I’m writing a mystery novel, and that has me thinking a lot about plot.
Just before Berkeley shut down for shelter in place, I managed to go to the library and scoop up an armload of books. One of them was “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper.
Harper is an Australian writer, and part of the pleasure of reading her has been to fall under the spell of the beautiful – but often deadly – Australian landscape. In “The Dry,” a punishing drought adds extra tension to a remote community where a man has killed his family – the place is just waiting for a spark to set things off. In “Force of Nature,” a corporate offsite in a wilderness area goes awry when a group gets lost (and one of their number doesn’t make it out). In “The Lost Man,” the brutal December heat is the murder weapon.
I think one reason Harper has been successful has to do with her inclusion of what I’m calling a double mystery – that is, a mystery from another timeline that troubles the present. Here’s promotional copy from Harper’s website:
“And as [Federal Police investigator Aaron] Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…”
I’ve read all three of Harper’s novels, and I’m sure I’ll read “The Survivors,” which looks like it comes out next year in the States (“When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…”).
Sounds very similar to “The Lost Man” – not the same thing exactly – but a family, a painful past, old wounds, old mistakes, and so on. The elements are similar, although the details and settings are different. There’s a death in the present, which must be solved – but it’s just as critical to come to terms with what’s happened in the past.
This doubling of mysteries from different timelines isn’t unique to Harper’s novels – far from it. As I was writing this, more than a few books came to mind, like Tana French’s “In the Woods,” or Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects.”
When it works well, it’s very satisfying (and I admit, I’m attempting a similar thing in what I’m writing these days, one reason I’m reading Harper).
Like anything in a plot, it can be skillfully or clumsily executed. It can feel formulaic. Sometimes you see an author reaching for “buried secrets” in their character’s past and immediately see a crutch to bring the stakes closer to home, to raise the tension. (I see this in some mass market fiction where it’s constantly open season on a sleuth’s family, friends, loved ones, second cousins, etc. Just to be in their orbit means you’ll soon be targeted by a serial killer.) But if the job of a writer is to put their protagonists through hell on the way through the narrative, it seems you can do worse than throwing them a mystery that fits exactly like a puzzle piece into their secret wounds. (Of course, in some types of mysteries – many that I dearly love – it’s not a goal to psychologically push the protagonist to the edge!)
This double mystery (or maybe it’s a “past-present”/”inner-outer” mystery – I searched for what to call this and landed on a bunch of trope sites without finding a good classification for it) is challenging because both past and present mystery must feel compelling, but the balance is hard to get right. When I first started drafting the book I’m writing now, I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the past – a clear avoidance strategy because I wasn’t sure enough about my character and what she goes through in the present.
Despite the difficulties, I am trying to master this. I do love it when a main character must grapple with their own demons to solve a crime. However, it seems like many writers who do this really well don’t continue with their characters through a series. How many demons can one character have, and doesn’t it get a bit tiresome revisiting them in every book? It’s hard work to raise emotional stakes. To do it well and believably you often exhaust the demons. I believe that’s why Tana French’s novels skip around among various Dublin detectives. That close psychological mystery can become too claustrophobic and repetitive over multiple books (at least to my taste) if you keep with the same character. I find it interesting that Harper wrote two books with a detective (Aaron Falk), and then has moved to standalones.
Maybe it’s a tradeoff between psychological depth and longevity? I’m not sure. For now, I’m still studying…