Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Formula One Racing

Sharon Wildwind

The question came up again last night at a Christmas party.

“Why do you write mysteries?”

The usual answers flitted through my head:
a) I don’t know.
b) Because I read a lot of mysteries.
c) Why not?

I think I mumbled something that was an amalgamation of those three answers. I was distracted by cheese dip at the time. In the car on the way home, I asked myself the question. Why do I write mysteries?

Maybe for the same reason that highly adventurous people cram themselves into tiny, low-slung cars and race around the closed streets of Monaco, in one of the world’s most expensive sports, Formula One racing. Only I get to get the same kind of thrill without using petrochemical products and contributing to global warming.

Formula One competitors depend on on-board electronics, their car’s aerodynamics, precision suspension systems that allow sliding sideways through narrow curves, and tires built to take the strain of speed, friction, and city pavement. Formula One is the only sport—as far as I know—that awards two grand champion trophies each year, one to the best driver and one for the best car construction. If it were up to me, I’d award a third trophy each year, to the person who designed the best closed-circuit course.

Of course, I have this very strong prejudice. I’d award the course trophy every year to Monaco. I mean, how could anything compete with coming into that impossibly tight hairpin curve in front of the Grand Hotel, whose balconies are filled with suave men and gorgeous women? Of course, there is Singapore’s new night course: Formula One meets street racing. That has possibilities.

Face it, we mystery writers run on a closed track. When mystery equals murder, as it does most of the time, we all know the genre conventions. A body, the detective committing to finding the murderer, some clues, some suspects, life gets sticky, usually a second body, the detective vows to see justice done—which is quite different from wanting to solving the crime, more clues, life gets stickier, the joy ride down the funnel, life gets stickiest, the moment of revelation/danger, the end.

So the real answer to Why do I write mysteries? is vowing to see justice done. I really love writing and reading that Man of LaMancha moment of intense personal commitment. Imagine Richard Kiley belting out, “To be better far than you are.”

For me, that’s the Grand Hotel hairpin curve of the story, made all the more wonderful because it’s played out, not before balconies of beautiful people, but in the heart. Evil won’t win, not if the protagonist has anything to say about it. But there will be a cost to facing evil. By this point in the story, the protagonist knows that. And goes ahead anyway.

So the next time I’m at a party, and someone asks me why I write mysteries, I’ll probably mumble the same inane reasons that I did last night. Or maybe I’ll say something about Formula One racing and the hairpin curve at Monaco. Somehow, I don’t think I could pull off discussing courage, sacrifice and intense personal commitment over the cheese tray. That’s much better left for the cold clarity of the morning after.

Writing quote for the week:

All combat takes place at night, in the rain, and at the junction of four map segments.
~Conrad Breen, in the movie Wag the Dog


Clea Simon said...

oh just tell them to read this post! Marvelously said!
- Clea

Elizabeth Zelvin said...


Anonymous said...

Glad you gals agree!

Paul Lamb said...

But if the mystery doesn't equal murder, then a lot of the conventions can be dispensed with an fresh ones can be created. There are far more evils that men can do than merely murder, and I believe that every one can become a fascinating and captivating story.

Paul Lamb