Iâ€™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 â€œThe Lost Manâ€ 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 â€“ but often deadly â€“ Australian landscape. In â€œThe Dry,â€ a punishing drought adds extra tension to a remote community where a man has killed his family â€“ the place is just waiting for a spark to set things off. In â€œForce of Nature,â€ a corporate offsite in a wilderness area goes awry when a group gets lost (and one of their number doesnâ€™t make it out). In â€œThe Lost Man,â€ the brutal December heat is the murder weapon.
I think one reason Harper has been successful has to do with her inclusion of what Iâ€™m calling a double mystery â€“ that is, a mystery from another timeline that troubles the present. Hereâ€™s promotional copy from Harperâ€™s website:
â€œAnd 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 secretâ€¦ A secret Falk thought long-buriedâ€¦ A secret which Lukeâ€™s death starts to bring to the surface…â€
Iâ€™ve read all three of Harperâ€™s novels, and Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™ll read â€œThe Survivors,â€ which looks like it comes out next year in the States (â€œWhen 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…â€).
Sounds very similar to â€œThe Lost Manâ€ â€“ not the same thing exactly â€“ but a family, a painful past, old wounds, old mistakes, and so on. The elements are similar, although the details and settings are different. Thereâ€™s a death in the present, which must be solved â€“ but itâ€™s just as critical to come to terms with whatâ€™s happened in the past.
This doubling of mysteries from different timelines isnâ€™t unique to Harperâ€™s novels â€“ far from it. As I was writing this, more than a few books came to mind, like Tana Frenchâ€™s â€œIn the Woods,â€ or Gillian Flynnâ€™s â€œSharp Objects.â€
When it works well, itâ€™s very satisfying (and I admit, Iâ€™m attempting a similar thing in what Iâ€™m writing these days, one reason Iâ€™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 â€œburied secretsâ€ in their characterâ€™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 itâ€™s constantly open season on a sleuthâ€™s family, friends, loved ones, second cousins, etc. Just to be in their orbit means youâ€™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 â€“ many that I dearly love â€“ itâ€™s not a goal to psychologically push the protagonist to the edge!)
This double mystery (or maybe itâ€™s a â€œpast-presentâ€/â€inner-outerâ€ mystery â€“ 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 Iâ€™m writing now, I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the past â€“ a clear avoidance strategy because I wasnâ€™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 donâ€™t continue with their characters through a series. How many demons can one character have, and doesnâ€™t it get a bit tiresome revisiting them in every book? Itâ€™s hard work to raise emotional stakes. To do it well and believably you often exhaust the demons. I believe thatâ€™s why Tana Frenchâ€™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 itâ€™s a tradeoff between psychological depth and longevity? Iâ€™m not sure. For now, Iâ€™m still studyingâ€¦