All the Forks in the Roads

Raffles_croppedI’m not particularly superstitious, but when my daughter asked me one day whether I had ever read any of E.W. Hornung’s stories about the gentleman thief Raffles on the very day after I had picked up a copy of Raffles:  The Amateur Cracksman in a used bookstore and read it cover-to-cover, it seemed significant.  Not so significant that I should have agreed shortly afterward to her suggestion that we give up a year or so of our lives to annotating the entire Raffles canon—but you know how it is.  I had never in all my (too) many years before read any Raffles stories at all; and then, answering to a sudden impulse, I had done so just in time to maintain my undeserved reputation as “mom-who-has-read-everything.”  I felt like I owed something to Fate.

Raffles and his somewhat thick sidekick Bunny (in case you’ve never read about him, or seen one of the myriad movies or British TV series featuring the character), are dark twins to their exact contemporaries, the Victorian/Edwardian gentleman detective Sherlock Holmes, and stodgy Dr. John Watson.

The creation of Raffles was, I think, both E.W. Hornung’s tribute to, and retaliation against, his overbearing brother-in-law Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for what must have been (judging by Conan Doyle’s surviving correspondence) a lot of pretty nasty jibes around the family dinner-table concerning Hornung’s habits, talents, and background.  Both men were novelists, and several of Hornung’s early novels were either set in, or featured, Australia—a country in which Hornung had lived for several years and of which he had fond memories.  Conan Doyle made no bones about the fact that he considered the place barely civilized.  Hornung’s father was a Hungarian immigrant; Conan Doyle (who was, um, Irish) prided himself on his thoroughgoing Englishness.  Perhaps worst of all, Hornung loved the game of cricket more than he loved breathing; but, short-sighted and asthmatic, he was terrible at it, while Conan Doyle was a very good player.  It must have stung.

By coincidence, after I had finished my part in annotating the Raffles stories, I read a brief biography of one of my favorite writers, John Fowles, who is best known, perhaps, for The French Lieutenant’s Woman* (though I personally preferred A Maggot).  While reading, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between Fowles’s life, and the life of the fictional jewel-thief, Arthur Raffles.  Both had little family, and lots of education.  Both were Head-Boy and stand-out athletes at their prep schools, and captains of their school cricket teams, for which both were bowlers.  Both made the decision, in their early adulthood, to eschew being what Fowles termed “a British Establishment young hopeful,” and follow an unconventional path in life.  Offered two jobs—one a good one at Winchester, the other a poor one at “a ratty school in Greece,” Fowles of course took the one in Greece, and turned soon after to writing novels, a disreputable profession if there ever was one.  At a similar turning-point in his life, Raffles decided to play amateur cricket and rob his social peers.

My familiarity with Raffles coupled with my admiration for John Fowles makes me the ideal candidate to write Fowles’s biography, I think.  One of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s most interesting stylistic points is that it offers readers a choice of possible endings to the story.  In writing Fowles’s biography, I’m going to do the same.  Does John Fowles become a novelist, or does he become a jewel-thief?  Knowing, as I do, how Arthur Raffles’s life played out, I can make either choice seem perfectly plausible—except for one detail.  John Fowles the novelist became rich, while Raffles the thief died penniless.  I think we all know that it usually works out the other way.

*The only novel I have ever enjoyed for its extensive footnotes.

Mysterious plots

skull_croppedI like plotting mysteries, but I don’t like to write them. This is because I’m not personally a fan of whodunits. Not so fond of the howdunit part, either. The only thing I like to write is the whydunit, and a story doesn’t have to be a mystery to have a “why.”

That said, I did once plot a pretty good murder mystery with my daughter. My daughter is much smarter than I am (my husband’s fault), and when she was young she was easily bored in the car. (She’s still easily bored in the car, as a matter of fact; but she’s no longer young so it’s not my problem anymore.) I used to amuse her by recounting the plot of whatever book I was currently reading. This worked well until the time that what I was reading was— Victorian erotica.

It was research for a novel. Honestly.

there is nothing in the world less dirty—or arousing—than Victorian erotica

Now, as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing in the world less dirty—or arousing—than Victorian erotica, with its coy references to the “nether passage,” and ladies with knee-length pubic locks; but somehow it still didn’t seem like something I ought to be discussing with a twelve-year-old. So we plotted a mystery story instead, replete with suspicious characters, midnight rendezvous, and herrings, red and otherwise. It was pretty good, actually; and my daughter was delighted.

Then I actually wrote the book and “ruined” the whole thing (my daughter’s word) by identifying the murderer in the first chapter.

I didn’t even try to get that one published, of course. Publishers of mysteries require—among other things—that you wait to reveal the identity of the killer until late in the book. If a mystery that I recently read is any indication, what they don’t require is that when you do reveal the killer, it’s someone that the reader might reasonably already suspect. I don’t want to give away to what actual story I’m referring, so I’ll just say that the killer was as tangential to the plot as that shopper you saw this morning in the grocery store with all the jars of pickles in his cart is to your life. See? You don’t even remember him. Well, if your life plays out like this particular mystery novel, somewhere in the Chapter Twenty-eight of your existence, a murdered man’s autopsy is going to reveal unexpectedly high levels of acetic acid in the victim’s blood, and you’re going to think of that shopper.

Come on, Mystery Writers; play fair with your readers! –Although, as I told my daughter, what could be fairer than telling them right off who the murderer is?

I may reuse the plot my daughter and I came up with, though—in a slightly different genre. This time I’ll make it a “Why-the-hell-are-they-doing-that”? Our story involved a plot to frame a murderer who had gotten away with her crime for a similar (staged) murder. Next time I’ll take the reader through the same long chain of events—the grieving father moving restlessly from place to place on some unnamed business, his son’s body (in a lead-lined coffin) in tow; the dead man’s fiancée grooming a young lady with a back-story suggesting desperation for an important, unspecified mission; the quest for a bottle of wine from a certain, obscure vineyard; a purloined letter; a tombstone surreptitiously relocated; the gradual, forced acquaintance forged with an unsuspecting family—without letting on about the murder that set the chain of events in motion until— well, I’ll try to make it to Chapter Four, at least. Three at the earliest.

The “purloined letter” reminds me of another reason I don’t write mysteries. In my (limited) experience, writing mysteries brings out the worst in people

I once knew two good friends, both hopeful writers of mysteries, one of whom permitted (begged, actually) the other to read her unpublished latest. The plot of this book hinged on a mysterious, purloined letter. Unfortunately, it turned out that the other writer—the one who was kind enough to read the first writer’s work—had earlier written a story in which a mysterious letter found in an old trunk was the plot-hinge. Writer One insisted that she had not read Writer Two’s book. Writer Two maintained she must not only have read it, she had shamelessly copied the most important part of it; the mysterious letter. Tempers flared; harsh words were exchanged—the last that ever passed between these two former good friends. And yes, these are grown-ups I’m talking about.

Ahem: Ladies and gentlemen, write mysteries, please. Write beaucoup mysteries, in fact: They are fun. But know, as you write, that purloined (and found) letters are not original with you. In fact, they are so common in the mystery genre that if you insist upon using them anyway, please do so ironically. As a matter of fact, so many mysteries have already been written that it is possible that there are NO clues left in the entire world for you to use that will prove entirely original. Except, as far as I know, for pickle-juice. The potentially lethal salinity of pickle-juice as a plot-device is my gift to you.

You’re welcome.