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A modern day mystery with WWII tactics, old-time heroes and values, and the efforts of two amateur cousin sleuths from the Heartland.
On a sparkling spring morning in the Blue Ridge, small-town realtor Miranda Davis approached the tailgate market, intent on dealing with her whimsical cousin Skip’s unexpected arrival from New York. It turns out that Skip was on the run and, in his panic, grabbed his beloved tabby Duffy, recalling that Miranda had a recent part in solving a case down in Carolina. His predicament stemmed from intercepting code messages like “Countdown to D-Day,” playfully broadcasting the messages on his radio show over the nation-wide network, and subsequently forced to flee.
At first, Miranda tried to limit her old childhood companion’s conundrum to the sudden abduction of Duffy the cat. But the forces that be were hell-bent on keeping Skip under wraps by any means after he now stumbled close to the site of their master plan. Miranda’s subsequent efforts to decipher the conspiracy and somehow intervene placed both herself and her old playmate on a collision course with a white-nationalist perpetrator and the continuing machinations of the right-wing enterprise, with the lives of all those gathered for a diversity celebration in nearby Asheville and a crucial senatorial vote on homeland security hanging in the balance.
Story and the Characters’ Freedom
by Shelly Frome
An example of a tale devoid of characters with a life of their own is Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Unlike his previous Philip Marlowe caper, Chandler settled for one-dimensional stereotypes.
For example, at the outsetMarlowe is summoned by a wealthy crotchety old woman to recover a vintage coin. During their first exchange, in her crotchety way, the lady defends her wine drinking and snaps, “It’smedicine for my asthma.” In turn, Marlowe narrates, I swung a leg over my knee hoping it wouldn’t hurt her delicate condition. At this point, it was clear that Marlowe would always be a wise-guy, whoever he encountered would be typecast, and there would be no one for the reader to identify with. Whatever happened was scripted and never involved the interplay of self-generating human beings with all their flaws and contradictions.
In contrast, in his first detective novel The Big Sleep, Chandler’s Marlowe was changeable: by turns wised up, hopeful, thoughtful, adventurous, sentimental, cynical and rebellious. Moreover, there was the sense that Marlow was keenly aware that pain hurt, life really mattered, and you never knew what you were going to run into. He found himself immediately taken with his client the General, a dying millionaire with “only a few locks of dry white hair clinging to his scalp,” a man who spoke slowly, “carefully using whatever strength he had left.” It seems that one of the General’s unpredictable and troublesome daughters was being blackmailed. In addition, he’d lost touch with a dear friend and wished to clear up both these loose ends before he passed away. Soon enough, the reader comes upon intimations of kidnapping, pornography, seduction and murder as a number of characters, working at cross-purposes, send the action winging in different directions.
Arguably, the prototype for freewheeling characters in detective fiction is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In this edgy, breakthrough novel there’s always a subtext beneath the surface behavior. As Sam Spade endeavors to catch the person who killed his partner Miles Archer during a stakeout, Spade runs into a trio of colorful characters like Brigid O’Shaughnessy who is so deceitful, she seems to be lying even when she may be telling the truth and leaves Spade perplexed to the point of even falling in love with her.
Years later, and by extension, the playwright Edward Albee confided to a handful of us graduate students that he’d had a problem with his play Who’sAfraid of Virginia Woolf? The circumstances centered on a jaded couple he called George and Martha, stuck in a small New England college campus, who’d invited a newly arrived younger couple over for fun and games. The payoff, Albee assumed, was the outlandish behavior this setup would unleash. However, reaching an impasse, he realized the results were actually flat and predictable. Soon enough, George and Martha imaginatively came to him and threatened to quit if he didn’t back off. In truth, the pair of them claimed, they were not only unpredictable, they had deep dark secrets percolating underneath and all hell would burst loose if, and only if, he’d let go of his outline and set them free. Albee complied and the fresh and compelling results can be seen in the movie version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The possible link with the Falcon may stem from the influence the volatile playwright and longtime companion Lilian Hellman had on Hammett’s view of characterization. Admittedly, that’s just a notion.
On a more modest and personal note, I recently attended a book fair in New York and, at the same time, was having trouble with my crime novel Murder Run. The story centers on a laconic handyman named Jed who’d been falsely accused of the untimely death of a woman he’d been working for in the Connecticut hills, a choreographer who had a studio in New York who’d taken a hiatus for her health. Jed had good reason to believe the real culprit was a mobster who drove down the night in question and then took off back to the mean streets. Eventually Jed found himself in New York completely at a loss. At the same time, there I was, sauntering around the Little Italy section on a bright spring morning when I ran into a stocky character who called himself Johnny Diamonds and announced, “This is my territory, man.” Then a fourteen-year-old scamp named Angie came along and said, “If you’re lost, mister, I can show you around for a little coin.” I began to see that this tough little girl could be developed into Jed’s sidekick and guide, a figure like Johnny Diamonds could be the key to the world of the local Mafia, and anything could happen as Jed proceeded down this path.
Perhaps the novelist E.L. Doctorow put it best when he said that writing fiction was like driving at night with only the headlight beams to guide you. You know where you’re headed but have no idea of the turns you’ll make, who you’ll meet along the way, and what influence they’ll have on your journey.
For my part, after I create an intriguing springboard and open-ended structure, I rely on a set of vital characters to surprise me and keep me going. Or, as Rilke, the Bohemian novelist and poet wrote, “All art is the result of being in danger, of going as far as one can go and beyond.”
About the Author
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of crime novels and books on theater and film. He is also a features writer for Gannett Media’s Black Mountain News. His fiction includes Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Lilac Moon, Twilight of the Drifter, Tinseltown Riff, Murder Run, Moon Games and The Secluded Village Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Miranda and the D-Day Caper is his latest foray into the world of crime and the amateur sleuth. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.