Hi. Barb here. I thought about the title for this blog because with all the holiday hoopla, including shopping in my pajamas, making cookies and gathering with family, I realized I hadn’t blogged much about the Crime part in Maine Crime Writers lately,
I’ve killed a dozen or so people fictionally, and let me tell you, it is harder than you think. In a traditional mystery, you don’t just kill your victim, you need a pool of suspects, clues and red herrings, and a path for your sleuth to follow from A to B to C to solve the mystery in some fictionally sustainable amount of time. Sure, mystery readers will tolerate the occasional “gimme”—an intuitive leap by the sleuth or a coincidence—but for the most part, they want their fictional worlds to have underlying logic and believability.
There’s a reason real-life murders are “solved” (in the sense that a lead suspect is identified), either right away, or over many months. Just the opposite of what happens in a traditional mystery, where the immediate reveal is unsatisfying, but action that drags on too long can make for weak dramatic tension.
Planting clues in ways that allow the sleuth to logically find them, but doesn’t give the whole show away for the readers, while also “playing fair” is one of the many challenging parts of writing mysteries for me. During drafting and revisions, I often have to go back again and again to answer the questions, “But how could the sleuth know that?” and “What actually happened, in detail, in this scene, so the right clue is later discoverable?”
Which is why Ruth Rendell’s latest Wexford novel, The Vault is so astonishing to me.
Rendell published an earlier book, one of her standalone psychological novels, called A Sight for Sore Eyes in 1999. It’s a fully satisfying novel, in the sense that by the time readers finish the book, they know had happened and how it happened. But as the book ends, many of the characters have no idea what transpired or how certain events that affected their lives, in big ways and small, actually occurred.
As Rendell tells it (and I see no reason to doubt her) she was sitting in her study, thinking about what to write next, when her gaze fell on A Sight for Sore Eyes and she thought it was worthy of a sequel. But a different sort of a sequel. In the new book, the crimes in A Sight for Sore Eyes would be solved. So she brought in her series sleuth, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, newly retired and struggling with the transition.
The Vault is a traditional mystery, in the sense that Wexford pursues the answer to the question, “Who killed…?” But this is the part that absolutely kills me. Rendell didn’t know she was writing a sequel when she published A Sight for Sore Eyes. Therefore, she didn’t have the need to bury those “discoverable clues.” And since the prequel was already long-published, Rendell couldn’t go back during revision and hide them. The mind boggles.
One of the clever things Rendell does is add a new body and mystery to the mix, which does allow for some new clues, and also, kinda brilliantly, allows those who’ve read A Sight for Sore Eyes and know what happened in that story, to keep guessing about this new mystery. But still.
Though the Amazon civilian reviews are mostly very positive, there are those who take Rendell to task for some consistency and continuity errors. I do think there are a few, but I also think, in most cases, there is something more subtle going on here. If we’ve read the prequel, we know “what really happened.” But in the later book, Wexford occasionally reconstructs some of the details incorrectly. If we hadn’t read the earlier book, we wouldn’t know that, and we’d accept his interpretation of the evidence because it does lead him to the correct conclusion. Maybe that’s going on all the time in all mystery novels, and we just don’t have the “facts” at our disposal to see it? Meta.
Reading The Vault, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a tour de force by an eighty-one year old author, with nothing left to prove, seeking to challenge herself. Kind of like her good friend and fellow member of the House of Lords, P.D. James, who at ninety-one has decided to tell us what happened to the characters in Pride and Prejudice with Death Comes to Pemberley.
In any event, I treasure my autographed copy of The Vault. When I met Rendell at a signing this fall, I gave her a copy of my book and told her what an inspiration she has been to me. She couldn’t have seemed more delighted.
Barbara – nice analysis – and that WAS an evening, wasn’t it!!!
Philip–It certainly was. I’ll treasure the memory for a long time. It’s not often that you meet your heroes.
Cool story, Barb. The process of writing mysteries is itself mysterious. Thanks for the post — I’ve got about 70 pages left to write for Contract for Murder and your comments about RR are inspiring.