Archive for ‘Claire DeWitt’

May 23, 2011

Quincy & Columbo & the Cassandras of television: more influences on Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Columbo, as he appeared in volume 7 of Case Closed

Image via Wikipedia

The world of TV detectives is too huge and wonderful to cover in a blog post or two, or even a lifetime. So I’m going to focus on just a few here today. And while all police work is interesting, we are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work–the world of forensic medicine.

Oh, Quincy, the Cassandra of TV! And Columbo, his darker twin, sans houseboat. What Quincy and Columbo have in common is this: they always know the solution to the mystery, and no one ever believes them. Cassandra, of course, was a figure from greek mythology: Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy, but cursed her so no one would believe her (in another version of the myth snakes licked her ears clean so she could hear the truth)–just as, apparantly, Quincy and Columbo were cursed. Interestingly, though, these hexed states led to different trajectories–and, as all of us have a little Cassandra in them, interesting takes on how this archtypical human condition of knowing-but-ignored might play out.

In Quincy”s case he is thwarted, as we all know, by the internal authority figures of the LAPD and the Coroner’s Office. People outside of his immediate circle (and, in fairness, those closest to him at the coroner’s office) understand that this is a wise man more than capable of solving the mystery at hand. But that Leiutenant/Father/Priest/Authority-Most-High just can’t se it! The Emporor with a new set of clothes, the King corrupted by power–what the fuck is this Lieutenant’s problem? Quincy is always right! Eight years and 148 episodes and the Lieutenant could not overcome his ego, his desire to cling to his version of the “truth,” like Hitler in his bunker, even as all evidence of that “truth” crumbled around him. He could not put the truth before being right. What a valuable lesson for us all.  No one had the nerve to speak the truth except Quincy. Despite the formulaic plots and the melodrama there was a purity to Quincy’s mission, a knight-in-shining-armor quality, a sense of a men with an impossible mission who, knowing the impossibility, went on nonetheless because this mission was the right thing to do. We can’t say that about many people.  There’s that crazy old woman who sits on the corner and protests the war. There’s that one guy holding a picket sign in front of the drugstore because they screw their employees and he got fired like five years ago and no one cares. The old hippie who lives in a bus in the woods because he didn’t want to pay taxes that would go to napalm Vietnam. Underneath the allure of the houseboat and the ladies and the jazzy casual slacks, that is Quincy–that despised voice of sanity so rare and pure that those around him judge him insane.

Columbo’s path, as we all know, was different. Quincy yelled and screamed and railed against authority (and I think we all know, like Chevy Chase in Foul Play, what Quincy was doing to get the smell of formaldehide out his nose once he retired to his houseboat). Columbo took a more sly and, dare I say, wiser approach. Although to be fair Columbo faced a different set of challenges–he had a reasonable degree of support within the LAPD, if I remember right (weren’t Quincy and Columbo in LA at the same time? Did they know each other?). Columbo always knew who did it. But everyone who he met–especially his own High Priests, the wealthy and powerful men of Los Angeles–thought he was an idiot. But of course, Columbo never yelled or screamed or faught authority head-on. Instead, he used people’s misperceptions to his advantage, dissembling, confusing, and creating a haze around his work. there was something witchy about Columbo and frankly, something very feminine–the way he handled authority was a stereotypically female way of dealing with strength. This is also a tool opressed minority groups have used to deflect attention away from their strength. Columbo walked into a room of rich and powerful men and, dismissed as a fool, overheard everything and let no clue slip his gaze. Like the court jester who’s lowly position enabled him to speak the truth without directly challenging the Emporer, Columbo used his lowly position to get closer to the ground, where the snakes would be more likely to clean his ears. Did anyone ever believe Columbo? It didn’t really matter. By the end of every episode he hard proof, proof even the Big Hollywood Producer couldn’t make dissapear. No one had to believe in Columbo.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that Quincy wanted to believed, while Columbo wanted the truth to be served? That Quincy, while clearly in service to the truth, was also in service, maybe just a little, of his ego? Those of you who were eager young anarchists in the eighties and nineties (some of us still are!) might remember a book called TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey, the author, argued that challenging the structures of authority head-on was a waste of time. You have a revolution and then ten years later the “revolutionaries” are just as bad as the people they revolted against. Instead he suggested ignoring authority, and creating Temporary Autonomous Zones–places where one would be free to pursue the truth as one sees it without asking for permission or waiting for the answer. Might I be so bold as to suggest that this was exactly what Columbo did, and exactly what Quincy did not do? And I think, but can’t say for certain, that Columbo was happier.

May 19, 2011

Holy shit, my book is in stores!

by Sara Gran

Holy shit, my book is in stores!

This is my fourth book and I admit, it isn’t as big of a roller-coaster ride as the first. Thank God. Those of you have published books before know what I mean. When you have a new book out, every day is an endless spectrum of opportunities for terrible and wonderful things to happen. It’s a bit much to take. Bad reviews. No reviews. Good reviews that don’t get it. Too much attention. Not enough attention. Too much to do. Nothing to do (much worse!). Your book is in bookstores and everyone will see it and know how dumb it is. Your book isn’t in bookstores and no one will see it and know how fucking brilliant you are! Your old boyfriends are going to read it. Or, worse, your old boyfriends will see the book in the bookstore, look at the jacket, put it down, and not read it. And they will do this in front of people you know. Thousands of them. And they will laugh and laugh and their laughter will be heard around the world and reported in every single blog everyone has ever read since the beginning of time.

So it’s better to take a broad view, and not get wrapped up in the little details. I think. You can’t get too excited about the good stuff without getting too wrapped up in the bad stuff. True, it doesn’t bring as much pleasure this way, but it also doesn’t bring as much pain. It’s one of many books, and whether a success or a failure, it won’t be the last. And even the good stuff–the good reviews, the praise, the events where people actually come–can feed your ego in a way that is necessarily healthy or advantageous. Careers are not, contrary to what many say, built the sales or lack thereof of one book. Careers are built pretty much on one thing only: not giving up. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll work like hell to sell this book. But if it doesn’t sell, on to the next one.

Still, though, all that being said: HOLY SHIT MY BOOK IS IN STORES!

May 11, 2011

where time never starts: Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin; more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Publicity photograph of Rex Stout, author of t...

Rex Stout via Wikipedia

Another series that really made me want to write my own detective series was Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe series. My father read these when I was growing up and they were kind of just always there–I don’t remember ever not having read them. There’s a lot that’s remarkable about this series, but one aspect that particularly inspired me when starting my owns series was how masterfully Stout pulls together strands from different types of mystery novels and sub-genres. Nero Wolfe, a big fat man from Montenegro who rarely leaves his house and cares about orchids and food more than people, is a classic Sherlock-Holmes-type Genius Detective. His sidekick and assistant (and narrator), Archie Goodwin, is a hardboiled, wisecracking Watson, a more cheerful (much more cheerful) Phillip Marlowe. The series takes place in New York and different clients and cases represent a range of types of mysteries: locked door mysteries, noir femme fatale stories, Agatha Christie-type puzzles. Stout’s (I keep writing “Wolfe’s”!) genius was to blend these different strands seamlessly, offering the reader the best of all worlds. There’s a grittiness to Archie and the way he lives, but there’s little actual violence or bloodshed in the books. There’s a lot of intellectual puzzles to work out and a lot of poisonings-of-the-duchess, but also plenty of noir-ish dialogue between Goodwin and his nemesis Inspector Cramer. And of course, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are wonderful characters, or the whole thing wouldn’t work. Wolfe is basically a colossal asshole most of the time, which makes the times when he isn’t really stand out. And Goodwin is nearly always a good guy, which makes you sit up and notice when he isn’t. Formulas can be a good thing when the formula supports, rather than restrains–and of, course, when it’s a good formula!

Like with Vachss’ Burke series, one of Wolfe’s strength’s is building an entire world–Saul Panzer, Fritz, and Inspector Cramer were as real to me as people in my own home. I read the books out of order, and I didn’t read the first, Fer-de-Lance, until about eight years ago. I’d always wondered how Stout set the stage for this world–how Archie and Nero Wolfe met, how Wolfe came to live in the brownstone on 38th Street, how they got off on such a bad foot with Cramer. Here’s how he does it: he doesn’t. The first book in the series is just like every other book in the series. Stout just drops you down in his world and you never find out anything about how they came together (I mean anything more than you learn in the other books–you do get bits and pieces as time goes on). I think that’s such a brilliant solution to the problem of setting a scene, and in fact to a lot of problems we face in writing novels. Just don’t do it. There’s no easier solution!

May 7, 2011

Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran

Image via Wikipedia

One reason I wanted to write a detective series was the chance to stay with a character beyond one book. One of the joys of reading a detective novel is visiting not just the detective every year or so (or seven, in Chandler’s case), but checking in with all his friends, family, and enemies, who of course now are YOUR friends, family, and enemies too. And writing a series, the pleasure is even more so. It’s really fun for me to know that even the little characters I’m writing now I can visit with again whenever I want.

Of course, lots of writers are wonderful at this, but one, to me, stands out: Andrew Vachss with his Burke series. For those of you who don’t know–well, first of all, go buy a Burke book! But in the meantime I’ll tell you: Burke, aka Baby Boy Burke, is not exactly a PI. He’s a former foster child, abuse victim, and career criminal who was “adopted” during a turn in prison by the Prof, a street hustler, who may be the Professor or the Prophet. Burke sometimes solves mysteries and sometimes commits crimes and sometimes does both. Over the years their family-of-choice grows to include sister Michelle, a transsexual prostitute who, along with her partner the Mole (a Jewish tech genius/Israel supporter), adopts Terry, a child sold into prostitution by his biological father; Mama, owner of a Chinese restaurant/smuggling operation and her non-biological son Max the Silent, a martial artist who marries Lily, an advocate for abused children. Together they have Flower, who, along with Terry, is in college when the series ends (or so I think–I’ll get to that in a sec). As you can tell I know these characters well. The first of the eighteen books, Flood, came out in 1985; I probably started reading them in the early nineties and I think I’ve read every one at least once, most two or more times. No one I’ve read does as good a job as Vachss as making you feel like his characters are not only real, but that their world is your world. He manages to age them, and have them change for better and worse in all the ways people do change, without diminishing the intensity of the series or their conflicts. People change, people have children, people (well, animals) die, people move, people have long periods of time when you don’t really see them and you don’t know what they’re doing, and people do pretty much nothing sometimes. Just like life.

But a few years ago, Vachss decided to end the series. I’m sure he had his reasons, and if that sounds bitter, it is. And I can’t bring myself to read the last book, Another Life. I bought it when it came out and got about a quarter of the way through when I put it away and, without meaning to, haven’t opened it again. And I don’t think I will. I think that some part of me wants to keep thinking a new one might come along–that Burke, the Prof, Michelle, Mama, et al, will continue to be a part of my life. I also feel–unfairly and irrationally–angry and kind of betrayed that Vachss isn’t writing any more about Burke. Believe me, I don’t think that position is defensible at all–I think it’s terrible! But it’s how I feel, and when I started to read Another Life I couldn’t put those feelings aside and enjoy it. I think once every year or so now I’ll reread one of the old Burkes, though. I’m obviously not at all ready to say goodbye.

Oddly, as much as I love the Burke books, my favorite Vachss book is a stand-alone, Shella, haunting narrative of a pretty demented guy and his demented girl. Isn’t that just about every story we love in a nutshell?

May 3, 2011

female PIs and the class of 82: Sue Grafton and Julie Smith; the books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Image via Wikipedia

As many of you know I went to MALICE DOMESTIC for the first time this past weekend, the big detective fiction conference in Bethesda–Claire DeWittis my first detective novel and it’s introducing me to a bunch of new people, which is always one of many treats of a new book–each book opens whole new doors for you into crowds of cool and interesting people. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching the wonderful Julie Smith interview Sue Grafton, two major inspirations for me. You can’t write a female PI novel without giving credit to these two, who started publishing female PI novels in the early eighties along with Margaret Maron, Sara Paretsky, and a few other trailblazers.  Of course, before this rash of ladies in 1980–83 there had been isolated female dicks here and there, but I don’t know of any long-running series featuring female detectives before these guys came along, and certainly none that reached a mass audience. So it was a real thrill and, honestly, an honor to spend a little time with Julie and Sue this weekend, and watching their interview was like a master class on writing fiction.

It’s funny how once someone is so freaking successful, like Sue Grafton, it seems inevitable. So I was surprised to learn that this didn’t come easily for Sue. She wrote seven or eight books before A is For Alibi (she said one, I think unfinished, was about a boy who lived with a pack of wild dogs–I would have liked to read that!). Even after she finally got a deal for A, it only sold 6300 copies (which is among the reasons it’s so collectible as a first edition now). She didn’t quit her day job until something like G. It’s reassuring to know she had struggles like we all do–and also a little scary to think how she would fare in today’s publishing climate, which is more and more focused on instant success.

One thing I’ve noticed about more experienced writers, whether best-sellers like Sue or some guy who’s been writing in his garage, is that they have a lot of insight to share. (Another treat this weekend was to spend a few minutes talking to Raymond Buckland, best-known as a writer on the occult since 1970, selling bajillions of books, who’s now written a few thriller/PI novels–he had that same air of comfortable knowing that many of the experienced, dedicated writers I’ve met have).  Sue’s been writing these books since 1982, and she’s stayed true to herself and her vision of the series. She had some really interesting thoughts on the Shadow versus the Ego–in their interview she said that during one book (T, maybe?) she’d felt like she needed help and a friend hooked her up with a Jungian therapist who she worked with a bit. The therapist helped her understand that we need to write from our Shadow–our darker, stranger, more intuitive self–and put our Ego–our judge-y, eager to please, what-will-my-mom-think self–aside. We need to set it all up so the Ego serves the Shadow, not the other way around. One corollary of this was what she called “eating the death cookie,” a neat phrase I’d never heard before. if I understood right, eating the death cookie is when Ego takes one for the Shadow. The example Sue used was convincing her publisher (Henry Holt at the time) that she couldn’t keep up the pace of one book a year, and had to bring it down to a book every two years (a topic I have a lot of thoughts on myself, which I will spare you for the moment!). She sat in her publisher’s office and just told them she couldn’t do it. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it hurt her ego to displease them, but she let the Ego take one for the Shadow. The Shadow needs to understand that the Ego will eat that death cookie for it to feel safe. I think that’s fantastic. I was really happy to find out that Sue has a kind of semi-mystical view of writing similar to my own, as so many writers I meet these days seem to view it as a business (to me, writing is a mystical practice; publishing is a job).

One a related note, in their interview Sue said, “It does not serve us as writers to envy other writers…focus on your own work, and do it as well as you can.” She said there’s always someone selling more and someone selling less, always someone making more money and someone making less. Don’t waste your time worrying about it. No one can write what you write and you can’t write what they write. I also thought it was neat that she keeps a notebook for every book she writes, where she jots down not only ideas, dialog, et cetera but also her fears about the book. When she encounters those same fears again, she can go back and see well, yeah, she THAT book also would be a bomb, but it all turned out fine.

Another interesting topic was how Sue came up with the titles. She said at the time A was published a lot of writers were doing series with related titles, and Sue’s father was a writer who began a series based around a nursery rhyme:  THE RAT BEGAN TO GNAW THE ROPE and THE ROPE BEGAN TO HANG THE BUTCHER, which sound strange and fascinating. But I was really overjoyed to hear the idea for the alphabet came from Edward Gorey‘s the Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of my favorite things ever!

Unrelated, but speaking of good advice from older writers: when I worked at Housing Works Bookstore  Alan Furst once came in for a reading (who according to the never-wrong internet first started publishing in 1976). We had readings two or three days a week there, and I already knew dozens of writers on my own (I’d published one or two books), but Furst stands out for his kindness, professionalism, and good advice (if you want to know what writers are REALLY like, work in a bookstore with lots of events!). We were making small talk and he mentioned to me that when you’re doing a reading from your book, 13 or 14 minutes is about as long as you want to read. After that the audience starts to get restless. He was of course entirely correct (you can talk longer than that, just not read from your book uninterrupted) , and I’ve abided by the Alan Furst Rule ever since.

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