It’s not just the Tale, it’s how you tell it!

Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is currently enjoying a revival in New York and I couldn’t be happier that it’s back. The show has an unforgettable score and a legendary history of being a brilliant, beloved failure. Well, “failure”‘s not a really fair description. Merrily challenges audiences and casts because of the way they tell the story: it’s backward.

The Story

It’s a pretty simple story told the traditional way. Two young guys and a girl are best friends and colleagues, all working to break into show business. They hang out together, brainstorm ideas and cheer each other on while the rest of the world ignores them. Eventually, they each catch that all-important break but success does what years of failure couldn’t do; it splits up the team. Like I said, a simple story and a sad one when you tell it that way.

But tell it back to front and watch what happens! Right out the door, there’s the climactic fight that murders a friendship that existed for decades! Then back up a bit and you watch the information bomb drop that makes that last fight inevitable. Back it up again and you see the same characters again, a bit younger and nicer but making mistakes you know they’re going to regret. And on and on it goes, each layer revealing more of what makes you care about the people and hate the disastrous choices you know they’re making. It’s a brilliant, difficult technique and that’s why I love it. Because it’s not what story you tell, but how you tell it.

…and how its told

If each story is a raw diamond, the way its told cuts it, like the jeweler. Each choice brings out different facets. For example, let’s take perspective. Change the perspective in a story and you go from Wizard of Oz to Wicked. Or from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to Hamlet. Now make your narrator unreliable and you have stories with twist endings like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” or “The Haunting of Hill House“. Or show that the story is bigger than anyone imagines by showing the same event from lots of different, limited perspectives (Rashomon). These are all literary techniques authors use to make a story sparkle.

Long-running TV shows love messing around with storytelling techniques. They keep the show interesting and give watchers new and layered insights into the characters. The point is how the story is told is at least as important as important as the story itself. And smart writers (and readers) know that.

So, welcome back, Merrily We Roll Along. I hope you enjoy a successful production. After what you’ve been through, you deserve something good. And thank you for your clever story-telling device. It’s a crazy, brilliant idea.

I think it’s Time for a Change

I started this blog years ago because I had a story to tell. A story about how two irreconcilable sisters learned to work together. Somebody told me before I could publish my book, I had to have readers which meant I needed to write a blog. When they asked what I could write a lot about, I replied, “Stories.”

Why Stories?

See, I think stories are the most powerful magic we wield. You can change a person’s future with a story. Think of all those people who started working toward law school once they read about Atticus Finch. The veterinarians who followed James Herriot into the profession. Think of the destruction caused by Mein Kamp.

But stories can change history as well. For centuries, Richard III has been vilified, not from the facts but because the next king spread nasty stories about him. And those stories made it into a great play. Sometimes the fictional story is so engaging, that we forget what really happened. Or a well-told story can rescue the truth from obscurity.

The thing is, stories, good stories, can undermine all our defenses. They let us see connections we were blind to before. They find the fear hiding deep in our hearts and linger in the corners of memory. They won’t let us go. Those are the tales I like to describe as “The Ones that Follow Us Home.

So What Will Change?

Well, I’ve spent 4 years writing (mostly) about stories other people have published and I think it’s time for a change. I still love taking about good books and I’ll continue to talk about some of those. But I want to change things up a bit.

I want to tell you some tales I care about that other folks haven’t written down. Ideas that have meaning for me. Stories that followed me home.

Like the tale of two little girls who believed they had nothing in common beyond a timeline and DNA. That’s a story still waiting to be told…some other day.

The Breakable Professionals

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.

[amazon_link asins=’0679722645′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’f662772c-9dcb-11e8-a5dc-ef9e1f1e247e’] Sam Spade took a step towards humanity, even if it was a baby step.  On the surface, he looked and acted like the hard-edged, tough guy/private eye that Dashiell Hammett first dubbed “The Continental Op”.  And ultimately, he does the makes the difficult but right decisions. But read Maltese Falcon again and you’ll notice that Spade is guards something carefully than even The Black Bird: his feelings.  Whatever else he may think about Miles Archer, Spade respects him as a partner and Archer’s murder disturbs him badly.  We don’t know this at first, because Spade keeps that secret to himself, but it steers every step of his investigation.  And when Archer’s murderer turns out to be the woman Spade loves, it costs him to turn her over to the police.  He gives her up nevertheless because it’s the right thing to do.  But we learn just enough to realize how difficult that decision was.

 

[amazon_link asins=’0425228223′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’905c1ad3-9dca-11e8-8952-0522da58f85d’]By the latter 20th century, mystery detectives were feeling fear and self-doubt and by the millennium, they were downright troubled.  Thomas Harris‘s Will Graham is a brilliant detective and profiler but his exposure to evil and his own ability to imagine scenarios from a killer’s perspective put him in the hospital more than once.  Graham is a man uncomfortable doing what he does best, even though what he does serves mankind.  The same can be said for Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta, though not for the same reasons.  Like the BBC’s detective, Jane Tennison, and Val McDermid‘s Carol Jordan, Scarpetta is an ambitious, gifted woman often frustrated by the political, male-dominated world of criminal justice.  All three of these fictional, female crime-fighters endure unhappy personal lives. They make mistakes. And all three of them, at times, drink too much.[amazon_link asins=’0425230163,B0030MQJXM,B0045UADFI’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c50ce076-9dca-11e8-88b3-df8d4ab3e619′]

[amazon_link asins=’B000OIZUUS’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e3a29de2-9dca-11e8-be18-3f50e44b37b5′]——–Lincoln Rhyme and Cormoran Strike add to the list of contemporary detectives with acknowledged physical and emotional vulnerabilities.  Lincoln is almost completely paralyzed and in his first fictional appearance (The Bone Collector) is so depressed, he is searching for a way to commit suicide. Cormoran Strike (first seen in The Cuckoo’s Calling) has no steadiness either in his personal or professional life and he’s missing part of a leg. But both of these detectives have training, brains and female colleagues equipped with their own talents and demons. Let the villains beware.[amazon_link asins=’0316206857′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8e41d0cf-9dcb-11e8-b7a1-4f8a580df689′]

Today’s literary detectives are strong enough to be admirable but vulnerable enough to be human.  And that makes their stories even more fun to read.

The Sedentarians

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 follow Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Mycroft first shows up in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter“, and has the dubious distinction of being the only person who can make Sherlock Holmes feel stupid.  (It would be a sibling, right?) In many ways Mycroft is Sherlock on steroids; if Sherlock is smart, Mycroft is brilliant.  Sherlock is difficult; Mycroft, impossible.  But when Sherlock is confused, his bigger (in every way) brother is the person he turns to.  Because, although he doesn’t move, Mycroft thinks.  And his thoughts solve international mysteries without ever leaving his chair.
It’s a great idea for a character right?  Rex Stout must have thought so because he created another great armchair detective, Nero Wolfe.  But, instead of being a supporting character, like Mycroft Holmes, Nero Wolfe carries 40 plus years of a detective series.  With a chef to cook his meals and Archie Goodwin for checking details, Mr. Wolfe spends his time eating, gardening and solving crimes.  And he’s damn good at it.
But that brings up a fairly good point because few sedentarians work alone (Auguste Dupin may be the exception).  For all of their perception and intelligence, Mycroft and Nero both need someone to do occasional leg-work.  Another of the armchair detectives in contemporary fiction, Val McDermid’s, Stacy Chen knows she lives in two universes.  In the asphalt-and-steel world, she doesn’t (and can’t) contribute much to her boss’s investigations; among other things, Stacy lacks social skills.  But Stacy, in her chair, dances through a virtual world of information, where flesh-and-blood detectives have barely learned to crawl.
And, for that reason alone, the future of the Sedentarian detectives like Lincoln Rhyme have a wide-open future in fiction.  Armed with knowledge, technology, and first-class brains, a detective can investigate real crime in a virtual world.  Or virtual crime here.  Really, a socially-frustrated, hyper-intelligent, nosy-parker with wifi might be our next great detective hero.
I’d sit down to read that!

The Wunderkinds.

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![amazon_link asins=’0448466759′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’eaafff07-9e68-11e8-ba3f-fd27745ad13e’]

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. On the page, they were the Wunderkinds.

[amazon_link asins=’0448480190′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’020d9866-9e69-11e8-9fb9-afaa7d1e275b’]

[amazon_link asins=’0448446189′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’1c572cf1-9e69-11e8-b457-37bbd2dcaf9f’]On one level, they all looked like ordinary kids with affluent, middle-class lives. Kids that most adults overlook. But look at them again, and you’ll see they’re junior adults.  Nancy Drew is independent and talented, Frank and Joe Hardy never lose their nerve, and of the four Bobbsey Twins, only Freddie shows a mischevious streak.  To me, that’s a flaw since no hero should be too good to identify with. Still, the subtext was clear: in some circumstances, if kids do the right things, they can rule.  They’re as smart and brave as the adults and, if they match wits with any bad guy or bully, they can come out on top, usually without too much help from a parent.  A sentiment guaranteed to make most kids cheer.

Contemporary Juvenile Detectives

 

A whole raft of fictional juvenile detectives have followed these prototypes from Encyclopedia Brown through Flavia deLuce and the newer heroes have more of a real-life kid’s feelings and issues.  But the essence of the juvenile detective hasn’t changed: youth’s zeal and integrity, mixed with a world-class intelligence and the emotional maturity of an adult whenever the chips are down.  Come to think of it, that’s winning combination at any age.[amazon_link asins=’0385343493′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’37a07fab-9e69-11e8-b694-cb88c90ad15f’]