Saturday, January 7, 2012

Back to School

Scott D. Parker

With all the talk about New Year's resolutions, I've decided to go to school. I don't mean real school. Let's call it “Traditional Mystery School.” No matter what you want to do when you grow up, you have to have an education to do it. Writing and reading are no different. If you want to learn how to write, you could enroll a university course with a professor and a syllabus and spend a semester (or longer) learning the mechanics of how to write. If you want to understand reading, you can enroll in the course about any type of literature and spend a semester or more learning how to read better.

But the type of class I want to take is not necessarily offered in a university setting. You see, I want to learn about books and authors who wrote in the traditional mystery style. That is, the Agatha Christie School of Mystery. For the longest time, the types of books I tended to read were gritty, urban crime stories while the type of TV shows I watched tended to be of the traditional mystery variety: Monk, CSI: Miami, and just about everything that masterpiece mystery aired on PBS. Moreover, the types of stories I wrote followed the gritty crime style, and frankly, didn't really work. Which got me to thinking: why don't I have a go at writing a traditional mystery.

The only problem is how to do it. Sure, I can say that I enjoy things like Foyle's War or Collision, but that does not necessarily prepare me to be able to write something like that that will be consumed by folks reading words. The only option to correct that is obvious: read and study books written in the traditional style. And I'm not talking only about books written decades ago. I want to read and study modern books written in the traditional style.

Where to start? A reading list. And that's where y'all come in. I'd like your opinion on good examples of modern traditional mysteries. Let me start you out with 2 titles that are on my list.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny
The Private Patient by P. D. James

My former colleague, John McFetridge, recommended the books of Louise Penny a year or so ago, and then Bury Your Dead won a few awards. Usually, I like to begin a series with the first book. For this, I didn't care. I wanted to read the award-winning book. I am almost one third of the way into this book, and I am completely engrossed.

I've known about P. D. James for a long time, but didn't give her much thought. I received a review copy of The Private Patient, and for that reason alone, decided to read it as my first P. D. James novel. If there are other, better recommendations written by James, I'd love to hear it. Besides, she writes one killer of an opening sentence:
On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.
Which brings me to a stopping point. Where to go from here? Here's one clue: I thoroughly enjoyed the television adaptation of Val McDermid's A Place of Execution on TV. I also really enjoyed Anthony Horowitz's Collision. Both are BBC imports broadcast on PBS.

I like to get a list of 4 to 6 books, create a “syllabus” complete with questions that I hope to answer, and an outline. This may seem weird to some of you, but, then again, I can be a little weird.

So, what books would you put on this list?

Album of the Week:

The Hayden Project by the Emerson Quartet, disc 3. This bonus disc is where I have spent most of this past week. Since I work from home most of the time, I let my iTunes library play at random. A few days ago, it played a movement from a Shostakovich string quartet. The music was so interesting that I stopped work and just listened. I turned off the random, and listened to the rest of the tracks including selected movements from quartets by Dvorak, Ives, Schubert, and Bartok. The Dvorak piece is especially beautiful, and I have put more than one album of string quartets on hold at the local library. For me, the string quartet as an ensemble goes well with this winter spirit of contemplation. There's a quiet, deepness to the sound of four stringed instruments that you can't replicate with any other ensemble.

Tweet of the week:

Writing is time-consuming. The act of writing, of sitting down to write, is easy. But if you think about how long it takes to fill a page, don't think about it. That's my advice. Just right. One word, one sentence, one page, at a time.

––A. Lee Martinez

We all have writing tricks that get us to do that very thing. When you've fallen off the wagon as I did last year, anything to get you to write is a good thing. I am using the Streaks app on my iPod and tracking the number of days––in a row––that I have been writing. As of yesterday, that number is at 29. That's no big deal for many of you, but it has put me back in the habit of simply writing some amount of prose each and every day. The more days I write, the more Xs I have on my calendar, and the less likely I am to want to break the string of red Xs. I'll be hitting a month today, and am charging into this new year with a new, consistent writing habit.

Wine of the Week:

Pianello Rosso, Rosso Veneto

I am not at all qualified to write in glowing detail about wine. It's a goal I'd like to achieve, but I'm only able to speak to the basic fact: did it taste good or not. Our party of four opened this Italian wine New Year's Eve and drank it over a meal of grilled quail, grilled pork, baked Cornish hens, mixed potatoes, and country French bread with olive oil. The bottle was nearly empty by the time the ball dropped. A clean red wine with no bitter aftertaste, I have found a new favorite to add to my small list. Do you have a favorite red wine?

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