Did Someone Say Picaresque?

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing as Kathy.

Recently I filled out an “Author Marketing Questionnaire” for Murder in a Cornish Alehouse, the third Mistress Jaffrey Mystery, which will be available in hardcover and e-book formats in the U.S. on April first. After filling in my name and book title and listing the URLs for my webpage, Facebook page (under Kaitlyn Dunnett), and blog (this one, of course) and informing my publisher, Severn House, that I don’t tweet, I was asked to come up with six or seven “keywords” to describe my novel. Since my mind sometimes works in mysterious ways, the first word I came up with was picaresque.

Okay, I see some of you scratching your heads. The picaresque novel isn’t a form that’s much studied these days. And, to tell you the truth, my novels don’t completely fit the definition. And yet . . .

My old grad school standby, A Handbook to Literature, defines the picaresque novel as “a chronicle . . . presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making his living more through his wits than his industry. Episodic in nature,” it presents “a series of thrilling incidents impossible to conceive as happening in one life.” Plot and character development take second place to having adventures. The protagonist (the picaro) is likely to defy society’s conventions and morals, but will survive one episode and move on to the next without harm. Satire is a key element. So is realism when it comes to details. Now, having said all this, the Handbook’s most recent example of the form in English is a novel written in the sixteenth century.

Forms of fiction evolve. More recent definitions of the picaresque novel cite Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Don Quixote, and even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as examples. I’ll go a step further and include the protagonists of many mystery caper series—Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum spring to mind—as picaros. Instead of all their adventures appearing in one volume, they are broken up into individual mystery novels and/or short stories.

I’m not claiming to write capers, but I do use some elements of the picaresque novel in my historical mysteries and I think I always have. For one thing, the characters I choose to use as heroine and sleuth tend to be the odd ducks. They may not be lower class with flexible morals but they certainly don’t fit into the mainstream definition of how a woman should think and act. This tendency goes all the way back to Winter Tapestry, published in 1991. I originally wrote it as a historical mystery. It didn’t sell, but the brilliant and insightful Carolyn Marino, who had just taken a job as an editor at Harper Paperbacks for their launch of the new Monogram line, remembered reading it as an editorial assistant at another house and asked me if I would be willing to rewrite it as historical romance. Of course I said yes.

It will surprise no one who has read my books that what we ended up with was a hybrid. It didn’t fit neatly into either mystery or romance and “historical romantic suspense” wasn’t a label anyone wanted to use on the spine of the book. In the end, Winter Tapestry was billed as “A romantic adventure in Tudor England.” That label may not have generated many sales, but it was accurate, and my first picaresque novel was born.

So how does Mistress Jaffrey qualify as a picaresque protagonist? She’s not lower class, but she is the illegitimate child of a rogue knight. She defies society’s conventions. She escapes relatively unscathed from each adventure. I’d like to think that I have more plot and character development than is required by a picaresque novel, and I know I have the realistic details down cold. Satire? There’s some of that too, although it isn’t always deliberate. Simply by being herself, Rosamond Jaffrey points up the absurdity of what some of the other characters are doing.

I’ll have to leave it up to my readers to decide if what I write can truly be described as picaresque. As for the other “keywords” I filled in on that questionnaire, I’m pretty confident they are accurate. After picaresque, I listed historical, mysterious, series, adventure, and sleuthing.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com



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1 Response to Did Someone Say Picaresque?

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Love your Mistress Jaffrey books ! Van Reid, a neighbor of mine who writes a series of books (“The Moosepath League”) set in 19th century Maine, writes picaresque novels — so wrote the NYT about his first. No reason not to revive a classic format!

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