Then occasionally a review comes along that requires me to do some serious thinking about what I am trying to do when I write fiction. What is the goal? I come from a background in nonfiction writing so perhaps that question arises naturally.
I’m under no illusion that I’m writing great literature. Mysteries are genre fiction. I had been thinking that I just want to tell a good story and provide some fun and some relief from the madness we see around us now. Recently I received a review from a fellow named Thomas Hiller (a pseudonym). Hiller gave me some great things to think about so I’m very appreciative of his review. I’ve had to rethink the question of what I’m trying to do when I write fiction.
Elements of Fiction
First, the elements of fiction are: character, plot, setting, point-of-view, theme, and style. Most of these are self-evident except maybe for point-of-view (is the story from the point of view of “I”, “you” or “he/she?).
Theme is worthy of consideration. Here are some quotes about what a theme is: “The theme is the main idea the writer of the poem or story wants the reader to understand and remember.” “Theme in fiction is rarely presented at all; it is abstracted from the details of character and action that compose the story. It provides a unifying point….” “The theme in a story is its underlying message, or 'big idea.' In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey …This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature.” An example is the children’s book Charlotte’s Web with its theme of friendship.
The mystery-suspense genre I write in has several subgenres:
private investigator; cozy mysteries (the most popular); amateur sleuths; police procedurals; forensic, legal, medical and historical mysteries, culinary, animal mysteries (includes dogs, cats, zoo animals, etc.), culinary, thrillers including international spy thrillers, and romantic suspense. And there’s the “noir” mystery often associated with the hard-boiled dick/private investigator story.
Hiller made it clear from the beginning that he’s a noir fan, especially he looks to Raymond Chandler’s character Philip Marlow as a model of what a good mystery really is. Chandler wrote hard-boiled fiction which is defined as: “… a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.” The photo (above) shows Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the classic noir book, then film The Big Sleep.
Hiller was clear in his review that Desert Jade failed as a noir detective story. His comments emphasized plot as most important, and he was not impressed at a plot that he viewed as too slow and with too much exposition to satisfy him. Yet, he was rather taken by other elements in the story – particular the landscape and the characters. He described the interactions between two characters, Esperanza and Eduardo, as “touching and poetic.” For these aspects, he gave the book five stars which he averaged out with the three stars given for the detective story to come up with a four-star rating.
I’m going to set aside the problematic business of approaching an artwork with a pre-set view of what a work is supposed to be, rather than what it is. This is sort of like going to the art museum, looking at a Mark Rothko painting, and then complaining that it doesn’t look like a Renoir or Frido Kahlo.
The real value of Hiller’s review is to look at what he thought worked and why, not at what didn’t work. After reading his review, I realized that I never intended to write an action-packed, plot-oriented story, much less one defined as noir starring a hard-boiled dick.
So what I am doing? Clearly Letty Valdez makes a living as a private investigator. She’s not hard-boiled and she’s not “iron woman.” Yes, she can take you down with her Chinese martial arts and she can use a gun if she has to. But she’s a vulnerable and even fragile at times – like most of us human beings.
Setting is a key factor in the Letty Valdez Mysteries. I’m an environmentalist. I believe we are deeply impacted by our physical environment. Desert dwellers think about water and heat, a big sky, a starry night, and critters like coyotes and rattlesnakes. Letty is a child of the desert. She’s at home in the Sonoran Desert and she will never live anywhere else.
This turned out to be the biggest factor for me. So what are the themes that come across in Letty Valdez Mysteries? (I hope they come across because that’s what I seek as a writer.)
- The value of ethnic diversity: Letty is Chicana-Native American (Tohono O’odham). Our multiplicity of ethnic groups contribute greatly to American life and culture. Let’s don’t forget that.
- The value of family and friends: What would Letty do without her pals and her brothers and sister and her uncles? She’s got her posse and they’ll go to the wall for her, as she will for them.
- The struggles of the underclass and the challenges they work to overcome: I’m convinced that money-oriented class is the root of most American problems. Until the more affluent can see and respect the struggles and achievements of the poor, we’ll continue to have problems.
- War and the effects of war: Letty came home with Iraq with PTSD. She experienced more than any human being should have to experience. Our vets need our understanding and support. And we need to end the endless wars.
Hiller wrote: “It may be a somehow comforting surprise when you expect to read a frightening mystery, and it turns out a kind of poetic narration of good feelings.” I find this comment to be rather delightful. True, you won’t be in a constant state of fear in a Letty Valdez Mystery but I’m happy to report that a “poetic narration of good feelings” could very well happen instead!
An example: Several people have commented about being captivated by the Esperanza-Eduardo subplot. That’s partly because we’re seeing the initial stages of a romance. But more important, we come to understand that being a poverty-stricken 17 year-old migrant seeking a job so her little brothers and sisters can have shoes and enough to eat is a potential contributor to American life, not a threat. Esperanza is not a drug smuggler or a member of MS-13. She’s young, scared, lost in the desert, out of water, and here comes an angel on horseback named Eduardo who finds her and rescues her.
As a writer, I’d rather be remembered as “poetic and touching” than as “frightening,” hard-boiled, or action, action, action-oriented.
One more comment. Hiller wrote about Letty demonstrating “the unbreakable rule of detective’s incurable loneliness and personal grief.” Oops! Rules are made to be broken. Before these stories are completed, Letty will find some relief from her loneliness and personal grief. Of that, I am sure.
Thank you to Mr. Hiller for stimulating a productive line of contemplation.