One of my greatest thrills as a college student was when I was let into the intermediate-level creative writing workshop. You couldn’t just sign up and walk in—you had to submit a short story good enough for the professor to deem you worthy. That first day, I sat around the rectangular table with my future colleagues and was handed a set of rules for the class. It’s been almost thirty years since I laid eyes on this single xeroxed sheet, but I can still remember one of them: You will not write stories about serial murderers, or even regular murderers.
Now, let me say this was one of the most illuminating workshops I have ever taken, and the results speak for themselves: three of us who sat in that classroom have each published multiple novels. Obviously the teacher knew what he was doing, and I’ll forever be grateful.
But I admit, the rules somewhat distressed me. Not because I had planned on writing the Great American Serial Killer Novel, but because setting limits on a creative endeavor like writing just seemed…well, limiting. As a sophomore, I had already been asked to narrow my life by choosing a major. I wasn’t yet old enough to get into a bar. The girl I liked wanted nothing to do with me. Limits, limits, limits! They were everywhere in real life, so why did they have to be in the world of make-believe?
After devouring the posh racehorse intrigue of Dick Francis and the hilarious tough-guy Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker for years, I was ready to try to write one of my own, but that particular dream would have to wait. Whatever. I shook it off, as one tends to do when young, when time and opportunity both still feel infinite. It wasn’t a tragedy; back then I’d also gotten into the works of Raymond Carver and his ilk, those vaunted Vintage trade paperback authors like Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford. Serious stuff, so the no-murderers bit was more a speed bump than a detour of my burgeoning writing career. I cranked out a trio of realistic short stories for the class and kept my mystery-writing aspirations in check—until my senior year, when I was granted entrance to the Seminar in Writing, a yearlong course that urged its writers to embark on a longer work.
Except no one was really interested, not my classmates and not my professors. They were all supportive, of course, as much as they could be. But since everybody else was writing slice-of-life tales of divorcing parents or childhood trauma, I was alone in my fumbling attempt at noir.
For the next quarter century, I dutifully moved these hastily written chapters from laptop to laptop, dragging and dropping these WordPerfect(!) files in hopes that I’d get back to them one day. Meanwhile, I published two novels, the first one about my childhood (big surprise), then a second one that improbably involved a tennis pro, pornography, the yakuza, and kidney transplants. But I never forgot about those chapters on my hard drive.
The crafting of a working mystery is an art form to itself, vastly different than anything I encountered in my MFA workshops.
When I finally sat down to complete what eventually became my third novel and my first mystery, I knew I didn’t have the necessary skills. Of course good writing is good writing—leveraging concrete nouns and verbs, building solid scenes, keeping your characters and their voices consistent—whether it be romance or sci-fi or literary, there’s a common bedrock to all successful literature. All true, but the crafting of a working mystery is an art form to itself, vastly different than anything I encountered in my MFA workshops. The only way I was going to figure this out was to become a literary private eye and make detective fiction my cases.
I knew I wanted to write in the first person, and since my book was going to be an origin story, it made sense to check out the introductory novel of a long-running series: The Deep Blue Good-By, where John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee makes his debut. Published in 1964, McGee calls himself a “salvage consultant,” which is a nicer way of saying a badass rectifier of illegally-gotten possessions. McGee helps the innocently fleeced: people who were scammed out of money or property. Once recovered, he splits the proceeds fifty-fifty with the victim, though if the first book is any indication, his generous heart often gets in the way of self remuneration. What I found striking about the novel was this passage:
I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.
I don’t know if I have ever read a more defiantly defining confession. In my notes I wrote: Siobhan needs to have a specific worldview, much like Travis McGee, so the reader knows who they’re reading. One thing Siobhan believes is in never quitting. Every book she’s picked up, she’s finished to the end. She’s never walked out on a movie. She’s never broken up with anyone—the other person has done the breaking up.
That’s my private eye, Siobhan O’Brien, beginning to take form. I didn’t know who she was going to be yet, and reading through McGee’s adventures got me closer—but not close enough. To get a solid dose of the female detective voice, I turned to Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone, A Is for Alibi, published in 1982. The novel begins:
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have a lot of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. I’ve lived in trailers most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a “bachelorette”.
What I found most delightful here is how she declares herself a nice person right after she mentions that she killed someone—it’s both funny and psychologically apt. With great economy, Kinsey’s personality is instantly revealed: no-nonsense, acerbic, evidentiary. At the outset I was unsure about tapping into the feminine side of my main character, but as Kinsey interviewed her suspects and chased after leads, it became clear that gender doesn’t need to play an outsized role. Men and women are people after all, and as long as I consistently lived the world through Siobhan’s eyes and ears, it was going to work.
So now that I had my detective, what about the plot? How does the mystery sausage get made? For that, I took apart two books: Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile (2010) and Raymond Miller’s The Scent of Blood (2006), chapter by chapter, writing a summary then analyzing what key events took place to propel the books forward. Moonlight Mile is the sixth in Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series, chosen because I wanted to concentrate on the story more than the characters, akin to studying an old stable marriage instead of a new distracting romance. The Scent of Blood is a book that I bet no one reading this essay has even heard of, but for me it’s the reason my novel Skin Deep exists. You see, Raymond Miller is a pen name of a literary writer I know personally. The mere existence of Scent served as an enormous motivator for me to see my project through. Nathaniel Singer is Miller’s hero, a private eye who once considered becoming a poet; his assistant Kate is an MFA student who’s tougher than she looks. That old saw about writing what you know is very much in play here, something I took to heart. My heroine Siobhan O’Brien may bear the name of an Irish lass, but she’s actually Korean American, much like myself.
In analyzing the two novels, I paid closest attention to the commonalities between them, and there are plenty. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) By the fifth chapter, Kenzie is sufficiently beaten up by a surprise foe; Singer gets his wind knocked out of him by a similar baddie in chapter ten. In pursuing their assailants, Kenzie and Singer both end up in a confrontation with an even more powerful criminal. By the seventh chapter in Scent, Singer looks into the Party of God, a radical religious organization that may be responsible for the hit-and-run at the center of his case; in chapter eight of Moonlight, a murder of a corporate whistle-blower seems like it might be related to the existing case. But they both turn out to be the reddest of herrings. These P.I.s get in dangerous circumstances that defy easy solutions, then escape by the skin of their teeth. Their final showdowns with their respective big bosses have enough heft that the reader feels the very mortal stakes.
A knock against the mystery genre from the more refined writing circles is that there’s a pattern to be adhered to, that we’re stringing together a bunch of clichés. That’s not true in the least. Now that I’ve written one of these, it feels less like repetition and more like an upholding of a grand tradition. To get on a familiar road but make the drive distinctly yours—it’s a hell of a challenge. And I’ve never felt more like a writer than I do now.