Monday, 14 January 2013

Day Fourteen: Detective & Distraction

I’ve always thought it was on the debatable side that the detective is the most important character in a detective novel. I mean, it is called a detective novel…but I kind of like to consider the genre to be more of an ensemble where characters are concerned. Most everyone who you’re liable to meet in one of these stories is important in some way—be it in narrative or emotional terms—and it isn’t always the case, but sometimes those characters pair off nicely. They’re intertwined through a relationship or plot thread.

Kind of like the two I worked on today.

The Detective:

When I started working on Emory Dow, he was some sort of ex-special forces badass living out in the jungle like a half-mad survivalist. And that—let us be honest here—is intensely played out. It’s boring. It’s cliché. So he’s gotten a bit of a revamp.

There’s something of a tradition of military service when it comes to these kinds of stories, though. The classical American detective novel is largely a post-World War II genre, and, as they were primarily contemporary stories, that lent a certain necessity to incorporating heroes and side characters who had recently been pilots and sailors and infantry-men. So, because of that, I did still want to maintain Dow as a military man…I just decided to make him something a little more standard issue. Which is how he came to serve for more than a decade with the British Army, as a Corporal in the 2nd Rifles. It’s also how he came by a pair of nasty tours doing peace-keeping and cleanup in 2034’s Uruguayan Civil War, and the psychological problems that crushed his first marriage and earned him an eventual medical discharge. Which is how he ended up signing himself into a two year study of battlefield stress disorders at a psychological institute in Bristol, and how he ended up meeting the second Mrs. Dow.

None of which explains how he came to be back in South America, mind, but Peru is a long way from Uruguay and given how much time he’d just spent around psychiatrists there might have been a bit of a “facing your fears” thing at work. The important part is that it’s a life trajectory that is simple, straight-forward, and believable—and one that can be developed and explored in a variety of ways via a variety of circumstances. It also puts Dow more cleanly in keeping with Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op character than it does with Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Someone who has the training and experience to get to the bottom things, but is ultimately better equipped to be a force of nature than the fast-talking gumshoe. Dow is fairly moral and earnest in his own way, I think. He isn’t a naturally quick or sarcastic man, and he probably first entered military service because it was what his father did (I have an idea that the senior Dow was a Royal Green Jacket; a uniform which was folded into the 2nd Rifles several years ago during a restructuring of the British Army) for his entire working life, and stayed on mostly because he was good at it.

All of which gets me pretty well set to write Dow as a character. It informs who he is as a character and how he’s likely to react to things and people, but that’s only a part of the thing. Physical traits and verbal tics? That’s most of the rest of it.

Another bit of tradition when it comes to detective characters is that they’re usually average looking dudes—Sam Spade, the hero of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, is even physically described as somewhat heavily built and thuggish. It’s a big part of the cleverer-than-usual everyman kind of persona that accompanies so many of these characters, and, because of the nature of Dow and this project, that’s kind of the way that I’ve gone. Dow’s short, is what I’m getting at. Five foot seven and thickly built and hatchet-faced. Thirty-eight years old, born and raised at Clacton-by-Sea in Essex. Black hair running to grey and heavily receding, nose has been broken a couple of times and not very well set green eyes. Has some scars and burns. Probably a couple of tattoos. Thick fingers. Smokes when nervous or agitated, which is more often than not…given his somewhat tenuous psychological state. Expressive eyebrows. Doesn’t much like to be away from home anymore. Takes a daily run.

I could go on. Easily, I could go on. I’ve thrown out some details here that aren’t even in my written notes. The further I take that list, though, the further I get from the remaining bit of character design: Improvisation. It’s easy to get caught up in planning every detail of a character’s life and physical presence, because every writer wants to create a good, well-rounded character, but it does no good to deny the somewhat organic and improvisational nature of writing a novel. I have to leave room in Dow’s notes for him to wriggle and grow. It’s enough for me to know right now that he’s a good man who can only—like most people—be pushed so far, because if I know exactly where his breaking point is going in then I can’t be surprised when he reaches it. And if I’m not surprised by that development, then it’s harder for me to write the people around him as surprised and it’s a fair bet that you won’t be surprised either, when you read it.

So, combine that with what remains of my notes on him from Week One (his technical skills and firearms proficiency, the fact that he’s in over his head here, that he’s fighting a losing battle with his second wife) and we’ve pretty much got Dow in a nut-shell. Not exactly the guy who you want to trap in a tin can and say, “We think this man was murdered, so figure it out, “ to. Especially when he can’t go outside and have a cigarette. It’s good, though, because he’s on his way to being a person. He’s imperfect. He’s going to screw up and miss things and not realize other things until it’s too late. And that’s what I want out of a fictional detective, so I’m absolutely okay with that.

The Distraction:

In a lot of these novels (and, again, this isn’t universal but I’m pulling all of the stops out here) there’s something, some low-level narrative aspect, that’s unrelated to the mystery or crime at hand but keeps the detective on his toes none-the-less. I like to call this person or thing the Distraction, and it can really be just about anything that you want: financial difficulty, a kid on the way, a woman who gets under the guy’s skin. Some everyday bit of life that keeps cropping up throughout the story to keep the protagonist off his game. In The Maltese Falcon this is Iva, the wife of hero Sam Spade’s dead partner Miles Archer, and the willful, manipulative woman Spade was fooling around with at the time of Archer’s death.

For this novel the role goes to Marisol Dow, our detective’s second wife. A trained psychiatrist and medical administrator (they first met while she was working as the coordinator for the doctors carrying out the study Dow took part in, and she agreed to start dating him shortly after he left the facility), Marisol works on retainer for humanitarian aid and disaster relief groups and regularly travels to disaster sites to run teams of counselors. She’s actually on her way out of town when Dow gets the call for Cole’s death, and it’s this mutual traveling and time apart—plus what she views as an ever-increasing dependency on his part—that’s slowly trashing their marriage. They were never an amazing couple, but he feels like he needs her because she was there when he was putting his life back together and she knows how to deal with him when he has a post-traumatic episode, and she’s just starting to feel a little trapped and used. Both love one-another, but they’re also both terrible at expressing themselves. She’s probably only a month or three away from telling him that she’s leaving.

Marisol is a pretty far stretch from Dow’s first wife (Brenna, a moderately successful Scottish painter who just couldn’t ever stand or adapt to being an army wife). Spanish, and born and raised in Barcelona. A few years younger than Dow, and several inches shorter at five foot two. Black hair, drown eyes, thin lips, well built. She’s taken nicely to having the downtime that she does, and working in the field, and she sports a pretty good tan.

We don’t get to spend much time with Marisol in the novel, but her growing distance and his seeming inability to make himself address it is something that weighs on Dow throughout. He’s not quite on the verge of getting broken up over it, but there are doubts and some low-grade depression…and the communications lag between Earth and the moon, plus the fact that he’s on the moon and she’s out at the site of a Venezuelan fuel refinery explosion the entire time, doesn’t do anything to help that problem go away.

Ultimately, and I know that this probably sounds a little horrible, she doesn’t so much exist to be a character as she does to be the specter of looming heartbreak. It’s still important for me to have established things about her as a character, though, and to understand why their marriage is failing from both sides. I’m glad that I took the time.

 

-Sean

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