Books… And More Books… And Still More Books…

by Janis Patterson

Books are most definitely a leitmotif in my life. I have always loved to read. Even in my toddler days I would on an almost daily basis pull every book I could reach off the shelves and sit happily among them, turning the magical pages. Mother said I never got one upside down and nor ever tore a page, which I find remarkable as it took me much longer to master the skill of walking.

My parents discovered that I was reading when I was three, when I sat them down and read a short story from the newly-arrived Saturday Evening Post (the original version, remember that?). No one ever knew how or when I learned to read.  I had free rein in the family library, reading Boswell, all of Ellery Queen and most of Pearl Buck before starting school, but it was Shakespeare which fascinated me the most. The language! The imagery! The flow of those incredible words that drew you into a different time and place, a world of magic…

I had so looked forward to school, where I hoped to talk books and characters and reading, hopes that were dashed the first day. Not only did my classmates not even know the alphabet, the teacher took my copy of Shakespeare away, telling me I was naughty for stealing it. I had to prove to the principal that it was my book – it had my name in the front, too – by reading aloud and explaining a full page of the play I was currently reading. It was Troilus and Cressida, and it was such an infuriating and humiliating experience (resulting in an irrational dislike of that play which lasts to this day) that I loathed school from then on. Even before starting school I was not too fond of libraries, either, after a supercilious librarian insisted I could not look through the adult section, but would have to stay in the young children’s department where there were only pamphlet-thin and distressingly simplistic (if not downright idiotic) stories that had no real action or character development and a stunted vocabulary that should have shamed a retarded parrot.

I know now I was blessed to grow up in a house with books and respect for books. It took me a long time to realize that not everyone grew up immersed not only in books but love and respect towards books. Then it was just the way things were. I did not realize, however that some blessings can be an overabundance. After my mother passed away, I was clearing out her house preparatory to our doing some remodeling and long-deferred maintenance before moving in. There were books everywhere. Not only did the house have a dedicated library, there were bookshelves in every room. I called The Husband in tears when, after thinking the books were all taken care of, I discovered six big boxes of books under the guest room bed!

I quit counting my parents’ books at 12,000, but there were more. Trust me, there were more. Lots more.

Nor was that our only problem. Mother passed away just 3 weeks after our wedding, and The Husband and I were still trying to blend our possessions. In his house he had most of a bedroom devoted to bookshelves. In my 1,000 sq ft condo I had 19 floor-to-ceiling bookcases, most of them double-stacked.

We gave away LOTS of books. The Husband had a big pickup, and we took the bed brimming full twice to a charity shop. We gave books away to friends by the boxload. We even recycled some which were in too poor a condition to be read. Now, admittedly, most of these were paperbacks, but a paperback still qualifies as a book. We packed away about 10-12 banker’s boxes of books for storage in the garage for which there was no room in the house. Don’t know why, but for whatever reasons we simply could not get rid of them at the moment. A lot of them are wonderful fiction that is currently unavailable. Some I’m hoping to scan some of them. Someday. Of course we kept our lovely collection of reference works on the various subjects in which we’re interested, and the choice assortment of autographed and first editions that were my grandfather’s and then my parents’.

While remodeling we converted one of the bedrooms into another library, one with shelves on all four walls as well as over the windows and doors. The parlor, very Victorian in tone, has a tasty selection of glass-fronted antique bookcases, making it a sort-of third library. Not that any of this did any good. It’s a little known fact that, like brown cardboard boxes with mysterious contents, books tend to breed. We have stringently limited our trips to our local bookstores to one every couple of months, but still books appear, rising in drifts in the corners and lurking in clumps under the furniture. I do try, though, and do probably 99% of my reading of what I call ‘disposable fiction’ (the kind you read once and then get rid of) on my phone. If we had hard copies of every one of those books the house would be so full that we would have to live in a tent in the back yard. We are, however, talking about possibly creating a fourth library in what used to be the garage. We need it.

On Facebook there is a recurrent meme that says “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.” Yes it is. It most definitely is. But it’s wonderful, too.

World sleuths on TV

By Sally Carpenter

Why are there so few TV shows about crime writers? Could it be all the action takes place inside the character’s head? Or that watching a person type is boring?

 The most recent TV show featuring a writer was “Castle,” which just ended its eighth and final season. The series began with a clever premise: a playful, best-selling author teams up with a hard-nosed NYPD detective to crack cases.

Detective Kate Beckett calls in Richard Castle when a killer stages crime scenes inspired by the author’s books. Castle, in need of a new series idea, continues to shadow Beckett on other murders for inspiration.

 The cases were often silly and far-fetched, with unrealistic forensics, but viewers loved the characters, the witty banter and the growing romance.

One of the best bits was the weekly poker games with Castle and real-life authors Michael Connelly, Stephen Cannell and James Patterson. When Castle complained about the difficulty of finishing one book a year, Patterson retorted, “Only one, Rick?”

 Then the show became darker and more serious, with story threads that stretched on far past the breaking point and frequent attempts to split up the Caskett romance.

 The show went off the skids when Castle stopped writing and became a PI. When the producers announced the character of Beckett would not return for season nine, fan backlash was so severe the studio wisely put the show out of its misery.

“Castle” is a textbook example of how not to write a series. While readers expect characters to grow, straying too far from what brought fans to the story in the first place can end a series faster than a publisher merger.

 A more successful TV mystery writer was Angela Lansbury as widow and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote,” running a remarkable 12 years. Although the show is off the air, the new cozy mystery books are still being ghostwritten under Fletcher’s name.

The show also gave rise to the expression “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” in that cozy writers must find a way to logically explain the high number of murders in their otherwise charming small towns.

I admit I never watched the show when it aired, but I plan to check out the DVDs soon from my local library and catch up.

The creative team behind “Murder She Wrote”—Richard Levinson and William Link—also produced “Ellery Queen.” Jim Hutton was the pipe-smoking writer who assisted the police. Three/quarters into the show Hutton looked at the audience and asked if they could solve the case with the given clues. The show played fair with the audience but it didn’t last long, probably because viewers don’t want to think when watching the tube.

Another one-season wonder was UPN’s “Legend.” Richard Dean Anderson played Ernest Pratt, a dime novelist in the Old West. He penned an adventure series starring the clean living hero Nicodemus Legend. However, townspeople thought Pratt was really Legend, and regularly called on him to solve mysteries and put away villians. The show also had frequent disagreements with Pratt and his publisher, EC Allen.

 The “Legend” pilot begins with Pratt writing a book. When Legend ends up in a deathtrap with no way out, Pratt whacks his head on the table and says, “I’ve killed my meal ticket!” How often do writers really feel that way when they’re “stuck”?

Do you know of other TV crime writers, and which one is your favorite?

 

 

Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.