Hank Phillippi Ryan (Guest Blogger)
It was The Clue in the Old Clock that did it. I read that first Nancy Drew when I was–maybe ten or eleven years old? And I knew I wanted to be–not Nancy herself, (although that would have been cool: roadster, good hair, boyfriend, none of which I had at the time) but a mystery writer. I barreled through The Clue in the Diary (which I thought was Clue in the Dairy, and read the whole thing baffled about when the cows were going to show up), then went on to devour every Sherlock Holmes story, and I mean every one, and then Agatha Christie. And the rest is...well, then my career took a turn. Thirty years ago, I got my first job as a TV reporter. And I’m still on the on the air.
But as my very first mystery novel, Prime Time, is now on bookstore shelves, I keep realizing how being an investigative reporter is a lot like being a mystery writer. You’re looking for clues, tracking down evidence, putting the puzzle pieces together, searching for the bad guys, and trying to find justice in the end.
But two elements are different. Big things.
One, as a TV reporter you can’t make anything up. Fiction by a reporter—is bad news.
Two, as a TV reporter you don’t have to kill anyone. Murder by a reporter—is also bad news.
Writing murder mysteries as I do now? You’ve gotta make it all up. And you’ve got to kill someone. Or several someones. In every book.
Making it up? No problem for me. I see almost a movie unreeling in my brain. Sometimes it feels as if I’m just transcribing what I see and hear.
Killing someone? You know, it’s a problem, I must admit to you. Strangely, I’m finding that difficult to do.
Okay, they’re fictional people. No one really gets hurt, there are no actual grieving families, no real blood or secret graves or bedrooms spattered with red or disgusting maggot-filled corpses or hacked-off body parts in hidden surprising places.
And I really don’t mind reading about murders. From the grisliest serial killings to the most lady-like poisonings. All good. Hannibal Lecter? Wish I had thought of him. That guy who put the moth in victims’ mouths? Cool idea. The Orient Express? The Speckled Band? Genius.
But for me. Actually plotting to murder someone--even though it’s just via Microsoft Word—has developed into an interestingly self-analytical exercise. It gives me—pause. Am I—a wimp?
I think—I’ll only kill people who are really bad. Hmmm. Not so interesting. Or people who absolutely no one will miss. Boring. Who are sick already? Nope. Who no one will care about? Then why read the book? So I kill off someone who is critical, and who people care about, and who is important to the plot. They’re just paper people. But I still feel kind of—sorry for them.
A pal of mine—whose thriller I’m sure will someday be on all of our nightstands—let me read an early draft. In the opening scene, 700 people get blown up by terrorists in an office building. Then the main character—who had narrowly escaped--went home and had a glass of wine and made dinner. I said—you know, you’ve described an unforgettable and terrifying occurrence, one that would be devastating to all involved and the ramifications would be endless. Are you sure you need to kill off 700 people? And wouldn’t the main character be, um, a lot more upset?
And the writer said: yeah, Hank, but they’re all fictional people. And the main character didn’t die.
I said: why not have them all almost die? The bomb almost goes off, and they all escape. That’s just as scary, even scarier, right?
The writer was perplexed. But for me, as you can tell, I still can’t get those 700 fictional dead people out of my head.
In writing Prime Time, I had to face committing murder. When veteran TV reporter Charlie McNally discovers that some of that annoying SPAM clogging her computer is more than just cyber junk mail—but I’d better just let you read it for yourself. And see who I got up the gumption to kill off.
Did you see the very thought-provoking movie Stranger Than Fiction? In it, a writer discovered that what came out of her typewriter really happened. The main character heard—and experienced—everything she was creating. Finally, he appeared at her door to beg her to stop writing about his death. And she was haunted with wondering—what if the other characters she killed had been real?
Sometimes it almost does feel a bit like that. Haunting. Do you worry about the dead guys? Could you kill someone—in a book, I mean? Am I—a wimp? Does murder get any easier? Even on the page?
You know, I don’t think so. But I’m going to keep at it. Because for a mystery writer, just like a reporter, it’s so satisfying to be able to tell a good story.
Investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan’s dozens of awards include 24 Emmys. She is currently is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. PRIME TIME, her first mystery features investigative reporter Charlie McNally. The second in the series, FACE TIME, will appear in October 2007.