7 smart and sassy crime fiction writers dish on writing and life.
It's The View. With bodies.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Novelist Kwei Quartey, Detectives to Remember, and Creating an Unforgettable Sleuth
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Kwei Quartey is a crime novelist (and physician) living in L.A.—and one of my favorite authors. He's written WIFE OF THE GODS, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, and we can look forward to his forth, GOLD OF THE FATHERS, coming in January 2016. Kwei's blog is is pretty darned amazing, too, and when I read his post on sleuths and archetypes, I had to ask Kwei if we could reprint it here on Jungle Reds. Readers, he said yes! He'll also be stopping by to chat with readers today.
Take it away, Kwei!
KWEI QUARTEY: A memorable detective in crime fiction stays with the reader long after the novel is completed, no matter to which one of the four archetypes the sleuth belongs:
The amateur (Miss Marple, Easy Rawlins): Not officially within the criminal investigation system, but having knowledge, curiosity, desire for justice, etc.
The private investigator (Holmes, Marlow, Poirot, Wolfe, Millhone): Working professionally in criminal investigations, but outside the official criminal justice system.
The police investigator (Dalgliesh, Morse, Wallander): Part of an official investigative body charged with solving crimes.
The forensic specialist (Scarpetta, Thorndyke): Contributing specialized forensic knowledge rather than solving the crime as a whole.
There may be some overlap, particularly the amateur and the PI. The examples above obviously don’t comprise an exhaustive list, but they are some of the most recognizable detective characters in crime literature over the decades and centuries. There is nothing new under the sun. Incorporating characteristics or features of these famous detectives into one’s own is not so much stealing as it is learning by emulation.
But one’s emulation must fit your creation. Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple and Walter Mosley‘s Easy Rawlins are both indomitable in their quests for truth and justice, but they are radically different characters. In The Murder at the Vicarage, someone describes Marple as “a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner,” while another condemns her as always knowing “everything that happens and draws the worst inferences.” Marple is somehow present even when she doesn’t appear to be, and that so-called “gentle appealing manner” belies her remarkable ability to dig up the truth. She solves mysteries within the rather stuffy confines of manners and modesty expected in the docile English village of St. Mary Mead.
Easy Rawlins, on the other hand, operates in the gritty environment of 1940s to 1960s Los Angeles. Mosley’s novels practically crackle with tension on every page, and we fear that the next time Rawlins turns down an alley off Slauson Avenue, he will run into either a cop with a grudge against him, or an equally unsavory gangster who would prefer Rawlins dead. But don’t fear too much. Easy is a tough customer as well.
Washington as Easy Rawlins in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (Photo: TriStar Pictures)
Just because your crime fiction is set in Iceland or Ghana doesn’t mean Rawlins or Marple are irrelevant to you. From Christie, you can learn the art of misdirection if you’re writing the classic mystery rather than a thriller (more about the distinction in an upcoming blog), and how to manipulate time and alibi in relation to the murder. With Mosley’s novels, study his tense style and the ability to weave multiple characters into a progressively tangled world of crime and corruption. If your detective is an amateur, notice how Easy believably knows many people, both honest and crooked, who can help him out. This is your chance to create a bunch of scary, creepy, slimy, or dangerous folks encountered along the way. Easy Rawlins is charismatic enough to have been played in film by Denzel Washington. When your character gets portrayed in the movies, you are probably doing well.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes is a transcendent and influential figure among detectives. He’s a singular creation, challenging enough to have been played on screen by multiple actors over decades. In the literary version, because he’s seen through the eyes of his companion Watson, who we sense does not always altogether understand Holmes, we as readers don’t ever get inside the great detective’s head or heart–well, rarely, at least. He is only what Watson reveals to us, and that makes Holmes wondrous in many ways. We want to follow him and his magical set of characteristics: an eerie ability to make deductions from keen observation, a nervous, excitable energy on the one hand, and a predisposition to depression and drug abuse on the other. He solves mysteries through logical, scientific reasoning and doesn’t go by gut feeling. “I never guess,” he says. “It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty.”
Sometimes, his inferences can be a little improbable–as when, in The Sign of the Four, he deduced that his companion Watson had been to the post office that morning because Watson’s shoe had a speck of reddish mud found only opposite that post office, where the sidewalk was being dug up–but we are willing to accept these deductions and even marvel at them, no matter how implausible. That is Sherlock Holmes. In many instances, Holmes’s attention to detail foreshadows modern forensics (e.g. as in trace evidence), and it’s interesting that a BBC TV series has successfully portrayed a present-day Holmes.
Your detective can emulate some of Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction, or be as methodical (or not), or perhaps have some of his physical characteristics (unexpected strength for his thin physique), or failings like drug abuse and depression, but even if you use nothing Sherlockian at all, remember one vital principle from the master himself as he declared in The Sign of the Four: “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” Here is the character giving advice to the mystery writer. Perhaps author Raymond Chandler once saw this powerful reflection and took it to heart, because he made a remarkably similar pronouncement in Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel, 1949: “The solution, once revealed, must seem to have been inevitable. At least half of all the mystery novels published violate this law.”
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, do you find you have a favorite archetype of detective? I'm a big fan of the amateur, but also adore Sherlock Holmes. What about you? And who's your favorite example?
Kwei Quartey is a crime fiction writer and physician living in Pasadena, California. Having practiced medicine for more than 20 years while simultaneously working as a writer, he has attained noteworthy achievements in both fields. Dr. Quartey balances the two professions by dedicating the early morning hours to writing before beginning a day in his clinic.
Kwei Quartey attended medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1990, he began practicing medicine in California with HealthCare Partners. Dr. Quartey later founded the facility’s wound care center while working as an urgent care physician.
As a crime fiction writer, Kwei Quartey made the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List in 2009. The following year, the G.O.G. National Book Club awarded him the title of Best Male Author. Having published Wife of the Gods (2009), Children of the Street (2011), Murder at Cape Three Points (2014), he anticipates publication of the fourth Darko Dawson novel in the series, Gold of the Fathers, in early January 2016. Death at the Voyager Hotel, a mystery e-novella not belonging to the series, was published July 2013. Dr. Quartey is also a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime, a fiction writers’ organization.