that publisher, why I don’t know.

Good or bad, deadlines are a reality in this business. They can either be lures to entice you into finishing the project, or a threat of something dire rushing toward you like an oncoming freight train. Or both. Whatever it is, you have to learn to use it, because a deadline is an inescapable part of this business.

I was fortunate. I grew up in my parents’ ad agency, writing copy and doing layouts since the age of 12, and therefore learned early. Deadlines were a part of daily life, sometimes coming two or three a day, depending on the project and what state it was in. Anyone who is going to be a professional writer – books, articles, pamphlets, whatever – is going to have to learn to use and respect deadlines. Even if we don’t like them!

What Makes A Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

We talk a lot about writing mysteries, reading mysteries, enjoying mysteries, but it’s seldom discussed what a mystery is. Leaving out the religious definitions, Dictionary.com says

  1. any affair, thing or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation
  2. a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end
  3. obscure, puzzling, or mysterious quality or character

So at heart a mystery seems to be an obfuscation, either deliberate or accidental. I can deal with that. It isn’t easy, but I can deal with it. It comes down to making the unknown known, and the writer has the unenviable task of revealing it piece (clue) by piece. That is after he created the story and then covered it up! It is a delicate balance.

Taking a ‘mystery’ and making it into an enjoyable and reasonably coherent novel is a daunting process, whether it’s the question of who took Aunt Ida’s coconut cake to finding a vicious and seemingly omnipotent serial killer. The process is – or should be – the same. Even if it isn’t the first scene in the book, when you’re plotting you need to start with an action by an unknown – i.e., the crime, be it coconut cake or murder. Then you must follow the carefully laid clues but seemingly random clues found by the sleuth, be he amateur or professional detective, and by examining these clues eventually uncover the truth. Don’t forget to complicate the process with a fair amount of believable red herrings and some conflicts/problems caused by the people involved.

The trick to doing this is not to be too obscure or too obvious. And I’m a firm believer that your sleuth has to work at finding these clues and therefore find the solution to the mystery in a logical and sort of organized form. You should also put in enough clues that the reader, if so inclined, has a decent chance of solving the mystery. Now I’m perfectly aware there are mysteries which are widely read and even some celebrated writers who break these rules. The most famous example is Raymond Chandler, who admitted that sometimes even he didn’t know how his sleuth solved the mystery – it just happened. Raymond Chandlers are few and far in between, though; the quality of his writing was so good that neither readers nor critics seem to care. Don’t try to duplicate this. Odds are you can’t.

Another rule-breaker is often the currently popular ‘fluffy’ cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually a woman and she usually has a ‘cute’ job – owning a bakery or specialty coffee cafe or floral shop or something similar. She has or wants a boyfriend, who often turns out to be a policeman of some sort, and a bunch of ‘zany’ or ‘quirky’ friends. All too often in this kind of story the mystery is of secondary importance to personal relationships and the personal life of the sleuth. It’s an overdone trope, but some sleuths still express a passion for shoes which takes up a lot of the story space. Which is fine, as long as that is the sort of story is what the reader wants.

What is not acceptable, however, is when in whatever kind of mystery the sleuth does little to no sleuthing. Clues seem to appear with no effort on the sleuth’s part. The solution is highly reminiscent of the deus ex machina so beloved of Greek and Roman playwrights. I call that a cheat. A mystery shouldn’t need a god to step down from Olympus to unravel a story so complex it is beyond the ken of mere humans.

It is good that there are so many variations of mysteries – puzzles, non-lethal crimes, capers, murders, serial killers, fluffy cozies, traditional cozies, hard-boileds… there is a style of mystery for every reader. I only hope they follow the rules that make a mystery a good story.

Get Those Bad Guys!

by Janis Patterson

I admit it – I’m a crime-show junkie. Nothing makes me happier than to settle down after supper in front of the TV and watch the bad guys get it. Whether it’s real-life true crime (which can be very slow going and sometimes repetitious to fill out the allotted time slot, I know) or some scripted, fancily filmed TV series (which can be so fantastic as to be unbelievable) I love seeing the good guys triumph and the bad guys feel the full force of the law.

It makes a lovely change from real life. For example, several District Attorneys around the country have announced they will not prosecute theft crimes with a value of under $750 dollars; as one said, he doesn’t believe in prosecuting poverty. He said nothing about bad guys who are not poverty-stricken but just want to take other people’s stuff. Talk about a license to steal! This is just more reason to prefer TV justice.

All is not well in TV land, though. For the last couple of decades there has been a trend to water down the catch-the-bad-guys-and-send-them-to-jail storyline to a more biographical picture of cops as flawed human beings with wretched personal lives. I’m sure that is true in some cases, but if I wanted reality I would sit on my front porch and watch real life.

Another thing that bothers me is that about 20 years ago the focus of TV series shifted from a primarily masculine-oriented team to a female-led group where the woman is in charge while the male officers hang on her every word like adoring acolytes.

Now don’t get me wrong – I have every respect for women police officers. Real ones. They do a fantastic job and are an important part of law enforcement. They do not – like their television counterparts – constantly fluff their hair (in the middle of a gunfight, no less) or miraculously intuit the solution from the flimsiest of connections when no one else can see it.

Plus, I admit to a certain amount of personal prejudice. I would really rather watch a team of good-looking hunky men than a preternaturally gorgeous woman leading her close-to-incompetent male team around by their noses. And yes, I do know that not all real-life male police officers are good-looking and hunky, however competent they are. This is TV we’re talking about, remember? Other people’s fantasies and preferences might and probably will vary, and that’s okay.

However, my worst complaint about scripted TV series is what I call the ‘Moriarty villain.’ This is a seemingly unstoppable evildoer who has a pathological hatred of the protagonist who appears in a great number of episodes and escapes at the end of every one. The first case that comes to my mind is the infamous ‘Red John’ of The Mentalist. Another example is ‘Jack’ on the 20 year old Profiler – which I will watch anytime it comes on anyway, as I am a die-hard Robert Davi fan. Even the original (and infinitely superior) Hawaii 5-O had Wo Fat, though the producers were intelligent enough to get rid of him fairly early on. Pity far too many other producers weren’t so wise. Such indulgence is not only annoying, it is incredibly lazy writing and more than a little insulting to the viewers.

Of course, this is all TV, meaning it is both inconsequential and ephemeral. As well as very annoying. But I’ll still watch because… well, because I’m a crime-show junkie.

Don’t Call Me – I’ll Call You

by Janis Patterson

I have been accused – and pretty much rightly so – of being a Luddite. Technology for the sake of technology has never attracted me, especially when it interferes with my life. Now I love my computer, love the ease of word processing, love the ability to publish both ebooks and paperbacks with the tap of a finger. That’s practical and useful.

By contrast I do hate telephones. And every day I hate them more. Not really telephones, per se, but telemarketers and most especially robocalls. Just what makes these people believe they have the right to interrupt what I am doing at any given moment and use an instrument and a service for which I am paying to advertise their wares, which I neither need nor want? It’s also insulting for them to imply that if I do need/want something I am not smart enough to go find whatever it might be by myself, that I need them to bring it to me.

Robocalls are the worst. You can’t even get the satisfaction of reaming out the caller, and since they don’t give you a phone number (at least, I never stay on the line long enough to find out if they do) there’s no way to report them to the National Do Not Call list. Which is a joke – a bad joke – anyway. When it first came out I was religious about reporting every single unwanted call  – which might have made me feel righteous, but which did absolutely no good. As a taxpayer I am furious that my tax money (for which I work very hard) is being spent on something that does nothing. (Which, when expanded, becomes a whole other post, probably unacceptably political.)

I don’t respond to robocalls. As soon as I realize that it is a robocall I hang up, and I don’t care from whom it comes. It’s taken me a couple of years, but finally I have my doctor and my dentist trained that if they want to communicate with me, they don’t do it through a robocall. My dentist emails me, and my doctor has her office receptionist call directly, both of which are infinitely more civilized and human systems than a robocall. I don’t talk to robots.

Of course, I could just turn off the phones when I’m working, but aside from the fact there are elderly people in our family for whom I am responsible and need to be available to them, WHY should I have to? It is my telephone, my line… in order to get my work done why should I be forced to deprive myself of a convenience for which I am paying? If Congress really wanted to help the American people, they would make all sales, charity and political calls – in other words, all solicitation calls – illegal and back it up with gigantic penalties/sentences for offenders.

As a mystery writer with a definitely twisted mind, I cannot help but dream of ways to get my own back on those unwanted robocalls, especially when they yank me away from something important. So far the best (and least bloody) idea I’ve had is a disrupter. Remember back in the early days of answering machines when you carried around a plastic box about the size of a package of cigarettes? When you wanted to check your messages you’d call your phone and after the outgoing message began you’d hold the box next to the mouthpiece, press a button and your messages would play. I dream of a similar set-up, but with my idea when the robocall begins, you press your disrupter device and the robocall machine burns out, unfixable and never to be used again.

Of course, there would be dangers, like could the disrupter signal be traced back to the call it was making when the call machine imploded – i.e., to my phone number? However – I know we have the technology to make such a disrupter, so I can only hope that the technology also exists to protect the poor inundated recipient of such calls who has been driven to madness because of such unwanted interruptions. Sigh. Hopefully someday. Whoever invents such a device will make a fortune. And in my opinion, use of such a device would be guilt-free. I am on every no-call list that exists, and if the offender ignores the law to try and sell me something, why shouldn’t I be able to ignore a law to protect my privacy?

I repeat – I pay for my telephone service and instrument because I want a way to contact and be contacted by those with whom I wish to talk – not to provide a free venue for strangers to try and sell me something I neither need nor want. Surely there is at least one mystery plot somewhere in this muddle of obtrusive criminal (yes, criminal – they steal my time and use of my line and instrument) vs telephone owner. Perhaps if everyone wrote one the telemarketers/robocall bosses might get the idea we’re mad as h*ll and won’t take it any more!

On another note, I would like to say that my YouTube channel is up and running – and I would be most appreciative if you would drop by. It’s called Janis’ Tips and Tales, and a new episode is released on the fourth Thursday of every month. Thank you!

Of Men and Monsters

by Janis Patterson

Not too long ago one of the radio shows we listen to gave the history of Andrew Kehoe, who on May 8, 1927 went on a mass killing spree. A strange sort of man, he was a farmer in Bath Township, Michigan. While he could fix almost any mechanical contraption – and often did for his neighbors without charge – he neglected his farm and abused his animals.

Then when the local school system raised his taxes by $19.80 cents to pay for a new school, something snapped. Kehoe decided to kill every schoolchild in Bath Township. He was hired to fix some electrical work at the new school, which he did, while putting in place massive charges of explosives. He had been setting off explosions at his farm, telling the curious he was just blasting up stumps. He had really been testing electric detonation devices. Finally, the day before school was to be out, he set off the explosives at the school. Then, having beaten his wife to death, he blew up his house, his barn, the trees on his place and his farm animals.

Having packed his car with explosives and every bit of scrap metal he could find around his farm, Kehoe drove into town, where he was horrified to find that only half the school had actually blown up. The explosion had apparently made the detonators in the other half malfunction. He was horrified to have failed. It is not known what he originally had in mind for his explosive-and-scrap metal loaded car, but he was determined to bring down the school completely and kill the children who had survived the original blast. He tried to get his car close to the still-standing half, but the school superintendent came up to ask what he was doing

Kehoe hit the detonator, killing the superintendent and himself, sending shrapnel-like shards out into the crowd of hysterical parents and destabilizing the remaining part of the school. Then it was discovered there were still unexploded charges in the school. By then the fire departments and others from nearby Lansing had arrived, and they sealed the building until the explosives could be cleared away. Of course, there were still children both living and dead in the school and their parents had to listen to their cries while not being allowed to go to them, or even know if their child was alive or dead.

Had he still been alive at that moment, Kehoe would probably have loved it.

So what makes such a monster? By all accounts until the tax bill arrived Kehoe was considered a pretty good guy. Perhaps a little eccentric in some of his ways, but who of us does not know – or is not – someone who doesn’t have a little bit of eccentricity? Yet how many turn into monsters?

Monster or saint, they are all human beings. Sometimes it stretches credulity that the same species which produces beings such as Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and Dr. Alfred Schweitzer can also produce the likes of Adolf Hitler, Andrew Kehoe and Ted Bundy. But it not only can, it does with unwavering regularity.

So how does this affect our writing? We must remember that to be real our heroes and our villains must be human beings with flaws, strengths and weaknesses. No one person is either completely evil or completely saintly. Albert Einstein was an incredible genius, but he had – at least in his early years – a somewhat rollicking and for the time unconventional love life. I’m told Adolf Hitler was kind to cats.

As writers, if we wish to be good writers, we cannot commit the sin of making a character that is completely and thoroughly good or evil. That makes them one dimensional, a literary piece of cardboard who just stands there and parrots the words we put in their mouths.

To become a living, breathing, believable character your creation has to be a mixture of both good and evil. A character who does only good, proclaims only good and put good above all else no matter the cost to himself is a cartoon. (I’m thinking along the lines of Dudley Do-Right.)  Same thing with a villain and evil. Both of them must have some characteristics of the other – a hero who hates dogs and is not averse to a tiny bit of cheating on his taxes is a lot more believable as a human being, just as is a villain who donates to animal charities and helps old ladies across the street.

You must always remember that even heroes have dark sides and monsters have virtues. Perhaps not many, but each has some.