Archive for April, 2014

Who Cares Whodunnit? Part Two

April 25th, 2014

As the title suggests, this post is sort of a sequel.  If you haven’t read Part One and think you might like to, it’s right down there.

When I ran out of steam last time, I was getting into two of the things I blame for the low esteem with which some people regard mysteries and thrillers.  One was the universal human need to find someone or something to look down on  The other is the term “whodunnit” and what it implies.


The problem, on a platter

“Whodunnit,” when you think about it, isn’t a very complicated question. It can usually be answered with a single character’s name, unless you’re reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which case the answer is, “everybody.” (Sorry about the spoiler.)

And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think “Murder on the Orient Express” is a perfect book of its kind, and that I don’t actually like books of its kind. And by that, I mean books in which “whodunnit” is actually the most important thing in the story. Books in which a puzzle, rather than people, is what matters.

whodunnit 2

The usual suspects

A murder, an act of violence, needs to be taken seriously. These deed affect people – obviously not just the victim, but those who loved the victim, who hated the victim, who envied the victim, who had his or her hopes pinned on the victim. Ultimately, since such acts have a ripple effect, people who never heard of the victim.


An act of violence is an interruption of everything we planned for, all the assumptions we depended on. It’s a disruption on the world. It makes it apparent that our hopes are predicated on expectations that may not be fulfilled, on rules that some people don’t follow, on an instinctive belief in a prevailing underlying justice that may not actually exist. An act of violence, a murder, creates a crisis. And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.

I would argue that the revelation of character, of holding a human being up to the light to see how he or she works – where character is strong or weak or admirable or loathsome or flexible or rigid or holy or profane – is the primary function of fiction.

What’s most interesting to me about all this is that murder and violence – physical or emotional violence – have been used to reveal character and propel events forward in literature all over the world, from the very beginning. What’s Homer writing about?  War and survival.  The Book of Genesis takes us straight to a murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, and its repercussions. The greatest of Sophocles’ plays, “Oedipus Rex,” is a detective story with a twist, which is that the central character turns out to be the murderer. When Agatha Christie did precisely that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, it caused a minor sensation even though Sophocles had already pulled it off almost 2400 years earlier. To look at the Middle Ages, Beowulf is a straight-ahead thriller, a portrait of a society suspended, being held for ransom by violence until someone—some hero—will step forward and take action.

A classic example of serious literature using murder as the microscope for character is “Hamlet.”

Hamlet 1

You can’t have . . .

hamlet 2a. .  . “Hamlets” . . .

hamlet 3. . . without hams.

“Hamlet” presents a classic setup: a man has been killed and the job of finding the murderer and punishing him falls to the victim’s son. In fact, this situation has been used so often that it’s become a trope, one modern definition of which is “a story concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”

But in Shakespeare’s hands, the murder investigation leads us into all sorts of issues: the primacy of kings, the relationship between mother and son, the betrayal of friendship, the immeasurable value of honest friendship, the fragility of young love, the soul-sickness of the murderer, the eternal question of what sometimes keeps us from doing what we need to do even when the path is clear.

At two points, Claudius’s failed prayer and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it takes us into regions like the silence of God, the relationship between God and the human soul, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Big stuff. And all of it arises naturally from fascinating, deeply felt characters who are responding to the old-testament blunt weapon of murder.

And after Shakespeare has put us inside these characters’ hearts and souls for hours–so that Elsinore Castle stands in for the whole universe–at the end, when everyone is dead or dying, he brings in someone new, Fortinbras, to survey the dead, frown at the disorderly throne room, assert a shaky claim to authority, and order that the word of these terrible events be spread far and wide, and now let’s get to work. We’ve got a country to run.


Fortinbras rolls up his sleeves and dusts off his crown.

At that precise moment the bodies on the stage – Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the others – who have been our world for hours, are just litter to be cleared away to make room for the new order.

We’re witnessing the restoration of order, which was Shakespeare’s great theme, whether the play is a comedy, tragedy, history, or one of the very complex late works that scholars, for lack of a better term, call “problem plays.” Whatever genre (there’s that word again) the play represents, in the first act we learn what’s wrong with the world it depicts, and the end of the fifth act, order has been restored

And that is absolutely what happens in a crime novel, whether it’s a thriller or a mystery. The reader enters a world that’s about to be broken or has just been broken. It’s out of kilter. It’s stopped working the way we believe our world should work. The characters of the people on the page have been stretched thin enough to be transparent; motives and enmities and love are suddenly made visible. The primary course of action of a mystery or a thriller is repairing that broken world and exploring those exposed characters, restoring both to some kind of acceptable balance. It may be retribution, it may be the revelation of the truth. The denouement may be thrilling or comic or tragic. Depends on the book. But at the end of the story – unless it’s noir – there will be some form of restoration.

question mark

Question mark or fish hook?

The reason that kind of exploration and illumination work so well in the whodunnit and the thriller is that each of them plants a question mark at the very beginning – in “Hamlet,” the opening words are “Who’s there?” called out by a terrified guard who’s asking the question that’s really being asked throughout the play. Who’s behind that mask? Who’s beneath that crown? Who’s wearing that smile?  Who is that man who was pretending to love me?

The whodunnit and the thriller take that question mark and plant it right there in the first act. It may or may not be a coincidence that a question mark looks like a fish hook, because what the question mark does is hook the reader and pull him or her across 100,000 words or so to see what the answer is, and—more important—what happens as we get closer to it.

And that fish hook has to drag the reader upstream because as he or she sits there, nose to the type, the real world is flowing by. People take a break from their lives to read, and writers should never forget that. A reader with the book open is like a rock in a stream: life is flowing past, carrying with it lots of things that compete for the reader’s attention, and some of them will only go by once. I think we owe the reader something in our book that makes that commitment of time and energy and attention worthwhile.

So that means the books have to be about something that goes beyond whodunnit. On a purely personal note and from a writer’s perspective, I can testify that there’s probably not a theme in the world that can’t be explored in a thriller or a whodunit, not a society, not a culture, not a business.

I love a mystery photo

These are essentially investigative forms – there’s almost always a character whose primary function is to ask questions, and there’s pretty much nothing you can’t open up and put a microscope to. To suggest one personal example, in my Bangkok series, I’ve looked closely at Thai culture and American culture and where they overlap and clash. I’ve looked at the dynamic of putting together a family that’s made up of people whose world views and expectations and belief systems are completely different. That’s complex material, and I haven’t even mentioned emotional damage.

In a modest way, when I attempt to hold up to view that kind of material I feel that I’m following in the tracks of a lot of talented writers who have sat down day after day to write the best book they possibly could – to make the reading experience worthwhile for the people who open the book – in both literary fiction and genre fiction. Detective fiction and thrillers have deepened and broadened to include characters who are deeper than the page, predicaments that are more than puzzles, revelations that reflect our own lives. I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”

Far as I’m concerned, those are real books.

posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 1:09 PM

Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part One)

April 22nd, 2014


I’m here today, in part, to air a grievance.  And to do it at some length.  In fact, in two parts.


I write whodunnits. I work hard at it. I do the best I can every single day and usually wind up tossing half of my work. I am perpetually faced with something I have no idea in the world how to write, and I write it anyway. Once in a while, I think, I do it reasonably well.

But, like everyone who writes crime fiction, I know that I’m looked down upon. I’m a “genre” writer. I practice my craft in a downscale literary ZIP code, where there are cars parked on the lawn and the houses lean a little and the children usually have stuff on their upper lip. My stories, even the best of them, according to certain people, are not . . . actually . . . books.

crome fiction Zip

The crime fiction ZIP code. You can’t see our beat-up cars because the banks foreclosed on our lawns.

Some of the people who write, edit, publish, and criticize so-called “literary fiction” look down on people like me. We’re not quite real writers. They see themselves atop the high, white marble towers of literature in which they and their readers live, raising knowing eyebrows at each other and tossing off quips while we genre mutts drag ourselves around in the mud on our elbows, grunting at each other and squabbling over chicken bones and the occasional bright bead.

If you’re a reader of crime fiction, you’ve probably come up against this attitude, too. There are people in my life, and probably in yours, who, when they ask what you’re reading and learn that it’s a “whodunnit,” pause for a second, make a sort of Downton Abbey sound like, “Euh,” and then ask, “Is it interesting?” As though (a) it would be a waste of time to come up with a better question for someone on your reading level, and (b) it can’t possibly actually be interesting. In any serious way, that is. For a serious person.

stupid question2

A seriously stupid question.

These people try to build literary fences around us, as though our books might somehow cohabit with their books and accidentally make them, you know, interesting. Nonfiction and literary fiction receive serious and relatively frequent newsprint, but genre fiction is reviewed in a modest little column that appears on odd-numbered Thursdays in months without an “R” in their name.

They restrict our books to their own little ghettos in bookstores, too – the aisles of which I’m happy to say, often have more customers in them than some other aisles I could name. Because that’s the dirty little secret. A medium-selling mystery outsells a medium-selling lit-fic novel, and genre fiction has a really uncomfortable way of taking out longterm leases on the top rungs of the bestseller lists. But you, know, that’s because ordinary people buy them.


Defiantly ordinary reader.

Those of us who write thrillers and whodunnits can get a little defensive about being classified as literary invertebrates. For one thing, we write an awfully broad and complex spectrum of books to be crammed into a one or two-word description. We write the kind of classic puzzles, dependent on clues and timetables, that marked the s0-called “Golden Age.”

We write hard-boiled private eyes, we write cooking mysteries like Murder In the Yeast or Chili Con Carnage. Or craft mysteries like The Dropped Stitch of Death.  Or elaborate, amazingly literate mysteries set in the Louisiana bayous, like those of James Lee Burke. Or character-steeped police procedurals like Henning Mankell’s. Or flawed half-villains and their sometimes treacherous friends, like Patricia Highsmith’s characters. We write night-black noir, like Jim Thompson and Ken Bruen.

vanderbilt house2

The House of  Crime.

It this genre were a single house, it would need rooms for Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Harry Bosch, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Kinsey Millhone, Commissario Brunetti, Arkady Renko, Sam Spade, Easy Rawlins, Jack Reacher, Lew Archer, Lydia Chin, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, V.I Warshawski, Inspector Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dave Robicheau, Rabbi David Small, Brother Cadfael, Father Brown, and literally thousands of others. The house would need a lot of bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine the conversation at the dinner table, because these people don’t really have much in common.

I’ve barely scraped the surface, and I could go on all day. If this is a genre it’s so broad and varied that the people who chose the word need to go back and come up with another.

And if you doubt that the word is pejorative, a few weeks ago J.A. Jance, a writer who has sold more than twenty million books, called the college from which she graduated and volunteered to put in a month working in their writing program. She was told, and this is a quote, “Oh, no, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction; we only do LITERARY fiction.”

Why the negative judgment? What is it about so-called genre books, including whodunnits, that gets the literary highbrows’ knickers so twisted?


Untwisted knickers.

My first theory is that it’s just another manifestation of the eternal human fact that everybody needs somebody to look down on. Obviously, this thought isn’t original with me, but I defy anyone to make the case that this isn’t a universal and instinctive desire.  It’s why the few all-first-class airlines, like MGM Grand, have all gone broke.  The problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough people who could afford it.   The problem was that there was no tourist class for the people in the front of the plane to feel superior to. What’s the joy of stretching out in first with your foie gras if there aren’t a bunch of grunts in back, folded up like paper clips and eating K-rations and envying you? What’s the fun of boarding the plane first, if no one is boarding second?

So here’s my second theory.

The term whodunnit.

I’ll get to that in Part Two.

posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 10:13 PM

Cherchez le Crook

April 14th, 2014

It’s been a year since I wrote here, so this is by way of a catch-up.

Like all crime writers, I love crooks. And they frighten me.

I love them because they’re so much fun to write. They make their own rules. As children they paid no attention to the hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk, and as adults they pay no attention to the Ten Commandments and the million lesser laws and quibbles the Commandments spawned. They bubble and seethe, crablike, with malicious energy. They don’t have to be politically correct. They can offend people.

Laurence Olivier, seething as Richard III

They frighten me because they have a way, unless they’re watched very closely, of walking away with my book.

Our heroes have to behave, at least until we’ve pushed them to extremis. Even then, most of the time they can’t get any fun from the damage they do — that might cost them the reader’s sympathy. Our crooks, on the other hand, can win at chess by sweeping the pieces off the board and then shooting the person sitting opposite, shrugging it off as a striking variation on the Sicilian Opening.

Would you bet on black or white?

We’ve seen this taken to unfortunate extremes lately, especially in the serial-killer genre, with sadism and murder serving as straight lines for witless wisecracks. I think this is dishonest writing and actually violates the writer’s agreement to take the reader’s intelligence seriously. On the other hand, some of these books sell quite well, so what do I know?

But I understand the appeal of that energy. I have to admit that I’ll be digging away at a book, trying to figure out where in the world I’m tunneling to (I don’t outline and generally have very little idea what’s going to happen until it actually does) and all of a sudden the crook tears open the page and climbs through the hole, and I experience a burst of electricity. Crooks and villains seem to bring their worlds with them, while I feel as though I have to work to fill in the worlds of my more sympathetic characters. In the fifth Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, which came out in 2012,  the reader doesn’t get anywhere near the villain of the piece until page 141, if you don’t count a four-line exchange of dialogue in the second or third chapter.  And then, the villain just puts the whole book in his pocket and saunters away with it.

And all the villain, Haskell Murphy, does in his first close-up is get off a plane, climb into the back of a car, and be driven to his house, and within the four or five pages that drive took, I learned so much about him that I had to rewrite the first part of the book. That’s energy. It felt like I’d been digging away at the story with a tablespoon, and all of a sudden I was holding a jackhammer. Murphy even brought a whole new character with him, his daughter, whom he calls Treasure, and she changed not only the ending of the book, but also the book that will follow it this coming November and the book that follows that one.

But, as much fun as Murphy was to write, I couldn’t give him the book. It’s a series, and most readers expect the really important series characters to be alive at the end of the book. If I’d given Murphy his head, it would have been Armageddon.

So I dealt with it. I dealt with it by writing a new series with a hero who’s a crook, a burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks. When a crook gets ripped off, he or she is not going to call the cops. They’re going to call Junior.

I wrote the first two Junior books, Crashed and Little Elvises, as ebooks, but pretty much the moment I finished the third, The Fame Thief, they suddenly got picked up for everything – publishing (Soho), film, and audio (Blackstone). So the fun I had writing them is apparently detectable on the page.

Right now I’m writing the seventh Poke Rafferty, which is called The Hot Countries (the sixth, For the Dead, comes out this November) and the fifth  Junior Bender, King Maybe. (The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is due this coming July.)  I’m hoping that the energy will average out between the two series. As much as I love writing the Pokes, and especially the family, they’re less fun (read: harder work) than the Juniors. Almost everyone in the Juniors is crooked to one degree or another, and they’ve all got that energy. Writing them is like playing with matches—the old matches that you see in Westerns and noir movies that would strike on anything. I never know when the page is going to catch on fire.

Crooks. What would we do without them?

posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 3:42 PM