FOR LOVE OR MONEY
by James Lincoln Warren
Sometimes I have a taxonomic brain. There are all kinds of ways to classify fiction, and I think I use them all. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it is very tidy.
Some time ago, I wrote a column on common crime fiction subgenres, wherein I described fourteen common types of mystery story. I left a few out—for example, there are what I might call the Theme mystery, which portrays a crime in a specific setting, e.g. Jon L. Breen’s Ed Gorgon series set in the world of baseball or that special branch of cozy that involves gastronomy, and Exotics, which explore an unfamiliar culture, either foreign or domestic—I make a distinction between this as a device and World mystery, as described by William Minter on this site a few scant weeks ago, as exemplars of the latter are usually written by natives exploring their own (presumably) familiar environs.
Some crime fiction categories are characterized by plot device, some by setting, and some by the nature of the characters. Most writers I know are more interested in character than they are in plot, which fact should hardly come as a surprise. Good characters are the most direct way to a reader’s heart. For me, the characters are usually subordinate to the story, so you might think that I’m more interested in plot, except that many times plot flows from the characters’ decisions. (See my diatribe on the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction.)
In any case, the characters must fit comfortably in the milieu in which they are presented, or they come across like a saddle on a cow. Miss Marple would be horribly out of place in a noir, don’t you think? Which is not to say that one couldn’t write an effective noir that centered around a sharp little old lady in an English village, but if one did, it wouldn’t be Our Jane.
Characters are developed according to the purpose they fulfill in the story. A principal, either the protagonist (e.g., Harry Bosch) or the antagonist (e.g., Hannibal Lecter), is usually the most interesting character in any given piece, since such characters bear the burden of carrying the tale and keeping the reader engaged. Other characters usually exist to facilitate specific story goals, frequently as a plot point (for example, the corpse in a murder mystery, whose job it is to be dead) or as a character foil (the female detective’s interfering mother strongly hinting for grandchildren—she’s only there to tell you more about the female detective). Sometimes the detective himself is a peripheral character, only indulged in as a deus ex machina.
The bottom line is that you can also classify crime fiction by species of detective. Detectives in crime fiction almost always fall into one of two broad categories: professionals and gifted amateurs. Amateurs are more likely to have sidekicks than professionals are, Holmes/Watson and Wolfe/Goodwin notwithstanding. Professionals are not necessarily law enforcement officers or private detectives—but they are always experts (if only at persistence). Frequently the amateur’s sidekick, or at least one his sidekicks, is a professional—whither Lord Peter Wimsey goest, Chief Inspector Charles Parker followeth. This trick provides the necessary excuse for allowing the investigation to proceed under authority and is much more convenient for placing the villain in custody after the Truth Has Been Revealed.
Both kinds of detectives have their advantages and disadvantages. Cops investigate murders because it’s their job, so it’s not surprising that folks drop dead around them like flies, whereas the coincidence of Jessica Fletcher being around every time one of her old friends is skewered with an antique letter opener by a disgruntled nephew should be cause for alarm. On the other hand, cops have to follow procedures, or at least they have to think and act like cops, and going too far off the reservation makes a putative law enforcement character violate any sense of verisimilitude; an amateur gives the author a lot more scope.
There have been attempts at hybrids. Ngaio Marsh’s detective Superintendant Roderick Alleyn was a baronet’s brother (aristocratic amateur sleuths being a British staple, and yes, I know that Dame Ngaio was a actually a Kiwi) but also a trained policeman. Two current crime TV shows, Castle and The Mentalist, feature gifted amateurs as part of an otherwise professional team—those shows are closer to police procedurals than to cozies or traditionals, the usual venues for amateurs. (I discount Psych, even though it has essentially the same premise as The Mentalist, because it is primarily a comedy disguised as a crime show.)
Most of my stories are about private investigators, but I have written a couple featuring policemen and one with a semi-amateur, Mrs. Emma Stavacre, whose 18th-century job it is to determine cause of death for entry in her London parish’s records, which at least explains why she has so much truck with cadavers. But in the long run, I guess you could say that I’m an amateur at amateurs.
I do have one in mind, though—an academic who specializes in comparative grammar I have christened Quire, a tenured professor at a Claremont Colleges-like liberal arts school. There are two things that give me pause in giving him a case. One is the emerging field of forensic linguistics, which was prominent in the Unibomber case and plays a role in criminal profiling. If Quire is adept in this field, he ceases to be an amateur, which is not what I want, and in any case the topic is richly controversial. The other is coming up with a plot for him to sink his teeth into.
But I will keep him in mind. A writer, like a reader, should stretch his imagination beyond his comfort zone once in a while if for no other reason than to keep flexible. Those two police stories, one a dark noir and the other a woo-woo (categories I rarely delve into), were written so I wouldn’t get too formulaic, a very common pitfall in P.I. fiction. Writing about an amateur might be just the ticket to keep my sometimes rigidly taxonomic brain a bit more nimble.
After all, am I a professional, or ain’t I?