“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection.” This is how my favorite movie begins. These succinct words, spoken by Clifton Webb who portrays the charismatic writer Waldo Lydecker, are the tasty tease that draws us into an American film noir of cult status. On Sunday, Laura will be screened at The Tampa Theatre, a 1926 jewel that has been lovingly preserved by a dedicated group of local individuals. It is a rare treat to see a movie of this caliber screened in such a venue, a “movie palace”. The screening will be preceded by a performance on the refurbished Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, which rises and descends through a trap door in the stage floor. The movie will be followed by a question and answer session with a local professor and film buff. To say that I’m excited is a huge understatement – I’ve been waiting six months for this event.
Oddly enough, I have never read the book, Laura, by Vera Caspary. Like so many other writers, Ms. Caspary allowed her agent to sell the book rights to Otto Preminger for a song. It was, after all, during WWII, and she was a single woman working hard as a writer. That the movie would become one of the most popular films of the war years was not something she could have foreseen. I will, very soon, correct my oversight and read the novel. I feel I owe it to Vera.
What makes a great murder mystery? To shed some light on this I will consult two masters, Agatha Christie and P.D. James.
One steamy, hot New Jersey summer I picked up And Then There Were None by Dame Christie and was forever hooked by this genre. That summer I read every one of her books. It is impossible to write in the space allotted all the wisdom she has shared about her writing process. Here are a few key points, according to Dame Christie, as to what makes a great murder mystery.
- The clues you provide must give the reader the opportunity to reach a satisfactory conclusion. If the identity of the murderer is a complete surprise it is aggravating, to say the least. A red herring or two can be thrown in somewhere along the way, and this makes the identity of the murderer more challenging for a reader to solve. A major clue or two should be thrown in at the beginning of the book.
- Although you want the final solution to make sense, the murderer must be an insider, and his characteristics must allow him to move around without suspicion.
- A closed circle of suspects heightens the involvement of the reader as they struggle to analyze who had access to the victim. This is a Christie innovation, and she excelled at confusing us with it.
- A unique detective or civilian who seems to be omniscient or at least have amazing intuition is crucial. Both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were never deceived by obvious solutions. They continued to pose pointed questions until the true murderer was discovered.
- The motivation to commit murder is key.
Like Dame Agatha, this is my favorite part to write. Where do I find my inspiration? Everywhere. I have several files already for the next book, full of newspaper clippings, snippets of conversations I’ve overheard, and stories on the local news. Florida seems to have an amazing amount of odd characters, and it is truly a writer’s dream. Why does one individual kill another? Money, sex, unrequited love, failed business ventures, mistaken identity, vigilantism, old family business, jealousy, blackmail and boredom. There are more of course, but I am interested in the motivations of people I might run into in the local food store, not those seeking world domination.
Motivation must be believable to the reader. The reader must be convinced that the murderer perceived no other way out of their predicament, or that their hatred compelled them to act. Getting the motivation right allows you to fully develop the characters, since their shared past is full of critical interaction.
Now onto P.D. James. I have read every one of her murder mysteries, and am in awe of her ability to create characters and scenarios that I want to eat with a spoon. In a recent book, Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James takes us through some of the most influential writers of the genre, highlighting their stylistic differences and strengths. She is one of the modern writers I look to for clarification when my direction gets muddled, and I have used this book as a reference.
In describing her process she will pick out the location where the story will be set. This visual sets the background clearly in her mind. Baroness James often writes the ending, and works toward it as a logical progression of the chain of events that will culminate in a final resolution.
I have exceeded my word count for this week, so I am off to get ready for Laura and an afternoon transported into a black and white world of sophistication and murder. Cheers!