The Great White Whale: Part 2

UnknownIn my most recent re-reading of Moby Dick I was struck by the organization of the book — something I paid scant attention to in previous readings. Specifically, this time around I became aware that Ahab doesn’t enter the book until a quarter of the way through; that the first whale is killed about half way through; and that only the last three chapters contain the face-to-face confrontations between Ahab and the crew on one hand, the great white whale on the other.

This time around it felt to me as if Melville had artfully designed a trawling net, wide at the front end (the first half of the book), tapering to a narrow end where the fish/readers are inevitably led. I realized as I neared the last quarter of the book how I had been led into a more and more focused world (Ahab’s wish to kill Moby Dick). Everything that came before seemed to push toward this end — and there was no escape.

It was an especially gloomy feeling to me to know that for the men on board the Pequod, there was likewise no escape.

During my most recent reading I found to my surprise how many of the symbols I remembered. For example, I remembered that “all men live enveloped in whale lines.” Likewise, we are tied to others through monkey-ropes.

One of my favorite symbols appears in the chapter titled “The Tail,” where Ishmael describes the whale’s tale: “Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”

Moby_Dick_final_chaseAlthough Ahab’s single-minded, unheeding obsession with the great white whale bothered me even the first time I read the book, only in subsequent readings did I come to realize the immorality of Ahab’s actions: not just toward the natural world, but also toward his fellow humans, chief among them his crew, but also fellow sailors he encounters on the high seas.

This inhumanity is highlighted toward the near end of the book, when a man he knows, a fellow captain from Nantucket, begs for his help, for only 48 hours. The captain’s young son has been lost at sea in a whaling boat that didn’t return and can’t be found. Even Stubbs’ heart turns for the better: ‘We must save that boy!” he cries.

But Ahab cold-heartedly refuses and orders the captain off his ship. Ahab is for pursuit of Moby Dick and will let absolutely nothing stand in his way.

As Ahab pursues the White Whale, getting closer and closer, the omens and symbolism increase. During the typhoon, the lightning turns around the Pequod’s compass needle so that it points to the opposite of reality: the needle points East when the ship is sailing West. Ahab himself turns around reality: all he sees is what Moby Dick did to him (bit off his leg). Which is significantly less than what he tried to do to Moby Dick (kill him.)

Once the great white whale is sighted, the book rushes toward its conclusion in a very dramatic way. The last three chapters are titled “The Chase — First Day,” “The Chase — Second Day,” and “The Chase — Third Day.” Each of the first two days, Ahab is warned. The first day, Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in half and Ahab falls into the sea, saved by the Pequod.

e2c146a3fdc967d78893f68a79d8a8ee--penguin-classics-melvilleThe second day Moby Dick breaches, which all see as an act of defiance. Having breached, the great white whale turns and heads for the three crewboats, smashing each of them. The whale then moves on, going its own way.

On the third day Ahab realizes he was “befooled, befooled!” That is, he fooled himself into thinking he was immortal. Even knowing that — even knowing that his crew and ship will perish if he persists — Ahab plunges on. That is when Moby Dick turns on the Pequod, smashing it in half with his majestic forehead. The ship goes down and all but Ishmael perish.

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

Book Review: Charlie Chan Carries On

 

When I was sixteen years old and first read Earl Derr Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels, I loved each and every one, but my favorite was the fifth book, Charlie Chan Carries On. However, I couldn’t really say why.

What was it about this book that made it my favorite? Was it the fact that the story took place on an around-the-world cruise, and that this setting appealed to me? Or perhaps I loved the novelty of having one detective be the protagonist for the first half of the book, and another detective take over for the second half of the story.

Back in the 1990s, after I had already read each book twice, and was about to embark on reading each a third time, I did a lot of research on Earl Derr Biggers. This included reading all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, David Laurance Chambers of Bobbs-Merrill. From these letters I learned many things I hadn’t known — including something about Biggers’ attitude toward writing Charlie Chan Carries On.

Specifically, I learned that Biggers complained to Chambers about the fact that so many of his fans were telling him he should write a Chan mystery in which Charlie goes to London and meets up with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard (introduced in Behind That Curtain), and the two of them solve a case together.

Which part of these suggestions repelled Biggers more, I don’t know: that he take his character to London, that Chan co-star with Duff . . . or that the fans felt they could tell Biggers where to set his books. Disregarding all these suggestions, Biggers wrote a fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, in which he took Charlie home to Hawaii. Inspector Duff was not present in the novel.

Still . . . there was something about the London suggestion, or the meeting-Duff-again suggestion that appealed to Biggers. And so he plotted that Duff and Chan would work together — but not in the way the fans had suggested. In Charlie Chan Carries On Biggers turned the first part of the story over to Inspector Duff in London, then, in the second half, had Duff meet Chan in Honolulu (not London!). Charlie takes charge in the second half of the story and solves the mystery that Duff hadn’t yet solved.

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As I read the correspondence between Biggers and his editor and recalled the plot of Charlie Chan Carries On, I chuckled. Biggers managed to both give the fans what they wanted (another meeting between Duff and Chan) and not give them what they wanted (Chan in London). I think that in writing this book he was showing mystery readers who is in charge of the novel: the author.

Still, learning this about Biggers and his fans’ suggestions didn’t reveal to me why Carries On is my favorite of the six novels. So this time around, for my fourth reading of the novel, I decided to pay very close attention to the question of why I like this book the most.

It’s a very well constructed mystery, as are all six of the Chan novels. The story starts out in London, where Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard investigates a murder that occurs at Broome’s Hotel. The murdered man, Hugh Drake, was a member of Doctor Lofton’s Around the World tour. Duff questions all seventeen members of the tour, but gets nowhere. He wants to keep the tour from leaving, but the British legal system will not let him do so because he has no evidence with which to charge anybody with murder.

In Nice a second member of the tour is murdered. Duff, who has arrived in Nice, learns that somebody in San Remo, Italy, is in danger, even though she’s not part of the tour. Duff travels with the tour to San Remo, but the person he means to protect is murdered. Neither Duff nor the Italian police can solve the crime, and so the tour continues eastward while Duff returns to London — after asking Pamela Potter, a tour member, to keep him informed by letter, and to cable him if anybody else is murdered.

Back at Scotland Yard Duff and his superior decide to put an undercover Yard man on the case: he will join the tour in Calcutta, working on the ship’s crew. But this undercover operator does not make it past Japan.

As the tour boat makes its way to Hawaii, Duff is sent to the US to investigate safe deposit boxes (which play a role in the murder) and, eventually, to meet the tour ship when it arrives in Honolulu.

There the long-awaited reunion between Chan and Duff takes place, with Chan and Duff treating each other to lunches and Chan inviting Duff to his home for dinner.

And then, the night that Duff is to sail to the States with the remaining tour members, he is shot while in Charlie’s office at the Honolulu Police Station. Before he passes out Duff whispers, “Carry on, Charlie.” Duff’s life is saved, but he cannot leave the hospital.

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At this point Chan takes over, stating that his honor has been assailed and that he will solve the case for his friend. The last seven chapters of the book take place aboard the President Arthur as it steams its way toward San Francisco. Chan has Duff’s case notes with him and proceeds to question the tour members.

In my fourth reading, I was able to determine the identify of the killer by Chapter 18 (of 23) — with the same method that Chan was able to determine his identity. (Of course, unlike Chan, I had been here three times before!)

There are three things I noticed during my fourth reading that I hadn’t noticed in my first three. First, I observed that in this book Biggers’ does an amazing — and very funny — job of spoofing both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and her Miss Marple. I’m amazed that I never noticed this before.

Second, I think Biggers’ depictions of Americans abroad is hilarious. Earl and Eleanor made several trips abroad, and they must have encountered many Americans tourists such as the always-taking-pictures Mr. Benbow. Or the crude but good-at-heart gangster, Max Minchin. Perhaps one of the reasons I love this book so much is that the writing is so funny.

Third, I observed that although there are seventeen suspects, it was always very easy to know which character was which. I’ve read books in which there are six or seven suspects . . . and I can’t identify who is who when they next appear in the book. We’ve all had similar experiences. So how did Biggers manage to do this?

Although Duff had to question all the suspects, Biggers broke them into small groups. First we meet Doctor Lofton, who is in charge of the tour. That’s one character. Then we meet Pamela Potter and her mother. That’s three. Pamela is distinct because Mr. Drake was her grandfather and also because she is the youngest woman on the tour, perhaps twenty years old. The mother goes back to the States, so seventeen are down to sixteen. We then meet Mrs Spicer, who had the room next to Mr. Drake. We also meet Mr. Honywood, whose room is on the other side of Drake’s. We now have four characters to know (Lofton, Pamela Potter, Spicer, and Honywood). They are very distinct from one another. So far, an admirable job by Biggers.

Duff asks Doctor Lofton to assemble the tour members in a lounge. But five of them aren’t back from their London jaunt yet, so they will be questioned later. One of the seven new characters, Mr. Tait, faints the moment he enters the lounge. His young assistant, Mr. Kennaway, helps him into another room.

Now we have five people left to concentrate on: Mr. Ross, a timber merchant; Captain Keane, who isn’t a captain and who seems to lie about everything; Mr. Vivian, who seems to be the paramour of Mrs. Spicer; Norman and Laura Fenwick, brother and sister. We learn about these five, and it’s easy to keep them distinct because of their different ages, different origins, and different attitudes. The Fenwicks want to leave the tour and eventually do, narrowing the number from sixteen to fourteen.

Finally Duff meets the five people who weren’t there at the beginning of the questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Benbow are distinct because Mr. Benbow records each step of the world tour on film and is thus always with his camera; Max Minchin is a gangster from Chicago, with a very distinct way of speaking, and his wife Sadie buys jewelry everywhere they go. Mrs. Luce (the Miss Marple Spoof) is a 72-year-old sharply observant world traveler who has stories to tell about every port she has visited, and who draws lessons from her life’s experiences. As I said, these five characters are easy to keep straight, making this round-the-world story a real pleasure.

There is much I admire about Charlie Chan Carries On, but even now, after reading it a fourth time, I can’t pinpoint the reason why it’s my favorite. So let’s just say that the sheer scope of the book is what appeals to me.

 

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies contains suggestions on how authors can keep characters distinct to readers.

An Unnoticed Theft

My father emigrated to the US a month short of his fourteenth birthday. I’ve told part of his story in The Line Between. As a teen, he fell in love with the silent movies of the time, particularly the westerns. My father wanted to be a cowboy. But that wasn’t possible in eastern Ohio, which was not home to cowboys.

Horses were another matter. Many farmers and even non-farmers owned horses. My father so coveted a horse that, one night, he inadvertently stole one. I explain the result in the poem below.

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My Father Was a Horse Thief

Joe longed to be a cowboy, wear a white hat,
ride a black stallion and thunder after bad guys.
The Packards, Studebakers, and Arrows

of his new land held no lure for Joe: moving
pictures with western heroes called. Every night
after chores, Joe bolted down the street

to the saloon, where Old George Clark hitched
his horse to the rail. Joe stroked that horse,
fed it, and pictured himself in the saddle, looping

a lasso and roping bad guys who wore black hats.
The stallion didn’t belong to him, but Joe was a kid
and Old George Clark drank his nights away and the horse

was there. One night in the drizzle Joe couldn’t resist:
unhitching the reins he sprang into the saddle with a loud
Giddyup, just as he had seen done in the movies.

Snorting, the stallion burst into a destination trot
that no amount of desperate Whoa’s! would stop.
When it reached home the cayuse finally halted,

and not a Giddyup in the western world could start it up
again. In the gloom and rain Joe trod three desperado miles
back to the saloon and waited: waited to come clean to Old

George, who at closing time reeled out and peered around.
Joe stammered, confessed that he had taken the horse
for a ride and it wouldn’t bring him back, but Old George

wouldn’t be tricked: he figured he must have walked
to the saloon, and so he walked home. Thunder rolled
as good guy and bad guy hoofed it home in shades of gray.

 

rain

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This poem is from Crossing the Skyway: Poems, by Barbara Gregorich.

Baroque Music and Multiple Endings

Multiple-ending stories are a kind of fiction in which the reader decides which plot path to pursue. The concept for the first wave of interactive fiction books, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, which were hugely popular during the 1980s and 1990s, was developed by Edward Packard in 1976.

The Choose Your Own Adventure stories had plots that branched out in several different directions. Think of a branching-plot novel as one in which the reader climbs up the main trunk of a tree, then chooses a branch to follow. And from that branch, another branch. And so on. In order for a branching story to move forward, the reader has to make choices very soon after the story starts. Each decision leads to further decisions, and this continues until the chain of decisions leads to an ending (or sometimes not!). In some of the books, 40 different endings were possible, and the ways to reach those endings varied. In other words, if on page four the reader chooses Option C, that doesn’t mean that Option C will always lead to Ending #15. Depending on the choices after C, a reader could end up with a different ending. Ending #24, say.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books were so popular that at least twenty other similar series were published. (Nothing inspires imitation like success.)

In a tree, branches do not double back on themselves and end up where they began. In a book or a game (as computer gaming, role-playing with action and consequences), though, readers/players may end up back where they started. This isn’t ideal, and it isn’t common — but it is possible, depending on the fiendishness of the branching-plot constructor.

Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to write a series of computer stories with branching story lines. These were for first- and second-graders learning English as a Second Language. At that time there were no books or articles I could find that explained how to write branching stories, so in order to understand what I needed to do, I read seven or eight Choose Your Own Adventure books.

bach-concert-for-2-violins

Armed with an understanding of how these books worked, I spread many 3×5 notecards out on my dining room table. What I wrote on one notecard would serve as one computer-screen worth of text. I also had pens in different colors of ink, plus a paper tablet and blank paper. Knowing that classical music, particularly Baroque, affects brain waves and analytical abilities, I put several Bach CDs on. Then I began work on the first of many stories (I think the work-for-hire assignment consisted of twelve branching stories).

The Baroque music did stimulate my brain. The first thing I did was create the first two computer frames of the story. On my diagram, these are frames A and B. The story is about Crandall, a hermit crab, outgrowing his shell and looking for a new home.

Branching

Then I considered various ways Crandall’s search could end, and I wrote four endings. These have squares around them on the diagram. They are R, 0, M, and Y.

Next, I put the diagram aside and began writing individual “frames” (parts of the story) for the results of the C choice. That branched further into a choice between F and G. The F choice ended the story at R. The G choice, however, led to another branch, a choice between J and K.

The J choice eventually led to a choice between O and P. O ended the story. But P did not — P actually took the story all the way back to the second step of the D choice. If you study the diagram, you can see that some of the choices lead to unexpected results. That was fun.

Here’s what my notecards looked like. Each notecard is one computer frame’s worth of story.

Crandall

I remember that it took me two eight-hour sessions to develop the first of these branching stories. It was indeed a lot of fun, but also a lot of very hard work. In some ways, this branching-story assignment was the most complex writing assignment I’ve ever had. I had to be able to think of different plot possibilities. Instead of choosing one possibility over the others and following the story to its cause-and-effect conclusion, I had to juggle the plot possibilities and keep each and every one alive. And make certain that each led to a cause-and-effect ending.

And these were very small stories for first- and second-graders. Imagine all the possibilities that a game creator must juggle!

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Barbara Gregorich suggests you listen to Baroque music while reading her Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Series Yes, Series No: Part II

There are at least two kinds of books in series. One kind continues the series hero and supporting characters, but not necessarily in chronological, event-driven order. Examples of such series are the Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie’s Poirot series and her Miss Marple series. The Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys books also fall into this category.

The other type of series, more modern than the first, develops the life of the hero in a chronological, cause-and-effect, event-driven order. This is the type of series that some fans will read only in the order the books were written, because they want to experience the hero’s life in the order the events occur. Interestingly, my favorite mystery series when growing up was the Trixie Belden series, and those books were definitely chronological order and event-in-hero’s life driven. And my two Proof novels, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, are written in sequential-events order. The third Proof novel will continue in that vein.

Unknown-2I’m a fan of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. Gordianus is a Roman finder, or detective, who lives before, during, and after the rise of Julius Caesar. The novels in the series are “interrupted” with collections of short stories sandwiched between — short stories featuring Gordianus, but at the same time short stories that aren’t in chronological order. Saylor isn’t the only writer to have done this. As a reader, I find this interruption of the novel form disappointing. I feel that the hero’s life is not progressing, especially because the short stories are often from different periods in the hero’s life. And, because the novels are in chronological order, I have to struggle to fit the short stories into a time framework. Going back and forth in a hero’s life pleases some readers and displeases others.

When writers decide to write a story out of sequence — for example, in their fifth book in a series, they might write about events that occurred before the first book in the series — publishers may decide to put numbers on the outside of the books, and these numbers refer to the chronological “place” the book holds in the series. If a series is complete, these numbers help. If a series is still in progress, the numbers may become invalid!

Many authors who write series grow tired of writing them. They need a mental and emotional break from the characters. They need time to let new plots develop So they take a break from the series as a way of replenishing the well. But so often, what they do is start a second series of books. Sometimes the characters in this second series know the characters in the first, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell if a writer is writing one series or two. Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jimmy Chee series was like this — maybe it was two series, maybe it was one series which wandered around a bit.

Unknown-3Some writers write series not about a single set of characters, but about people who live in the same town. Each character gets his or her own story. Romance writer Robyn Carr did this with her popular Virgin River series, though she stopped the series at twenty books and started a different series. When I read reviews of romance novels in Publishers Weekly, I notice that many of them are about, say, four sisters, each of whom gets her own book. Or five brothers. Or ten cousins. One good thing about this is that each author is committed to a short series, not an endless series.

The longest series I’m currently reading — that is, I haven’t stopped reading the series for one reason or another — is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I’ve read the first twenty-three and am waiting for number twenty-four. The next longest series I’m still reading is the No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I’m about to read the most recent book (seventeenth in the series).

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Barbara Gregorich has one more Proof novel to publish before she has a series.

Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.

Agony.

I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)

But.

What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.

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Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.

Biggers’ The Black Camel: Clues True and False

I have been reading the Charlie Chan mysteries of Earl Derr Biggers’ for the fourth time (having read them the first time when I was sixteen), and I’ve been blogging about them, concentrating on my reactions during the fourth reading. (See Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture.)

unknown-1The Black Camel, Biggers’ fourth Chan novel, is one of the three that I’ve remembered the solution of since I first read the books (the other two being The House Without a Key and The Keeper of the Keys). Up until now, I always considered this the least intriguing of his mysteries, though I’m not sure why. I suspect my original lack of enthusiasm for the book had something to do with Tarneverro the Great, self-styled fortune teller to Hollywood stars. If you look at drawings of Tarneverro on book covers and depictions of him in movie posters, you can see that he’s made to look like an evil villain.

In my first three readings I thought of Tarneverro as cunning, manipulative, and unlikeable. On the fourth reading, though, I felt admiration for his quest for justice as well as for his quick thinking and his skills at deflection and misdirection. Moreover, on the fourth reading I greatly enjoyed watching the way Tarneverro thinks he can outwit Chan when, in fact, he can’t

Tarneverro is a great name for the fortune teller. The first half reminds me of tarnish, whose root means dark or dull; the second half reminds me of any of the roots meaning true or speaking truly as, for example, veracity. Part of Tarneverro speaks the truth. The other part darkens, dulls, or stains that truth.

As intriguing as Tarneverro is, it’s not the fortune teller I want to concentrate on, but the outline of The Black Camel, which I offered in my previous blog, Outline: The Black Camel. In that blog I boldfaced some information and italicized other information — and challenged the reader to figure out what the boldface and italics indicated.

If you read the outline, you’ll see that Biggers did a masterful job of plotting the story of Shelah Fane’s murder and tying it to the murder of Denny Mayo three years earlier. Sometimes mystery writers make the villain the main adversary of the detective. This is a risky ploy because at some point in the novel readers will begin to suspect that the person who seems to be obstructing the investigation is the perpetrator of the deed. Biggers, instead of developing Shelah Fane’s murderer as Chan’s adversary, developed Chan’s “helper” (Tarneverro) as his adversary. This helper is almost as observant as Chan himself, with excellent powers of deduction and the will and skill to act quickly. It is this helper, Tarneverro, who lays down the false clues which hamper the investigation. It is Tarneverro’s aim that Chan never solve the crime of who murdered Shelah Fane. The false clues are in italics in the outline.

unknown-6However, it isn’t the fact that somebody (even a “helper”) is laying down false clues that make The Black Camel such a satisfyingly plotted book. What makes the plotting so satisfying is that the very first thing Tarneverro tells Chan about the murder of Denny Mayo is absolutely true — he, Tarneverro, hopes to reveal the name of the murderer that very evening. Neither Chan nor the reader have any reason to doubt this statement. Chan and the reader accept it as true. Which it is.

But after the murder occurs, everything that Tarneverro tells Chan is false: that Shelah Fane hid in Mayo’s apartment the night of the murder; that she promised to write the name of the murderer in a letter; that the murderer of Denny Mayo also murdered Shelah Fane. Lies, lies, lies . . . but oh so believable lies. Lies that, once you accept the truth of Tarneverro’s first statement, seem to follow so logically that nobody questions them. The lies  rest on the very solid, unshakable truth of what the fortune teller first tells Chan: that he hopes to reveal the name of the person who murdered Denny Mayo.

The construction of the plot is brilliant.

Although Tarneverro is the person shielding the murderer of Shelah Fane, and the character who is most misdirecting the investigation, Biggers further complicates the plot by adding other characters who are also telling lies or withholding the truth. The person telling lies is Julie O’Neill. Those withholding crucial evidence are Smith and Robert Fyfe.

The pace of The Black Camel is brisk: the whole novel takes place in less than 48 hours. The wit is delicious, especially the exchanges between Chan and Tarneverro. The scenes of Chan with his three eldest children are delightful: they speak in slang, which he abhors. The scenes between Chan and the Chief of Police show how respected Charlie is, and show what a good working relationship he has with his boss. And the Chief’s repeated desires to “break Tarneverro’s alibi” (with Charlie always replying that the alibi is unbreakable) add a great deal of reader anticipation: each time I read the book, I keep expecting Chan to break the unbreakable alibi! The reader keeps thinking not that the alibi is solid, but that it will be broken.

If you haven’t already read The Black Camel, now is the time to enjoy it. And if you have, perhaps now is the time to reread it.

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Barbara Gregorich has more to say about not making the villain the main adversary in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.