The Breakable Professionals
What I know about Stories / August 3, 2018

I love the way things evolve.  (Don’t be scared if you’re feeling fundamentalist; I’m not talking Darwin here).  I mean that as standards of civilizations and cultures change, standards of popular arts morph along with the culture.  In that way, we can study the values of any era by looking at what was created and celebrated during that time.  And, since mysteries have been popular literature since the first “whodunit” was created, we can trace see how some protagonists have changed along with the times.  Of all of these “standard” characters, none has changed more than the professional detective.  They’ve gone from flat feet to tortured souls. Think of literature’s early detective heroes, Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.  (Okay, so Auguste wasn’t a professional detective, but he’s close).  Fans referred to them as human thinking machines because they solved puzzles with rational, deductive thought and neither allowed emotion to clog up their thinking.  Which makes them fascinating characters to follow but not someone a reader can identify with.  Self- doubt never undermines either man, and although both men have weaknesses, they’re never disabled by them. Let’s face it, these guys are great, but we’re not sure that they’re human.  Sam Spade took a…

The Sedentarians
What I know about Stories / July 17, 2018

For some folks, mysteries are two-sided stories.  There’s always the central puzzle to solve: usually who left a corpse (or corpses) laying around.  Then there’s the motive behind the misdeed.  But what keeps a lot of mystery readers glued to the page is the thrill of the chase.  They stay awake for hours, mentally following a Sam Spade or Cormoran Strike from one risky scenario to the next, taking on all comers in a fight to the finish.  It’s grand entertainment when it’s done right.  But they’re not on the menu today. This is a salute to the mega-brains of detective fiction, those sleuths who never break a sweat.  Literature refers to them as “arm-chair detectives.”  They’re Sedentarians, to me. I know a bit about Sedentarians from my father’s side of the family.  I saw them in action, so to speak, as a kid.  Yes, my dad’s folks were farmers originally, but whenever we went for a visit, the family got together and sat.  And sat. For hours on end. Until, if sitting was an Olympic Sport, my family would all have been medalists.  But, however stationary my relatives could be, none of them were a patch on Mycroft Holmes. If you…

The Wunderkinds.
What I know about Stories / June 26, 2018

The child is father of the man, at least that’s what Wordsworth wrote. (Wasn’t he a loquacious so-&-so?) That means the things we love as kids often influence our tastes as adults.  I am (unfortunately) old enough  to acknowledge the truth in this observation, but I wonder if writers deliberately trade on this idea. After all, how do you create adult readers who’ll love Fantasy/Science Fiction?  Wait until they’re old enough to vote and then give them a copy of Dune?  No, you introduce them to the genre while they’re young, with kid’s stories written by great SF authors like Heinlein  and LeGuin. But creating under-age Mystery readers is a slightly more difficult proposition.  After all, Mysteries almost always involve Violent Crime, and we don’t want the Little Darlings to have nightmares.  (Well, we may, but we won’t sell as many books if they do.)  So how do you create the next generation of Nero Wolfe and Alex Cross fans? By giving them mysteries with juvenile detectives, of course! Early Juvenile Detectives When I was first learning to read, there were three fictional superstars of kid-lit whodunits.  Well,  seven characters but three detective teams: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys….

The Subversives
What I know about Stories / June 19, 2018

Hang around book-nerds types long enough and you’ll hear them mention the word “subversive.”  Subversive themes, subversive protagonists, subversive…well, you get the picture.  Now, before you decide all English professors and book-club members need to be on some government watch list, what they’re talking about are the aspects of a story that make you rethink your assumptions. Part of this rethinking is part of any mystery or detective story. But some literary detectives succeed because they subvert the assumptions other characters make about them.  Like that lovely old snoop, Miss Jane Marple. Early Detective Subversives In Agatha Christie’s stories, Miss Jane appears to be the quintessential English Spinster.  She gardens, she bakes, she wears nothing but tweed (I think) and she lives in a small, English Village. The kind of lady most people expect is sweet and rather naive.  But beneath those fluffy curls and an abominable hat sits an observant and cynical brain. Not much gets past that shrewd, old dame. And when she comes up with some pithy, insightful observation, she subverts the other characters’ expectations.  See what I mean? But if Miss Jane set the standard of the unexpected detective, she’s had lots of followers since. One of my…

The original Odd Couple: Holmes and Watson
What I know about Stories / June 5, 2018

Detective Fiction’s First Odd Couple There are all kinds of mystery stories, filled with all different types of detectives, but if you’re going back to the roots of the mystery series types, the Granddaddies of them have got to be Holmes and Watson.  They’re the original Adama-&-Eve, Mutt-&-Jeff, Odd Couple detective team and the template they set up is fierce. An Early portrait of the Dynamic Duo Thank you, Wikipedia! The most noticeable team member is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first and foremost consulting detective. Brilliant, acerbic, and emotionally detached almost to a pathological degree, he’s the star of the series and he knows it.  But Holmes isn’t chasing villains for glory or cash; he’s in it for the fun and the science. Believe it or not, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world (and law enforcement agencies) to the world of criminal forensics through Holmes’s obsession with crime scene details and deductive logic. But, if Sherlock Holmes is so great, why did the author need Watson? Simple. Watson is the person who needs to tell the story because that’s the last thing Holmes would do.  If “The Great Detective” decided to write up his adventures, what would he emphasize?  Would he capture the…

What Makes up a Great Mystery Series?
What I know about Stories / May 24, 2018

So, I’ve been thinking…. (Yes, I have!  If you wonder where I’ve been for weeks and weeks, I’ve been lost in the woods thinking.  And, despite the heat of the oncoming summer, I believe I’ve come up with a thought.) Of all the fictional genres out there, one of the most-popular (if not the most) is the mystery novel.  I’m not sure what it says about humanity, but almost half of us who read for enjoyment, find nothing more relaxing than curling up with a story about murder and mayhem.  Maybe we like these stories because of the implicit drama involved, or we like the good guy/bad guy aspect.  Maybe it’s the aspect of solving puzzles we favor.  For whatever reason, a lot of people like mysteries.   And some of the most successful mysteries are part of an ongoing series. Go hang out with a book club or the mystery/thriller section any bookstore around, and you’ll see what I mean.  Sooner or later you’ll hear someone ask about “the latest Alex Cross” or “the next Kay Scarpetta,” which can sound a little odd, to a newbie.  Fact is, both names belong to fictional sleuths who each star in their own best-selling series of mystery…

Lost in the Fog of a Story

It’s been foggy as all get out this week. I don’t mean one of dark, pea-soup fogs that blacken city centers for days, but a daily, thick, white, winter mist that layers everything outdoors in microscopic droplets and obscures any object more than 30 feet away. Fogs that makes the world seem even colder than it is. We’re talking weather an English Teacher can use to lecture about creating “atmosphere.” Well, fog works in stories, doesn’t it? The very nature of the phenomena creates confusion, where good things and bad are hidden, and individuals are isolated. Writers have been using fog as set-dressing, plot-device, and symbols for longer than I care to think about. Since we’re stuck inside until the sun breaks through, why not take a look one or two stories that turned these earth-bound clouds into art? Fog and England have been associated for so long, it’s practically become a cliche. Yet, if you are talking about bright, white, fog, forget about the stories of London. The soot and sulfur-filled clouds that permeate Bleak House and every Ripper tale ever written are peculiar to the city. Instead, look toward the southern coast for one of the greatest Gothic stories…

The Writer who Changed the World, One Story at a Time

Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.  It’s an incredible milestone, one no other ruler of England has attained, and she deserves all the honor and respect she gets.  The woman has seen a lot of changes during her reign, but that’s not what England should celebrate today. Today marks the 205th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the most influential Britons and writers of any time. He didn’t just watch the world change, he changed our language and world with his stories. He was the literary Colossus of the Victorian Age, and his influence is still felt today.   Dickens in his early years The life of Dickens holds enough drama to fuel a multi-season mini-series. His terrible childhood has become so well-known we label all other impoverished, chaotic beginnings as “Dickensian.”  The funny thing is, he tried to hide these facts for years. Destitution was considered a social and character defect in the Regency and Victorian Eras and Dickens spent much of his life’s energy trying to get as far away from his impoverished past as he could. That drive turned him into a law clerk, a court reporter, a freelance journalist and finally…

Mr. K and the A, B, Cs of reading
What I know about Stories / December 22, 2016

My Friend, Mandy My friend Mandy reads lots of books.  Well, most of my friends like to read but Mandy reads more than most.  And she worries about accidentally embarrassing someone who reads less than she does when she admits how much she reads. She has a good heart that way. But having audited more than my share of competitions about “who reads the most”, I’ve learned to shy away from those conversations. Like Mandy, I think a person’s literacy level can’t be determined by the number of books they’ve read, but I also think that level is based on more than pages and the reading difficulty are involved.  For that, I still turn to Mr K’s A-B-Cs of reading. Mr K was one of my high-school English teachers and one of the more popular instructors in school. Funny, intelligent and a bit daring, he escorted herds of reluctant adolescents through the thickets of 20th Century American Literature and he gave very reasonable tests.  As a matter of fact, the students in his classes got to choose which of his tests they’d take. It was a pretty simple concept.  For every assigned book, Mr K had three essay options, designated “A”, “B” and “C”…

Something Nasty in the Nursery: Gothic Children’s Fiction
What I know about Stories / December 16, 2016

The books we loved and cherished as kids say a lot about us as adults.  Any grown woman who remembers Ramona Quimby or Katie John fondly probably has an independent streak.  The boys who grew up reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Science Fiction for kids grew up to be men with an interest in science.  But what do you say to the kids who fell for The Graveyard Book, Lemony Snicket’s series and The Mysterious Benedict Society?  Welcome to the World of Gothic Literature, kiddies; your crypt is right this way? I hope not because Gothic doesn’t always equate to horror or an obsession with death.  What it promises is a spooky atmosphere where anything could happen.  The decrepit old cottage may turn out to be as wholesome as milk, the confining hills may be nothing but hills, but at first glance, every setting borders on the extreme.  The castle isn’t a castle, but a ruin, the land isn’t boggy and cold, it’s a moor where you might get stuck and sink to your doom.  Doom is a big concept in Gothic Lit. as is the idea of all things extreme.  The heroes are usually resourceful and brave, their adventures are perilous and…

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