Mystery, writing

Life is Muddy Waters

Life is long, and boring, and confusing, and painful, and goes by too fast, and far too exciting, except when it isn’t and it’s all very opaque.


I got to get out on the river yesterday, for what was not only my first time in a kayak, but to help with Stream Quality Monitoring (SQM). I had a blast, going down to the riffle we would be sampling, and coming back up – but I’m a bit sore today. I haven’t canoed in a long time and this used similar muscle groups. One of the things we were looking at was turbidity in the water, that is: how much crap is in the water. Since the river is swollen with the extraordinary rains we’ve received this month, that’s not inconsiderable. You can’t see the bottom of the river unless it’s rather shallow.


Life is like that. You can’t see what’s coming next, and sometimes when something hits you that floated down from upstream, you not only didn’t see it coming, you can’t look back and see where it came from. I tie that into my fiction, as I try to write realistically, yet make readers happy. Readers like neat, tidy resolutions. They like to know where a character came from, what makes the physics of the story tick – in short, they want to take the watch apart, and put it back together to see how it goes. Not all readers are this critical – some immerse themselves and enjoy the story as it comes.


My job as a writer is to craft a story that will both allow immersion, and not be so realistic as to throw readers out of the story. I’ve been listening to a podcast at work (we can listen to whatever we want, with headphones) and enjoying the stories. It’s not fiction – it’s True Crime Garage, and they cover mostly unsolved mysteries. Crime is muddy. There are many stories where the motivations of the criminal, and sometimes the victim, are opaque. There are loose ends that go nowhere. There are false leads, and lost hope, and it’s the mystery that gets me. People vanish off the face of the earth… it’s almost enough to make you believe in fairies. (Or not.)


When I write a mystery, like Memories of the Abyss, and Snow in Her Eyes, I deliberately introduce a bit of silt. These stories, like the river, should be a little turbid. There’s a lack of clarity – they are gritty. You wouldn’t want to drink that water yourself. Which is true of most mysteries – you wouldn’t want to live through that. But unlike real life, I try to give my characters closure, a sense of justice and resolution. I’ll leave loose ends, but the central plot thread should be knotted up neatly.


I read a lot of mystery – probably more than either science fiction or fantasy. Mystery is my comfort food when it comes to books. The last one I read was a Harry Bingham – the last of the Fiona stories to be published. I have a love/hate relationship with the main character. She annoys the crap out of me. But on the other hand I enjoy her approach to what she’s doing. She’s flawed, and she knows it, but she’s also good, and she knows it. The Fiona series is very dark – she’s very close to necrophiliac. By some definitions she is necrophiliac. But I find them compelling reads, if not always enjoyable. They can be depressing.


On the other hand, if I want something light and fluffy and fun, I retreat to the classics of Miss Marple, Poirot, or Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth). I find them full of trenchant observations of human nature, predictable plots, and plenty of repetition if you read many of the books. But still, there’s something there. And of course if I want to curl up with tea and a fluffy blanket and make myself very happy while stimulating my brain, I grab one of my Dorothy Sayers, or Margery Allingham.