Follies and Nonsense

October 25, 2016

Patricia Highsmith and empathy for the sociopath  

Patricia Highsmith seems generally under-rated these days – the people who know of Ripley seem to think of either Alien or Matt Damon in the film version. Her skill with the insidious and slow burning psychological suspense story is perhaps out of fashion now, given the current trend for novels that are fast paced and full of action. I lost count of the agents who told me my second novel started too slowly, even with one murder hinted at in the first paragaph, and another at the end of the first chapter.

Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and debut novel Sharp Objects, which in some ways I prefer) is a Highsmith fan. I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, where Flynn is talking about Highsmith’s Deep Water, and realised it was one I hadn’t read – even though I love Highsmith – from Strangers on a Train, through the Tom Ripley series, The Cry of the Owl (another slow and creepy story about the relationship between a stalker and his victim, or…). I even enjoyed – if that is the right word, her collection of very creepy short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny.

So this week I rectified that omission – and smiled to see the current edition of Deep Water has Gillian Flynn’s recommendation on the cover…  Strange times.

Like Gone Girl, Deep Water is a story about an unhappy marriage. In Gone Girl, the story is told in turn by Nick and the Amazing Amy, neither of whom turn out to be appealing, likeable characters.  The structure of Deep Water is different, and the story of Vic and Melinda is told in the third person – but Highsmith sticks very closely to Vic’s point of view, and we see everything from his perspective.

Although the story unfolds very slowly and there’s no mystery about what happens – we are, after all, seeing exactly what Vic does throughout, I found it totally impossible to put the book down. Highsmith creates a very claustrophobic world. It was only at the very end of the novel, when I paused to draw breath, that I realised I had been drawn in to Vic’s mind to the extent that I wanted him to literally get away with murder….all the way until he was carted off by the police. I had been pleased when he’d escaped detection. I had disliked the characters who, quite rightly, suspected that he was a murderer. Even though I knew he was.

How did Highsmith accomplish this?

In a way all novelists are manipulating readers – perhaps the splinter of ice Graham Greene said was in the heart of every writer is the source of Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise with a sociopath.

It helps, I think, that Melinda is not a very sympathetic character. We only see her from Vic’s point of view, of course, but somehow we are persuaded to believe he might be right. First, we see she is, at the very least, a flirt. She publicly spends lots of time with a succession of other men, and Vic patiently puts up with it… We see his friends sympathise with him, and encourage him to put his foot down. He also tells us she’s a lousy mother – from making too much fuss when giving birth, to neglecting their daughter throughout the story. We see Vic spending time with his daughter, so perhaps are inclined to believe him a little too easily. Vic has created his own haven in the home – they don’t share a bedroom any more, and he has his retreat in the garage where he raises snails, and herbs, and does experiments with bedbugs… Later, after Vic has murdered one of Melinda’s lovers, she employs detectives and spends time with a man who dislikes Vic – and somehow we see this as yet another marital betrayal.

In addition there are aspects of Vic that are sympathetic. He is a popular member of the small town where he lives – the few people who seem not like him seem to be outsiders. He works as a publisher, and clearly enjoys doing good work. He is a good and generous employer. And he does seem very patient with Melinda’s indiscretions. His interest in the snails – and particularly the love life of his two favourites – seems very sad considering the coldness of his own home life.  He does genuinely seem to care for his daughter – although there are glimpses perhaps of the sociopath in her too- perhaps she is her father’s daughter. She seems to want him to be a murderer – or that is how Vic sees it.

And yet…. we are warned at the very beginning that Vic is not without flaws.  The novel starts with him telling us that he doesn’t dance – not because he can’t – but because his wife loves to dance. Later in the novel we see him dancing with female friends in order to punish her…but by then, we have been persuaded that she deserves his punishment. His friend, Horace, is always telling Vic he should be firmer with her. But just like Vic’s friends, we are lulled into trusting Vic. The story starts so slowly and we see Vic suffering as Melinda flirts with one man, then another. And to begin with it doesn’t seem so dangerous – one of her previous flirts and has been murdered and Vic merely pretends he was the killer. He takes delight in using the fantasy to scare off her current flirt.  And we enjoy him getting away with that – as we’ve become accustomed to see him as the underdog. As he sees himself…
And yet that’s not really a true picture, is it? He’s a rich man, with an independent income and work he enjoys, respected in his community. He’s not an underdog – he’s enjoying a perverse kind of power over his wife. From denying her the pleasure of dancing – to his passive aggressive and inauthentic response to her flirtations.

To quote Flynn, Highsmith “doesn’t give anything away. She does not do your work for you. She gives you all the information. She’s a very precise writer. You picture her using an eye dropper to put each word on the page. Everything is very specifically put in place, but she makes you do a lot of wonderful homework in having to think about her characters and put yourself in their positions and try to figure them out a little bit.”

There’s an absence of emotion in Vic’s story. At one point we are told that he doesn’t feel guilt – but he doesn’t really seem to feel anything – except perhaps for the snails.

So perhaps that’s how it works. We have our own theories of mind – we as readers do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Highsmith novel. We project our own emotions on to Vic, and make assumption about how he must feel. That’s how narcissists and sociopaths work on us, after all. We make excuses for their behaviour, just as we do for Vic’s. Just as his friends do. We are all fooled because we want to believe that other human beings are just like us. Even though in several places Vic quite explicitly says he’s not like other people. He’s not a conformist.

We do all like non-conformity, don’t we?

I can’t help pondering on the fact that Highsmith herself kept snails….  Perhaps the key to why I empathised with Vic is that Highsmith herself is on his side.

I think it’s time I re-read Highsmith’s book on Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction.

Ann


October 20, 2016

What provides good experience for writing?  

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that suggests medicine – the writer, himself a doctor and a novelist, points out that there are very many examples – he picks out Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini.

His argument is pretty strong – doctors get to see people at times of crisis, doctors are empathic (mostly); junior doctors have to learn to take a history and present it to the consultant on ward rounds, and thus develop an ability with communication (listening as well as talking) and with story.

Having recently spent far too much time in hospital, I concede he makes an excellent case. I think I’ve certainly found lots of material from the other side of the fence – and not just if I follow through with my threat to turn it into a medical thriller. After the next operation and recovery, of course.

However I suspect he’s just cherry picking, or has fallen into the Texas Sharp Shooter logical fallacy. He’s a doctor and a novelist, and therefore he is attuned to the existence of the rest of the group who fall into his segment of that particular Venn diagram.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the same is true of all the lawyers who are also novelists. I recall when I was at Liverpool University and changed course from Law to English Language and Literature, my Law Professor made that point. Who did he mention? Henry Fielding, certainly. Erle Stanley Gardner, possibly. John Buchan. John Mortimer. I would add John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline.

A similar case could be made for the reasons – they see lots of people in time of crisis, they have to have an understanding of human nature, they have to be able to construct a narrative.

So where does that leave me – with experience in the software business?

Writing a business plan was by far the longest work of fiction I produced before I completed my first novel. And I certainly met a lot of people, of all kinds. Do you have to be empathic in business? You certainly have to understand something about human nature. I think I have a fair supply of ideas for villains and victims both from some of the people I met. I do love a revenge story after all. I am sad to say that the first example that sprang to mind here was Jeffrey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Ah yes, there are quite a few politicians who have turned novelist too, aren’t there?

Of course, most writers do need another source of income. Here in the UK most writers are reported to be earning below minimum wage.  So it’s just as well that working at stuff that is not directly related to writing provides inspiration.

So this gives me an excuse for my favourite anecdote about strange experiences in the software business.

We were meeting with a guy, let’s call him Mike, who had approached us as he was interested in a partnership. He had, he said, lots of experience in tech sales, and would be interested in selling our software product in exchange for a share of the revenue he generated. He asked for a generous revenue share, and based on his experience and his projections of the sales he could make, it sounded as if he might just be worth it.  He was a little reluctant to provide references, though. We could understand that he might not want to let his current employers know he was thinking of striking out as a freelance, and he said his other experience was too far out of date.

There was a distinct whiff of rat at the this point.

Still, we continued discussions, and my business (and life) partner inserted his usual rat trap into the conversation. I won’t say what that is, exactly – he might need it again….

At the end of the meeting Mike suggested he would provide us with a draft agreement the following week, and we parted amicably.

When it arrived, I read the agreement very, very carefully. It started out so positively, with lots of wildly optimistic projections of the sales potential he could see for our software product. (Fiction, again!)

And right at the end, just one tiny sentence that made me gasp and then set me off laughing at the guy’s sheer nerve.

If he didn’t make the projected minimum sales target he’d set for himself (one that was far more reasonable that initial wild projections, granted), then at the end of the first year he would be entitled to purchase our Intellectual Property for the miserly sum of £1.00.

Yes, that’s right.

Of course we confronted him, and he came over all hurt and defensive. Of course he would work hard, he said. He was motivated to make a success of the venture. And there was no intention at all for him to spend a year doing nothing at all and then take our IP…. He just had to do something to protect himself – he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time required for nothing.

I’m still not sure if he would make a better victim or villain. It was so inept an attempt that I can’t imagine he would actually succeed in defrauding anyone. But he certainly had every intention of doing so!

So, medicine, law, business – what is the best source of experience for writers? I don’t think there is any best. As Nora Ephron famaously said, “It’s all material.”

Ann

Glad to be out of the software business…


October 18, 2016

Andrew Marr on Sleuths  

It’s not often we get to see an hour of TV discussing genre fiction, so this is well worth watching – even if mostly to argue with the narrative and conclusion.

(For now at least, available on the iPlayer)

But really, did so much of it have to be devoted to the Golden Age and those well worn rules of detective fiction? Not to mention the locked room mystery… Even Agatha Christie didn’t set much store by the rules, after all – famously not playing fair with the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

There were some real gems in there however – mostly the segments where Marr talked to crime writers.

It was delightful to see Agatha Christie’s research folder – how I’d love to have a proper rummage around in that little lot! My own version is less tactile these days, mostly being clippings and scribblings saved to Evernote. But it did illustrate one of his stronger points in the first half of the programme – that the best detective fiction is rooted in reality – that the crime had to be convincing.

The brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has now written her own Poirot novel, shared an intriguing theory about Agatha Christie’s two dimensional characters. She suggested that they weren’t actually carboard cutouts at all – that what is mistaken for two dimensionality are the social masks which cover each character’s deep and dark hidden secrets, which lie at the heart of crime fiction. It’s an interesting idea – but is altogether too mechanical a device for my liking – although it fits very well with Marr’s thesis that the detective story is a machine…

Marr’s focus is very much on the whodunnit throughout – which is the least interesting branch of crime fiction for me – precisely because too often it is a puzzle, it is a machine, a formula.  In the crime fiction I enjoy the most, that puzzle is often there as an element of the story and I enjoy being outwitted by the novelist – but it usually isn’t in the foreground.

Marr reached the usual conclusion after his survey of the Golden Age – that detective fiction is comforting because it shows the established order being thrown into chaos and then the detective arrives and restores order.

We were briefly led down the mean streets of Chandler and Hammet – the main purpose of which seemed to be to explain the transition from the Golden Age to modern crime fiction where order is not so easily restored.

Sadly, he missed out one of my favourites – Dorothy Sayers – which would have illustrated the transition very well and shown that it didn’t just arise because of American fiction. The Peter Wimsey stories start off with all the trappings of the Golden age rules of detection, but they grow in complexity, especially after the introduction of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison.  Lord Peter – for all his aristocratic foppishness – does grapple with some of the difficulties inherent in detetcive fiction. He is tormented at times by the impact of the crimes he investigates on the victims, but also, at that time, the effect on the criminal. If he uncovers a murderer, he knows he will send him to the hangman. There’s plenty of psychological depth in Sayer’s novels.

And then there’s the quirkier Glady Mitchell, whose character Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is a consulting psychologist to the Home Office. She must also be considered as one of the forerunners of modern crime fiction, exploring the murkier depths of the psyche.

But Marr skips to Ruth Rendell, who he rightly points out uses detective fiction to hold up a mirror to society.

But doesn’t all fiction do that?

Maybe I’m carping, but Marr then marshalls Mike Phillips and his creation, black journalist Sam Dean, and Val McDermid’s creation of Savile clone (apart from being handsome) Jacko Vance, and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to show how detective fiction has changed, and is no longer about a comforting restoral of the community to order.

I’m not altogether convinced that previous generations were quite so easily comforted, personally.

One of the most compelling parts is the interview with Val McDermid and how she talks about being inspired to write about the Savile story, and how she  disguised him as the attractive TV presenter Jacko Vance.

“I have spent most of my adult life in a state of rage,” she said, about her motivation to write.

That is something that Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus could understand. Marr suggests he is the ultimate flawed detective, who is all to aware that his job is never done, crime will never go away, and order can never be restored.

Even at this stage, Marr goes back to the “rule” theory of detective fiction – emphasising that the flawed detective is one of the many elements of the story machine.

He wraps up with a montage of scenes from what has been called the nordic noir TV series – The Killing, The Bridge and of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – these selections intended to prove that the “rules” are universal.

The only problem is, I don’t think they are universal – like most rules they are honoured in the breach as much as the observance. I would hardly describe Rendell’s Inspector Wexford as flawed, for instance. As already stated, Agatha Christie didn’t always play fair with the reader.  And those examples come from the programme’s cherry picked examples.

I did enjoy watching, but I felt the whole programme was unbalanced. The focus on the Golden Age deprived us of opportunities to think about more recent detective fiction.

It would have been interesting to discuss Ruth Rendell’s dark psychological crime novels and the Barbara Vine books as well as the Inspector Wexford series.

I would have liked to see Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels mentioned – and we could have had a glimpse of the late, great Warren Clarke in action as the brilliantly flawed Dalziel. What I love about the books, though, is how Hill developed as a novelist – from the earlier novels such as A Clubbable Woman, which are excellent stories, but without much depth, to the later ones such as The Wood Beyond, which deals with the issue of soldiers in the first world war who were executed for desertion. If I didn’t hate the phrase, I would say some of the later novels transcend the genre.

As as aside, one of my favourite Hill novels also features Dalziel and Pascoe, and rather delightfully subverts the run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and pokes fun at the trope of the idyllic village which turns out to have a depraved underbelly. It also has some amusing echoes of Jane Austen, indicated from the very first sentence – “It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that all men are born equal, but the family Guillemard, pointing to the contra-evidence of their own absence from the Baronetage, have long been settled in Yorkshire without allowing such pholosophical quibbles to distress or vex them.” The twist at the end of the novel surely breaks all the rules of detective fiction.

It was great to be reminded of Mike Phillips novels (and the TV series) which used crime fiction to explore racial tension in Britain – but why no mention of the fantastic explosion of feminist crime fiction in the 1980s? It was after all, where Val McDermid started out, with her novels about journalist/sleuth Lindsay Gordon, published by The Women’s Press. PD James published the Cordelia Gray series, and Antonia Fraser created Jemima Shore – while in the US Sara Paretsky created a series of novels deeply concerned with issues of social justice featuring the private detective VI Warshawski.

Instead of a segment on the locked room mystery – why not a discussion of the brilliant Sophie Hannah’s own crime fiction. She was mentioned as someone who had written a Poirot novel, and interviewed about Christie. But her own crime novels are fascinating and structurally innovative – combining as they do two sub-genres of crime fiction. In each novel, one narrative strand is written from the first person point of  view of a character at the heart of the crime – and the other narrative strand is a more conventional third person detective story, following the police characters who are investigating the crime.

Finally, I would have included Tana French’s series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad, where each novel follows an investigation by a different detective. Again, these are not detective novels which follow the “rules” blindly – they are as much concerned with the psychological effect of the crimes on the characters, including the investigating detectives, and where all the loose ends aren’t tidied up at the end of the novel.

Clearly I’ve singled out some of my favourite novelists here – but I contend they are my favourites for very good reasons – not least because they break the rules.

Still, I did very much enjoy the programme, even if mostly by arguing with the thesis and quibbling about the focus on particular eras and writers. I daresay the ones I’ve picked out will not completely satisfy any other individual reader of crime fiction, either. Please add your own favourites in the comments here, or on my Facebook page.

Ann

PS How could I have forgotten David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – and the TV adaptations? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why 😉


October 14, 2016

It’s time for the Iowa Writing course again!  

Last year’s MOOC from Iowa was fabulous and this year’s already is shaping up to be as good – or better. Unfortunately I am not quite well enough to participate fully and do all the writing exercises this year, but I will be auditing – and hopefully will be able to catch up later if I get my promised date for my surgery soon…

So this year’s course is How Writers Write Fiction 2016: Storied Women – the first class was posted yesterday so there’s still time to sign up.

The Class One video is about creating characters – I especially enjoyed the segment about stealing souls!  As with the last one, the coruse is stimulating because they get so many working writers to talk about their craft. So far this time we’ve had Margot Livesey, Galit Dahan Carlibach, Ukamaka Olisakwe, and Cate DiCharry.

After the introductory video there are various readings, usually short stories or excerpts from longer works – and articles by writers on aspects of writing. I’ve not read this week’s yet but I can already tell they are going to be fascinating – about whether characters have to be likeable, and then Lionel Shriver’s recent controversial piece about cultural appropriation (actually I’d already read that one) and responses to it.

Looking forward to some interesting discussion threads this week!

So, it’s free, you can join in as much or as little as you like – sign up here and perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ann