What I’d Say to Mel Gibson

Jeffrey Cohen

Shut up and go away.

Now. Moving along to more important matters:

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a birthday party for her cousin (once removed, and please explain that one to me, because I never got the whole “removed” thing), who turned 100 years old last week. He looked great, by the way, and enjoyed his party immensely, from all outward signals.

It got me to thinking about how different things are now than they were in 1906. Obviously, there have been enormous technological advances, although humans have evolved at a much slower rate. As Will Rogers once said, “you can’t say civilization don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.”

Has there been advancement in mystery novels? I don’t know. We don’t really kill our fictional victims in that many new ways. Guns, knives, poisons, the usual blunt implements. But that leads to a question that I think is central to writing a mystery novel:

Does it matter how the victim dies?

Many mystery writers spend a tremendous amount of energy figuring out exotic ways to off the hapless sap whose demise sets the plot in motion. They come up with poisons found only in the deepest regions of Zambia, knives made from the tusks of African elephants, but only female African elephants, guns that fire bullets made of ice, so that they’ll melt after use (I just thought that one up) or being hit over the head with the tire iron that was only made to fit in the trunk of a 1965 Karmann Ghia.

Are there really people out there saying, “I’ve got to buy that one! They kill the guy off with a frappaccino machine!”?

I’ve always contended (“always” being a relative term: I wasn’t born yelling this) that character is more important than plot details. I’ve gotten myself some really disgusted looks from mystery fans by saying that I’m more interested in characters and, in my case, jokes than in whether the plot always makes 100% sense. People get downright hostile about timelines in my novels that don’t add up, but they almost never say my characters are cardboard figures, or that my dialogue sounds like it belongs in a fourth grade pageant on Our Friends The Trees.

Now, I’m as concerned about telling a tight, interesting story as the next guy. Probably more, if the next guy is a supermarket manager or a house painter. But to me, character is the essential element of any story, mystery or not. You can write an amazing story in which the victim is done in through some intricate, exotic, shocking method I’d never dream of in decades of wracking my brain, but if the characters aren’t interesting, three-dimensional people, I’m probably not going to care.

I read series books less because I must see what crazy plot the author has dreamed up and more because I’ve been fascinated by the characters in the past and want to see how they’ll react to what’s going on in this book. Mystery fans will debate endlessly whether Stephanie Plum should end up with Joe Morelli or with Ranger, but ask them in which book the guy in the bunny suit was stalking our heroine, and they’ll be less likely to give you the title. I always read Robert B. Parker’s series to see whether Spenser is going to reveal more about himself, whether his core principles will be tested, and whether Susan Silverman is going to be less annoying than usual. I check in to get more of Hawk or Paul Giacomin, not to find out whodunnit. I’d have a hard time telling you the plot of any of the last six novels in the series, but I’ll keep coming back for more.

Edmund Wilson once very famously asked in print, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” by way of putting mystery novels in the place of cheap, generic (in the worst definition of the word) fiction with disposable characters who did nothing but serve the plot and weren’t interesting on their own merits. Sure, that’s what happens in badly written mysteries, but it’s not endemic to the genre as a whole. Characters can be fascinating, fully living individuals who would carry a story in which nobody meets an unfortunate end, and still function in a high-concept mystery. It can be done, and it often is, if you’re looking in the right place.

Of course, actually doing that, and doing it well, is a talent that can take a long time to develop. But when one has just come back from wishing a sharp, spry gentleman a happy second century, it doesn’t seem impossible.

6 thoughts on “What I’d Say to Mel Gibson

  1. pari noskin taichert

    Jeff,I read series for the same reasons you do. That’s why I write them too. Plot is tremendously important, but it’s the characters that keep me coming back for more.

    In the series I love, the characters become friends — extended family. I get angry at their stupidity and revel in their successes.

  2. spyscribbler

    NCIS just talked about ice bullets. Cool idea! How do they keep them frozen, I wonder?

    Different writers have different strengths. I think that if a book had an amazing, vivid voice, intriguing, complex plot, beautiful language, killer idea, and colorful, fully-fleshed characters, then the book would be overwhelming. It would lack focus and be too gaudy. No one would notice the beautiful diamond of a heroine amidst all that!

    I say, (humbly), take your strengths and run with them! Sure, minimize your weaknesses, but enough readers will prefer the strengths that you have and showcased, that they won’t notice the other (much).

  3. B.G. Ritts

    Cousins removed: your parents’s first cousins, are your first cousins once-removed; your parents first cousins’ children are your second cousins; your children are your second cousins’ second cousins once-removed and your children are your parents’ first cousins’ first cousins twice-removed. The number removeds is how many generations distant a relative is from an even generational pair of cousins.

    I hope this helps ’cause I’m now confused.

  4. G. T. Karber

    I don’t think that a novel can ever be “overwhelming” in its…well, inherent goodness? I’m not really sure if you’re being sarcastic, spyscribbler, but I do think that an author can certainly try to put too much into his or her work. Too much beyond their abilities, that is.

    Though if they’re competant in their craft, and they can put all of those great features into one novel. Well, that’s how you write a classic.

  5. Carstairs38

    Gee, was that me you are talking about? 🙂 Sorry, but when the next day is Saturday every time, it tends to bother me.

    As do wooden characters I don’t care about. Yes, I want everything.

    Including that murder with the frappachino machine. Sounds exotic. I don’t care about character, I got to know who did it.



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