Mystery writers and readers have long been beguiled by Jack the Ripper. Numerous serial killers have upstaged the Ripper since his murders in 1888.
From Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who began murdering in 1913 and killed at least nine before surrendering . . . to Belle Gunness, who slayed more than 40 men by luring them to her farm through lovelorn notices . . . to Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 men from 1978-1991 . . . to H. H. Holmes, one of the first American serial killers, featured in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The Devil in the White City . . . to Albert DeSalvo, who was, in 2013, finally proven by DNA to be the Boston Strangler. Thank you, forensic science!
Still today Jack the Ripper holds us captivated and if one asks us to name infamous serial killers, his name will often be at the top of the list.
When I started researching Jack I told myself the reason was timing. The characters in an earlier book would land nicely in the Victorian era some twenty years later. But that was only one reason for my interest in Jack.
In truth, there were several motivations for pursuing him as an interesting subject.
First, the ambience of the time and place in which he killed. There’s nothing like a foggy, damp, dreary night in Whitechapel, London, to set the stage for murder.
Second, his Modus Operandi. He did not just kill his victims, all prostitutes apparently. He butchered them with ritualistic precision, leaving body parts exposed to the night.
Third, Jack did his work so quickly and efficiently, no one chanced upon him during his grisly task, nor bump into him following the murders. No witnesses.
Fourth, if the letters that the police received were authentic, Jack taunted them with his deeds. He made a mockery of their ineptitude, which gave the press a field day.
Fifth, Jack the Ripper was never caught. There were a number of suspects, including the grandson of Queen Victoria.
My other personal fascination with Jack and the time period centered around Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I always wondered why Sherlock never solved the case.
Hence, I did solve the case, with the help of Conan Doyle, and, jumping forward 120 years, the assistance of modern DNA technology, which zeroes in on Jack’s true identity.
Add a little imagination. I mean, really, could there have been evidence remaining from one of the Ripper murders?
In Time Lapse, I resolve those questions. Are my solutions believable? Read it and let me know.
A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, was published. I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
Hitler in Paris
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
Your thoughts welcome.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
I’d love to hear some chapter endings you think are great . . . or terrible. When we can recognize what works and what doesn’t, our writing benefits in the long-run.
I just read a terrific article in the Spring 2018 issue of CNET magazine by writer Marguerite Reardon, that is ideal for mystery writers. It describes how our digital devices can testify against us in a court of law. And, it is something writers need to consider when developing plot lines.
You are thinking, ahh, GPS. They can track a perp’s whereabouts. Or, smartphones. They can trace a suspect’s calls. True. But this about technology you wouldn’t even think about. Here are a few examples.
It was a case of arson and the suspect told police he was asleep when his home caught fire. He had time to pack suitcases with his clothes, grab his computer, and some medical supplies and escape by breaking a window and rushing outdoors. What he didn’t consider was his pacemaker.
The police were suspicious. They obtained the data from his pacemaker and a cardiologist testified that it was highly improbably that the suspect was able to pack quickly and under duress and escape out of a window with heavy items in his medical condition.
Based on the pacemaker’s data and the cardiologist’s interpretation, the suspect was charged with arson and insurance fraud.
Another bit of technology that was responsible for a murder arrest was a Fitbit. Data on a dead woman’s Fitbit contradicted her husband’s story about how his wife died.
Police are examining other devices to corroborate . . . or not, homicide alibis. Data from smart utility meters can determine time of excessive water usage (think: clean-up of crime scene.)
The “always-listening” Echo, which streams to the cloud, as a voice calls “Alexa,” can, likewise, provide information to a police investigation.
Can this “technology” evidence hold up in court? Constitutional scholars debate this as I write. But, you must admit, the implications for mystery and crime fiction are intriguing.
Warm and cozy or gritty and dark?
In one of my blogs I discussed what novel writers can learn from screenwriters. Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments. One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing. The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark.
This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category. And they are legion. Let me name a few you might be familiar with: Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist. Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title: Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer. (Really?)
So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect. When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up. And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.
Don’t get me wrong. The villains in novels can be just as rotten. However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced. Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller. Excellent series. The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series. Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.
But back to point. There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark. See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.) The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category.
To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia? Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
For me, outlining is extremely important. Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all. I begin with my “jump-start” outline. Now, what the heck is that, you ask. I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual. Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines. But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.Modern (and Past) Story Line
- Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.
Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.
- Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky. Use bullet points. They’ll grow organically as you write.
- Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France. Ooh la la. Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.
- Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.
- Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be. As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one. I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book. (You’ll have to read it and see. Ha!)
With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft. At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc. Now, I get into serious outlining. More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline. What will happen next, next, next.
I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other. I refine their conflicts. I add details to the settings.
Then I start again. Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write. Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write. I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.
Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need. Ideas welcome.