The Accidental Mystery Writer

I wanted to be an important author of literary fiction when I was in college. Sometime in the fall of my junior year, I got an idea that seemed like the perfect vehicle for that ambition. The trick of that novel, Decoys, was to write seven connected short stories, by seven different fictional authors. These  imaginary writers are the principal characters in the book and all find themselves writing about the same set of events, which transpired among them a decade before.

Each of the writers is a character in all the other stories, though precisely which character is left for the reader to decipher. The central figure, whose mysterious death (or murder – or suicide) haunts all the writers and their stories, would appear as a medieval princess in one tale. In another, she’d be a captive African leopard; in a third, an endangered grove of elm trees on a Chekhovian foreclosed estate.

It sounds migraine inducing –more like three dimensional chess than any ordinary writing project. For years I thought it would be impossible. I’d alight on it, like a bird on a statue, sniff around a little, give up and fly away. I wrote the Afterword in grad school, and part of the leopard story, and then I set the crazy project aside once again.

Fun to read

Twelve years ago, when a friend suggested that I take my sketches, short stories and flash fiction about Nantucket and turn them into a detective novel, I was baffled. That didn’t sound like the serious literary fiction I was supposed to be composing! “But unlike your other work,” she said, with her elegant knack for the vaguely insulting compliment, “The Nantucket stories are fun to read.” They were fun to write, also. Was that supposed to be part of the deal?

Those stories had begun as scripts for a local soap opera, but the logistics of casting and shooting the series, to be called Owners, had proved insurmountable. The actors we wanted were too busy with their real lives (some working three jobs), the technical people were too expensive (we had no money at all, so really, even offering free lunches would have been too expensive), the equipment too difficult to buy or even rent.

We gave up on the idea, but I liked the stories, including one small comic subplot about a rich homeowner who stiffs all the tradesmen who work on his giant trophy house, leaving half the island on the suspect list when he gets murdered.

Starting over

I thought of a quote from the great Preston Sturges. An interviewer had asked him what he’d do if his career tanked, if his movies started to flop and no studio would hire him. His answer: “I’d buy a two cent pencil and a ten cent pad and start over.” I had the modern equivalent: A four hundred dollar computer and a hand-me-down printer.

Even as I set out reorganizing my tales of Nantucket around a central plot, and concocting an appropriate detective to solve the murder, I couldn’t quite take the process seriously. I had several big mainstream novels I was trying to sell and another one I was hoping to finish. And of course I continued to fret about Decoys. The murder mystery? It was nothing more than a place-keeper, a way to pass the time, and maybe make some money until my real career started and my real books hit the stores.

I followed my wife into her MFA program, and wrote Locals, which became Nantucket Five-Spot, as my Vermont College of Fine Arts creative thesis. I hadn’t been able to sell Owners (published, first in the series, as Nantucket Sawbuck) but my agent’s parting advice as he retired was to write another book with the same setting and characters, following the Simon and Shuster editor’s direction: “More CSI, Nantucket, Less Winesburg, Ohio”.

Without noticing

Meanwhile, a funny thing was happening with that old chestnut/passion project, Decoys. I started to sketch out the characters, in the form of an “Editor’s Introduction” to the collection of stories. As I worked, the central event turned out to be the death of one of the writers. Natural causes? Accident? Suicide? Or murder? Without my noticing it, my highfalutin piece of literary fiction had become a murder mystery.

I was thinking about that pivot the other day when someone asked me, “Did you always like mysteries?” My knee-jerk answer was “No.” However, I remembered that the first books I devoured obsessively were the Hardy Boys mysteries, with their royal blue covers and cartoon scenes of the boys in jeopardy on the front.

I was eleven years old when the movie Charade was released and its stunning hidden clue to the missing World War Two treasure stayed with me for decades, long after I’d forgotten Audrey Hepburn’s flirtation with Cary Grant, or the Paris street scenes. By then I had moved from the Hardy Boys to Sherlock Holmes, fascinated by the Baker Street sleuth’s ability to see more at a crime scene than the dull witted police. “Rache” was not in fact someone’s aborted attempt to spell the name Rachel and reveal the killer; it was German for revenge. “You see Watson, but you do not observe!” I started trying to pay more attention after that, counting the recurring motifs in a carpet and the unusual stains on a stranger’s hands (ink, paint – or blood?!)

Drawn to the mystery element

My interest went beyond genre fiction, I was drawn to the mystery element in so many literary classics, from Bleak House to The Moonstone. And wasn’t it the wrong driver in the wrong car fake-out that really hooked me into The Great Gatsby? After all, the book is, among many other things, an ingenious murder mystery.

And the movies that thrilled me in my twenties, from Chinatown to The Parallax View to All the President’s Men, involved red herrings and deceptions and hidden powerful villains crouched in the dark central webs of intrigue and power. It should have been obvious, I was meant to write mysteries pitting my righteous (if sometimes confused) police chief against the plutocrats, all along. I’ve finally accepted who I am and what I do.

That may be why I love doing it so much.