It's exciting when you're reading and come across an idea that gives you insights into how to approach something in your own writing. That idea may not even be a complicated one, or a particularly unusual one, but because you never thought of it quite so clearly as the writer you're reading expresses it, the notion it describes or the approach it suggests strikes you as a revelation.
I had this experience recently while reading the preface to Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories. The book is a collection of twenty-one stories that Andrea Camilleri himself chose from the many more tales he has written about his Sicilian police inspector, Salvo Montalbano. He says that when he wrote his first book of short stories, A Month with Montalbano, in the late 1990's, there was "a precise but unstated intention guiding" the creation of the volume's stories. "This intention was to compose a series of 'portraits' of Sicilian characters, and therefore the stories didn't necessarily have to revolve around murders but could also concern investigations into memory, false robberies, conjugal infidelities, petty vendettas, and so on. I used the 'police procedural,' in short, only as a pretext.
I followed the same guidelines with the twenty stories in the second short-fiction collection...Here, too, the more or less 'procedural' circumstances served as a springboard to explore characters, settings, and situations."
Now Camilleri isn't writing anything terribly original here. Crime fiction writers of all types - whether doing classic detective stories, hardboiled fiction or noir, or novel length procedurals - have used their chosen form within the genre to study characters and delve into settings and situations. But no writer I've read has expressed so bluntly that he's using crime fiction, or, specifically, the procedural form, as a pretext for investigations into things not related to crime - like memory - or into crimes and transgressions so minor that it's clear the "crimes" are not the focus.
I don't know. Maybe his statement of intention struck a chord because the idea is one I've been toying with hazily for some time. As I've gotten older, I've come to enjoy procedurals a good bit more than I did when younger. There's something about them (when well done, as goes for any type of writing) that reflects the rhythms of life, I find. Yet I don't really want to write a procedural, and I'm not sure I could. Telling a story through methodical and linear accretion of detail, which is how most procedurals work, is not a prospect I find enticing. But to tell short story procedurals, following one character around as he investigates all manner of human behavior in various settings and circumstances - this is something I suspect I'd like writing immensely. And somehow those couple of sentences Camilleri wrote about his own process doing this has given me a clue of how I might do it.
So we'll see. I have stuff to finish that will occupy me for awhile. But in the meantime, I can start jotting down notes with the idea of maybe one day writing that collection, built around one investigator, where there are mysteries galore but the procedural aspect is really - and there's no shame in saying it - a pretext.
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