Monday, November 12, 2018

The Perfect Detective

So, you’ve picked your victim. You’ve plotted out the way they’ll die. You know why they’re about to be murdered. You may even know how their body will be discovered. Now what?

You’ve got to pick someone to solve this delicious crime.

Depending on your process, you may already have your detective in mind, but, if you’re like me, you may have fallen into your mystery with the mystery first and everything else secondary.

A little backstory. I was driving to work one day in the horrible traffic that no city as small as Baton Rouge should possibly be able to produce on a daily basis, when I began to reminisce about my band. It was something I did every so often. Something would remind me of one of my bandmates and down I’d go through memory lane.

On this particular morning, I was thinking about my former drummer. He had this large hardware case for all his cymbal stands, drum throne, drum heads, and whatever kind of accessory a 29-year-old man with a very good job and very few responsibilities could buy. This thing was a beast; and because our bassist lived in Hammond and not New Orleans, I was generally lifting the other end to help heft the damn thing out of our second-floor warehouse space, down the rickety steps and into the drummer’s Jeep. And he made the same joke every time. 

“She was a good ol’ girl, but I just had to go and kill her.”

I think he made it every time, because the first time he made it, I did actually laugh because I was imagining myself into a gangster movie disposing of a dead body at exactly that same moment.

However, after the thirtieth time, it did lose its charm. 

So, flash forward years later and I’m thinking about this as I pull into work and snicker to myself imagining the look on his face had a dead body ever come tumbling out of that box and that’s when it hit me. That spark. That arrow of creativity pierced my brain and by the end of lunch that day I had the first chapter of That Old Devil Sin.

Problem was, I had a mystery and no earthly idea how I was going to solve it or who was going to do the solving. In a traditional whodunit, the detective is as important as the whodunit. And while a mystery can be all about the mystery (see Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), I am not that disciplined of a writer to pull it off. 

Besides, I like my mysteries to have a good story and that was the kind of mystery I wanted to write. 

When you’re developing your detective and the cast of characters that surround them, you have to figure out the world in which they inhabited up until the moment that dead body makes its appearance, even if it makes its appearance in the first paragraph. 

By and large, the crime solver in every mystery falls into one of two categories: the Perfect Detective and the Flawed Detective.

The progenitor of the Perfect Detective is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. A man of genius intellect and few emotional attachments. This makes his personal life rather clean and tidy and it never interferes with his work. Let’s put aside the fact that he’s a cocaine addict and possibly a sociopath himself based on clues the modern reader can pick up from ancillary text in the stories. Sherlock Holmes is, in many ways, a detecting machine. That’s his core function. 

Hercule Poirot is another example. Sure, he’s a narcissist and possibly a closeted homosexual, but we don’t know that. We’re only guessing. Just like Sherlock Holmes, he has no inner world that is open to us.

Even when that inner world is opened, there might not be much there. Let’s take Kay Scarpetta. She’s a badass criminologist, but that’s pretty much all she is. She has few, if any, flaws. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great character, but there is very little about her that distracts from her core function: finding the killer.

As writers, however, we’re able to explore the human condition. And while having a detective with few distractions and flaws that back up on them while they’re solving the case may make your mystery clean and tidy, where’s the fun in clean and tidy?

This leads us to the Flawed Detective. Let’s take Dave Robicheaux. When we first meet Streak, he’s a low-functioning alcoholic fucking around on his wife with a stripper. Even when he gets sober, his personal life is always getting in the way of his professional crime-solving. 

Will Trent is another great example. The dude can barely read and has an on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again relationship with his childhood sweetheart to the point of exhaustion. 

Or more recently, Lisbeth Salander. A victim of sexual abuse who’s a high-function autistic with a very limited moral compass.

What makes the Flawed Detectives more fun to write, in my estimation, than the Perfect Detectives, is that you get to go off-script. You can diverge from the path of your mystery on a little daytrip down Dysfunctional Lane. You can load your mystery with distracting relationships and offstage backstory that makes your detective behave erratically. You can let your detective leap to the wrong assumptions and beat up someone they shouldn’t and feel guilty about it… or not feel guilty about it; they are flawed, after all.

My detective, Clementine “Q” Toledano is Flawed with a capital F for Fucked Up. And her partner in crime, Aaron Sanger is equally Flawed, albeit in a more staid manner. And their flaws sometimes converge to play off one another. This dynamic allows me to go to darker places than if Q was just a happy-go-lucky musician and her friend, Detective Aaron Sanger, was an NOPD crime-fighting machine.

They get to fight. They get to make up. They get to make each other laugh and hold each other when they cry. They get to drink too much and love the wrong people and jump to the wrong conclusions.

In short, they get to live.

Whatever kind of mystery you are writing, taking the time to really understand your detective will make the mystery more fun to read and, in the end, a lot easier to write. Happy #NaNoWrMo!