WHEN GOOD CHARACTERS GO BAD
by Leigh Lundin
How inconsiderate for a writer to die while leaving protagonists alive and struggling! Rob Lopresti recently pointed out two annoyances when an author passes away but characters hobble on: (1) Unresolved character and story line issues and (2) attempts by others to recreate characters with varying degrees of unsuccess. (I just made up that wordâ€“ Leave it alone.)
Even as I write this, I see a notice that writer Sebastian Faulks is bringing back James Bond in an ‘authorized’ new novel called Devil May Care. I was reminded that the movie, Octopussy, was an offshoot of a Fleming short story of the same name barely referred to in the film.
With a few exceptions, I’ve tended to dislike novels that are follow-ons to cultural canons, the brilliant John Dickson Carr notwithstanding. Too often expectant readers are introduced to simulacra walking the set and talking the dialogue, but not the original characters themselves. One of the most publicized examples was the long-awaited sequel to Gone With the Wind, Scarlett, was a financial success but, according to Margaret Mitchell’s fans, a terrible disappointment.
Perhaps that’s the one good thing about the minute attention span of today’s culture when characters (and authors) are forgotten as soon as The Next Best Thing comes along.
Surely, though, this must have occurred since earliest times. Greek mythology is rife with inconsistencies, quite likely, I think, one storyteller tinkering with the characters and plot line of another. Versions of Parsifal and the many Arthurian legends vary just as much. Occasionally, one man’s villain is another man’s hero, or vice versa, as outraged fans of the original Mission Impossible series felt about Mr. Phelps.
A few authors do tackle the life-after-death problem head-on. Agatha Christie dealt with the conundrum by writing ‘final’ Poirot and Miss Marple novels to be published after her death and disallowing any ‘authorized’ novel ideas her heirs might have entertained. In actuality, they were published prior to her death, Dale Andrews points out, to meet publishing agreements that she had grown too feeble to meet.
Dale also mentions that John D. MacDonald was rumored to have written a final book, Black Coffin for McGee, killing off Travis McGee, which the author occasionally referred to in interviews. No such volume was found, however, after his death.
Colin Dexter took care of Inspector Morse by having him die a very English death, sad and alone. But death doesn’t stop some characters.
Even The Bard hasn’t been immune. The film Shakespeare in Love was a good facsimile of romantic comedies of his era. However, in the last few minutes of the film, some writer couldn’t resist a politically correct dig, souring the movie’s effect by dropping in a feminist one-liner from thirty years ago.
While it doesn’t tackle the problem of resolving story line and character issues, August Derleth both honored A. Conan Doyle and avoided sullying the Sherlock Holmes canon by the creation of his Solar Pons character. I haven’t read Solar Pons stories since I was a kid, but I recall Derleth managed to convey the flavor (flavour) of Holmes in a series and setting that stood well enough on its own.
Frankly, original authors don’t always recreate or rebirth their characters in the same vein. After Doyle resurrected Sherlock, some readers complained that Holmes might not have died at Reichenbach Falls, but he was never again the same.
It’s not only the classics, but pop culture is particularly susceptible, as an artist friend pointed out. Steve (see below) offers an example of a Frank Miller character, Elektra, who died in the arms of her lover, Marvel hero, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil. Instead of simply mourning Electra and having done with it, in an apparent combination of extreme regret and paucity of imagination, Miller subsequently resurrected Elektra, this time as a lesbian ninja. There might be a deeper metaphoric meaning here, but I have no idea what it could be.
Even protagonists who aren’t killed off can undergo seismic shifts. As a recent article in The Strand pointed out, Ellery Queen underwent very different periods of characterization and circumstance. The name stayed the same but, as eras changed, a new personality moved into the old address. Author Dale Andrews writes, “The demarcation between early Queen (the fop) and later Queen (the intellectual) is probably Half Way House (1936), although the character continued to develop and evolve until 1971.”
Recently, Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu managed cleverly to sidestep the feeling of an uncomfortable follow-up by casting their Ellery Queen as an elderly man, a version we haven’t seen before but one not inconsistent with previous Queens. Dale and Kurt did their homeworkâ€“ their solution required at least a passing knowledge of the Queen saga. I wasn’t the only one who respected their effort as Tom Walsh pointed out last week.
One of the great writers of pastiche, satire, and spoof is Jon L. Breen, who was publishing stories while I was still doodling in class. He reminds us that pastiches (and homages) are quite different from continuing another author’s series for commercial purposes. Ellery Queen defined pastiche as “a serious and sincere imitation in the exact manner of the original author.” Thus, a restrained and canon-consistent pastiche in the hands of a good writer can be an entertaining diversion amongst the opera of the original author’s greater work.
I had written that I had liked The Seven Percent Solution, but I couldn’t think of other non-canonical novels that I liked. Jon opined that there were a number superior to The Seven Percent Solution, and he should know: he’s written some of them.
Jon writes: “June Thomson and Donald Thomas have each done several volumes of new Holmes short stories that are of generally high quality. A couple of authors who have done good novel-length pastiches, both of whom sadly died this year, are Val Andrews and Barrie Roberts. Andrews may have been the most prolific pasticher of them all, doing many volumes from Breese, the British publisher specializing in faux Sherlock. I’ve only read a couple each by these writers, but those I read were quite well done and true to the originals.”
Jon and I both prefer short stories and, when it comes to Holmes, tales that stick to the Watson narration pattern. I believe short pastiches allows the writer to retain tight focus and not be tempted to wander astray from original character and plot lines.
Jon Breen has written six Sherlock Holmes pastiches, appearing in the series of original collections edited by Martin H. Greenberg with various collaborators, most recently The Ghosts of Baker Street (2006). (Jon modestly adds, “As Lee Thayer once said to me about her detective novels, some are worse than others.”)
Jon also reminded me of something I’d forgotten: Raffles! Barry Perowne arguably wrote better Raffles than E. W. Hornung himself.
I’m ending this article with a different perspective than when I started. Initially, I remembered the annoying stories, the careless ones that took characters in directions their creators might never recognize. However (with some nudging), I began to recall pastiches I liked and while I remain leery of commercially ‘authorized’ vehicles, I recognize that many writers treat pastiches with not only care, but with love and respect.
Constance, the wife of Ernest William Hornung, was the sister of what famous mystery writer?
RecognitionBurn the Bitch
Sharon is a dedicated editor, and a damned good one. She has a great eye for catching typos and an eye for my friend Steve, formerly an artist for Universal Studios, Disney, and art director for Orlando’s Church Street Station.
[She is New Sharon because, another teacher, Old Sharon, evaporated out of the local coterie, and it doesn't seem right to number them, Sharon1, Sharon2, etc, like mathematical iterations or Sharon 2.0 like software versions, (although Sharon says she'd like to be upgraded to Sharon 5.0). The important thing, as far as Steve is concerned, she is the only Sharon.]
As an editor, Sharon can take a rumpled, convoluted sentence and iron it flat. She’s also an excellent sounding board. Beyond her editing, I’ve appreciated her perspective on markets and particularly bouncing ideas around. Thanks, lady.
Sharon, a member of the Romance Writers of America, is working on a couple of her own novels. She’s tough on herself, too. I’ll leave you with one of her catch-phrases.
She and her friend Judy designed a T-shirt for romance writers which could be equally applicable to mystery writers. For those writers in a tough spot, the front of the shirt reads, “Finish the Book…” and the back reads “… or Burn the Bitch“.