Trespasses by Alice Munro

“Trespasses” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, included in the collection Runaway, published 2006.

This piece might challenge everything you’ve learned about how to structure a story. All the parts are there, but not as you’d expect. If Alice Munro had anonymously joined one of my writing critique groups over the years, she may well have been offered the following notes:

  • This is superbly written and achieves astounding psychological insight, but who is your main character here?
  • Perhaps you’ve started in the wrong place with two sections of throat clearing? The real story is that of Lauren, so why not maintain focalisation of Lauren throughout the entire piece?
  • What’s the point of the restaurant scene? We never see the old married couple again. All the more reason to nix the first few sections?
  • I find it hard to believe a ten-year-old is allowed that much freedom.

Okay, honestly, if someone in one of my writing groups had uploaded “Trespasses”, they may have even received those notes from me. And this is why it’s so hard to offer critique on literary short stories — the form is deliberately experimental. Is anything ever wrong? Well, yes, of course. Except these ‘wrong’ things are so very specific to any single story we can’t fall back on guidelines. This is why some writers have learned to hate guidelines (or ‘rules’) altogether. (I’m not in that camp.)

That’s because in “Trespasses”, as in all of Munro’s work, there is an explainable reason for all narrative choices. It’s just, putting these reasons into words is so hard. If we can articulate what Munro’s doing here, we can bring more nuance to the ‘writing guidelines’ we have learned.

To that end, I recommend the following paper: ‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro ‘s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis by Nancy Easterlin, who does an excellent job of putting Munro’s unusual narrative decisions into words, with the overall message that Munro is deliberately disorienting the reader.

Why would any writer want to do that? Let’s investigate.

THE OLD AND NEW MEANINGS OF TRESPASS

Despite attending a Presbyterian church, I was required to memorise the version of the Lord’s Prayer with ‘trespasses’ rather than ‘debts’.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

I didn’t understand the archaic meaning of ‘trespass’. I’d only ever seen the word on signs. I grew up in semi-rural New Zealand — these signs were always affixed to farm gates and I knew I hadn’t been walking around on farms, so as far as I was concerned, I was sweet. I also couldn’t fathom what was so very wrong about setting foot on private property — surely there were worse sins? Maybe someone’s just taking a quiet short cut…

no trespassing seagull

I now have a handle on the wider meaning of ‘trespass’, but the word is so closely linked to Christianity that as I delve into Munro’s short story the words of the Lord’s prayer are forefront in my mind. Signage aside, I rarely hear the word ‘trespass’ in everyday English.

“Trespasses” by Alice Munro will likely be a story about ‘sin’. (What story isn’t, though?) This is also a story about ‘overstepping boundaries’, making it more in line with the modern definition of ‘trespassing’ we see on signage.

trespass definition

The story “Trespasses” encouraged me to consider the following:

  • How might one kind of trespass (within a family) make a person vulnerable to a trespass from an outsider?
  • What is the difference between loving someone and trespassing upon them? Might love commonly co-exist with trespassing?
  • Can the truth be more damaging than fiction? What if the fiction is later found out? Is the damage then simply postponed?
  • Can too much information make a child vulnerable? Surely too little information is also bad. Where’s that line?

PLOT OVERVIEW

Eileen and Harry and their daughter Lauren [EVENTUAL MAIN CHARACTER] have recently moved to a small town where Harry has bought the town’s newspaper. While unpacking, Lauren asks about the contents of a box that seems particularly light [MYSTERY], and her father gives her the first version of some past events. [STORY WITHIN A STORY] Eleven years before, he and Eileen had a baby, soon after which Eileen learned that she was pregnant. After a fight, Eileen drove off with the infant and had an accident in which the baby was killed. The box contains the baby’s ashes. This is just the beginning of Munro’s story, however. [MANY SHORT STORY WRITERS WOULD END THE STORY HERE, AT LAUREN’S DISCOVERY.] Another woman, Delphine [MINOTAUR OPPONENT], who believes she is the biological mother of the first (presumably illegally adopted) baby, has tracked them down [ OPPONENT’S PLAN]; she also assumes that the living girl Lauren (both babies were named Lauren) is her daughter and pursues a relationship with the girl. As Lauren gradually begins to suspect, based on Delphine’s hints and indirect revelations, that she might be adopted, Harry and Eileen learn of the friendship that has emerged between the two. The result [BIG STRUGGLE] is the late-night attempt to provide the canonical narrative of the past events and the hasty, long-delayed ceremony to scatter the ashes of the baby who died a decade before.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

CHARACTERS OF “TRESPASSES”

Harry — Eileen’s husband and Lauren’s father. Used to work at a news magazine but quit his job after burning out. Has come to this new town having bought the local paper. He remembers this town from his childhood. For Harry, this is a home-away-home children’s story, underscoring his boyish nature. (Though he is revealed to be far more dangerous than any little boy.) “A broad-faced, boyish-looking man with a tanned skin and shining light-brown hair. His glow of well-being and general appreciation spread around the table…’

Eileen — Harry’s wife and Lauren’s mother. Much thinner than the local women in this small country town, marking her out as a sophisticate from the city. (Munro tends to describe characters’ BMI as something meaningful.) Eileen makes coffee each morning, takes it back to bed and drinks it slowly. Eileen works in her husband’s newspaper office (so she can never really get away from him). She wears ‘casually provocative outfits’. She is beautiful. ‘Her manner in the newspaper office was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles’. Eileen is a capable woman who prefers to do things like sanding and wallpapering on her own, without help from family. She is an isolated, self-contained person. Emotional isolation is perhaps a protective thing.

Delphine — We meet Delphine early in the story but are encouraged to mostly forget about her. At first I thought she might be the family dog, or some smaller animal sitting in a cage on the front seat. The story opens with someone (or something) called Delphine sitting in the front of the car with Harry. It takes a while before Alice Munro lets us know who Delphine is. This is part of Munro’s deliberate disorientation. Eventually we learn Delphine is the name of the woman who works in the restaurant. Interestingly, the name ‘Delphine’ and ‘the woman who works in the restaurant’ are only subsequently connected. Not many writers would hold off connecting the woman and the name. Munro also uses this trick in “Save The Reaper“, in which it takes the reader a while to realise two women are mother and daughter. This is so the reader can experience these two women as friends, which is the kind of relationship the mother in that story wants; in contrast, the daughter wants a mother who behaves like a mother. Using this trick, Munro lets the reader know how it feels to have a mother who behaves as a friend by tricking us into thinking the two women are simply friends.

When we do properly meet Delphine in “Trespasses”, Munro introduces her to us via Lauren’s eyes:

She had long fine hair that might be whitish blond or might be really white, because she was not young. She must often have to shake that hair back out of her face, as she did now. Her eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, were hooded by purple lids. Her face was broad, like her body, pale and smooth. But there was nothing indolent about her. Her eyes, now lifted, were a light flat blue, and she looked from one girl to another as if no contemptible behaviour of theirs would surprise her.

It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently — she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself — her tastes, her physical workings — as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.

She had an allergy to beets. [UNEXPECTED DETAIL IN FICTION] If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.

She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind.

She was not afraid of snakes, but she had a weird feeling about cats. She thought that a cat must have come and lain on top of her when she was a baby, being attracted to the smell of milk.

Why does Alice Munro choose these details to describe Delphine? First, they are being filtered via a ten-year-old, and kids pick up on oddities. What have cats and snakes got to do with anything? We might also go the symbolic route — Delphine is the ‘snake in the grass’, sneaking up on this family, meaning to set up an unwanted relationship. But more importantly, I feel, Delphine is established as a woman whose mind goes to strange places. It is a fantasy that she doesn’t like cats because of an incident she couldn’t possibly remember, and almost certainly didn’t happen. This is the moment I don’t quite trust Delphine. This must also be the moment Lauren doesn’t trust her, either.

Lauren — Lauren is ten years old, her exact age calculated only after her father explains the past. Until that point I thought Lauren was a few years older than that. She is given a lot more freedom than typical contemporary ten-year-olds (though this story is at least 15 years old). Lauren’s love of sugary foods marks her out as a child, though. Lauren makes her own breakfast, usually cereal with maple syrup instead of milk. Lauren is lonely at school. This much is explained by the narrator. It’s a complex situation, so the narrator steps in to describe the nuance:

Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness. The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them. And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing her to pronounce L’Anse aux meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine at dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control an what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping by sly agreement into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.

Lauren is thereby established as dangerously ‘precocious’ (not a word I like), and at this point I expect the worst for her. Fortunately, Lauren is still young enough to blurt everything out to her mother when things feel really bad, and I figure this is why Munro made Lauren ten and not, say, thirteen. (In stories, perhaps as in real life, a thirteen year old’s trouble is more likely to be discovered by a caring adult rather than the child breaking down and telling all.)

The Dead Lauren — The deceased baby forms the ‘ghost‘ (a.k.a. psychic wound) of Harry and Eileen and of Lauren, too. This baby was killed in a car accident due to not being strapped in properly. Eileen was pregnant with a new baby at the time (Lauren the Second).

How would it feel to find out your parents had a baby before they had you, and this baby was called the same name? I might start imagining a completely other life for myself — one in which the other Lauren had lived and I had died. Munro’s plot is an interesting, slightly complicated set up but I’ve seen similar in real life — parents have years of difficulty in conceiving a baby, go through the lengthy faff of the adoption process, adopt a baby, then immediately find themselves pregnant. Something about being around a baby seems to influence fertility rates, at least anecdotally:

One theory floating around is that women who are around babies somehow experience improved fertility. […]

“There is zero evidence of this, other than anecdotes,” Dr. Paula Amato, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, told Healthline.

Healthline

SETTING OF “TRESPASSES”

SEASON

The framing story, in which a family disposes of ashes, begins a few weeks before Christmas, which in Canada is winter. Something is coming to an end.

  • ‘The sky was clear and the snow had slid off the trees but had not melted underneath them or on the rocks that jutted out beside the road.’
  • ‘black lacy cedars’ (putting me in mind of a Tim Burton movie)
  • ‘There was a slight crackle to the snow, though the ground underneath was soft and mucky’ (suggesting an snail under the leaf setting). This sort of sentence can be described as ‘multivalent’, meaning it can be interpreted as both literal and metaphorical. Multivalent = having many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values. There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction.
THE TOWN
  • Harry’s family used to have a summer place on one of the lakes around here. There is a hotel on the main street. This hotel no longer has a liquor licence.
  • A Victorian mansion, now a nursing home (Gothic overtones)
  • a brick tower which used to be a broom factory
  • the graveyard going back to 1842.
  • a fair in fall, suggesting a Gilmore girls type utopia
THE HOTEL

He pointed out things in the dining room that were just the same — the high ceiling, the slowly rotating fan, even a murky oil painting showing a hunting dog with a rusty-feathered bird in its mouth.

The hotel serves canned green beans even though it is fresh bean season. This is another example of a unexpected detail — perhaps it is noticed for its irony. Where else in this story is irony at work?

The unwelcoming Mr Palagian and his hotel are inextricably linked — juxtaposed against each other by the unwelcoming owner versus his sign which reads ‘WELCOME’. More irony.

There is also an ironic gap between the narrator’s delightful chatter and the grim story of the dead Lauren underneath. What makes the narrator seem delightful and chatty? That’d be the ‘incidental nature’ of the discourse, cue those strange details — like your best friend chatting to you over coffee, each new recollection prompting a related, delightful and interesting one.

I’m reminded of the following meme, which is not at all how a writer plots. Instead, Munro’s narrator achieves the illusion of a ‘chatty’ storyteller, because that’s what ‘chatty’ means, right? Someone who is never short of the next thing to say, because one thing segues effortlessly into another thing:

Me Telling A Story flow chart
See also
THE HOUSE

The word ‘liminal‘ seems apt here. The ‘vacationland wilderness’ is, functionally, a heterotopia:

They had rented a house at the edge of town. Just beyond their backyard began a vacationland wilderness of rocky knobs and granite slopes, cedar bogs, small lakes, and a transitional forest of poplars, soft maples, tamarack, and spruce. Harry loved it. He said they might wake up one morning and look out at a moose in the backyard. Lauren came home after school when the sun was already getting low in the sky and the middling warmth of the autumn day was turning out to be a fraud [SHE KNOWS IT’S A SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING]. The house was chilly and smelled of last night’s dinner, of stale coffee grounds and the garbage, which it was her job to take out.

Harry’s view of the forest is utopian, but as any reader knows, a story featuring a house situated on the edge of the woods is imperilled. At best, the forest is the family’s dark subconscious. They’re about to go there — right into the deepest, darkest Jungian parts of it. When it comes to houses, the basement is the psychological equivalent of the forest. Notice how Eileen wants to send Harry down to the basement of their rented house, along with all his possessions, including their box of ashes.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRESPASSES”

The thirty-seven-page story is told in seventeen sections that vary in length from under a page to about six pages. It starts with a section covering the first part of the final scene [FRAMING TECHNIQUE], the four characters finding a site on a riverbank to scatter the ashes, and ends with the rest of the scene, the scattering of ashes and the beginning of the ride back into town. On one level, then, the present event of dispersing the ashes functions conventionally as a narrative frame. However, Munro develops this overt structural circularity on more subtle chronological and psychological levels, since the town is a place of childhood vacations for Harry, and since each adult character, through unacknowledged feelings of guilt, responsibility, and desire deviates from but ultimately returns to his or her version of the past events. The story thus enacts a debased version of the myth of eternal return, wherein the structural return to the oozy riverbank reflects the return of each of the adult characters to his or her muddy version of the baby’s adoption and death.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
THE MYTH OF ETERNAL RETURN

What is ‘the myth of eternal return’? Children’s stories in particular tend to contain the soothing message that no matter what happens out in the world, you can always return home to safety. Harry himself has returned to a childhood utopian setting of his — he genuinely believes this ideology.

I put it to you that this is why Alice Munro has chosen a ten-year-old as main character — books for Lauren’s age group are all about the safe return home, or finding a new and safer home.

But reality differs from children’s books. For so many people — children included, Lauren as one example — home is not safe at all. Unlike the storybooks tell her, Lauren’s home is not homely.

NARRATION

As well as structurally, Munro’s chosen style of narration underscores the theme, of ‘what is really true’?

One theme of “Trespasses,” as of much of Munro’s longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Alice Munro has chosen a roving camera for this story, which opens with an unseen narrator. Who is this person? It feels like Alice Munro herself, but that’d be a mistake. (Narrators are not authors.)

Munro orchestrates this process of deception at the level of narrative technique, employing an ostensibly reliable narrator who, beguiling readers with her intelligence and charm, surveys the narrative world and delivers a comic, apparently loosely connected, and superficial account of events. In this manner, Munro compels readers to stand quite outside the narrative world for the first five pages, in alliance with the narrator and without any hint that there will be an orienting perspective among the characters.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

If we imagine a film, the camera zooms in to sit on Harry’s shoulder, then shifts to Lauren’s.

To borrow terms and (creepily heteronormative) illustrations from Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (milkshake duck), “Trespasses” begins like this:

… and gradually moves into this, in which the boy below is first Harry, next Lauren:

Limited Third Person Light Penetration Characters and Viewpoint

SHORTCOMING

THE PARENTS’ WEAKNESS

At first “Trespasses” looks like it’s going to be about the character of Mr Palagian, told by a storyteller narrator, much like The Great Gatsby. But this is not about Mr Palagian at all.

Why does Munro do this?? Alice, are you messing with us?

In “Trespasses,” Munro’s circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader’s ability to prioritise and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. Typically, readers approach literature under the assumption that the author will provide a speaker, a narrator, or a character to serve as a central point of reference, focusing emotional-cognitive effort in the literary environment and, in consequence, motivating and guiding reasoning processes in the direction of constructing and sustaining narrative order. This is, in some respects, a matter of convention… the reader’s commitment to character functions is the imaginative equivalent of a real-world self, and its absence can deprive the reader of a vantage point for seeing, cognising, and acting. Thus, when Munro intentionally withholds her main character’s identity for the first six pages of “Trespasses,” she deprives her readers of the point of orientation (the character function) that will prompt for and facilitate narrative construction. Munro’s goal in thus disabling event- and fact-based narrativity is to fully reveal the psychologically disabling conditions of that main character’s life and the ethically troubling domain of her upbringing.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Here’s what I get out of that: Munro is making the reader disoriented about who the important people are because that’s how Lauren feels, too, not about a story, but about her actual life.

Munro’s delayed revelation of the story’s main character in combination with conventional features of narrative presents readers with a territory devoid of its true and necessary focalizing perspective, that of the ten-year-old Lauren. Meanwhile, Munro effectively provides the narrator as an alternative (though ultimately false) other “self” with whom readers identify. Thus standing on the perimeter of the setting rather than entering actively into it, readers are deprived of crucial information by orientational disadvantage and immobility.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Back to Mr Palagian for a minute. Here’s the description of Mr Palagian, as filtered to the reader via Harry. I mean, Harry is a writer, so he’s a natural fit as the character chosen to (indirectly) narrate someone else’s life:

Someone like Mr Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.

The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities—see the humanity—in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.

But this description of Mr Palagian is not even about Mr Palagian. ‘What Sally says about Susie says more about Sally.’ This description is about Harry. We learn that Harry’s shortcoming is as follows:

Harry is so interested in people as possible fictional inspiration that he’s not going to see what’s going on in the real world, with his very own daughter. His shortcoming is misplaced focus due to literary pretensions. He likes to tell Lauren things as her father and mentor. It is ironic that as he instructs Lauren to ‘be aware’, he fails to achieve genuine awareness himself. Something in this story is going to surprise him. Of that we can be sure. Later it bears out:

Harry was not as angry as Eileen [about Delphine].

“She seemed a perfectly okay person anytime I talked to her,” he said. “She never said anything like this to me.”

Eileen is equally preoccupied with superficial appearances. We see this in her observation of the family in the hotel dining room — she wonders how they could get so fat. She has no comment about the misogynistic joke that comes out of the old man. What’s the point of the anniversary celebration? At first it seems disconnected from the rest. First, it has allowed us to know more about Eileen and Harry and their superficial, middle-class shock (at the green beans and the fatness). Second, it introduces the theme of violence within marriage. Eileen and Harry cannot hear the old man’s joke as a joke; we learn later that violence between husband and wife is far too close to home.

I don’t find Harry an empathetic character. I find him quietly dangerous. Harry describes Eileen as ‘hysterical’, and talks to their daughter about her dead older sister without Eileen’s knowledge and consent. A father tells his daughter something in confidence, encouraging secrets within the family. Emotional incest. Some people feel the phrase ’emotional’ incest devalues the word ‘incest’ but whatever we call it, this relationship within a family a real and icky phenomenon:

Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.

Psych Central
LAUREN’S WEAKNESS

Ironically, Harry and Eileen have brought Lauren up thinking that if she is exposed to all the worldly knowledge, the knowledge itself will protect her. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge, and the experience of living with hipster, free-loving parents, which marks her out as more mature (faux-mature?) than her peers, and serves to isolate her from them.

“Trespasses” is one of several Munro stories in which the central character is an adolescent girl whose parents and their associates live by a lingering set of counter-cultural attitudes, which include a mild anti-establishment posture and a belief that children should be treated as adults. While the parents are deluded in their sense of superior honesty and freedom from conventional mores (they seem as repressive, viciously passive aggressive, and jealous as any of the usual human lot), these attitudes help them evade the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

And isolation is itself supremely dangerous. In her early teenage years Lauren is the lonely new girl in town, seeking friendship outside the home as well as emotional distance from her own parents. As the story opens, Lauren is presented as dangerously vulnerable to the advances of a sexual predator.

DESIRE

HARRY’S DESIRE

Harry is clearly after a new start in a new town, where he can rebuild his social capital by being important at the newspaper and perhaps find time on the side to write a novel, using local personalities as inspirational fodder. Harry is recovering from some mental health issues himself, having faced ‘burn out’ at his previous job. (We don’t know exactly what this means — ‘burn out’ is a conversational term and could be major or code for something else.)

Lauren is finding her place in the world as a young teenager and craves genuine connection with equals. This is more of a psychological need which leads directly to her Desire. (Shortcoming and Desire are very much interconnected.)

Here’s why Alice Munro’s stories are famous for being psychologically complex. Sentences like the following:

It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself. She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.

OPPONENT

Alice Munro sets up a family in opposition to each other. It’s more about what she doesn’t show than what she does: We don’t see Lauren and Eileen interacting much at all until Lauren’s confession that she’s been seeing Delphine. It’s as if Lauren Number Two is a ghost to Eileen. Eileen is mostly emotional unavailable. Perhaps she has withdrawn from her daughter, opening up the gap for the father to come in and overfill it. However, this changes towards the end.

The other opposition comes from outside the family. Who is standing in the way of Lauren finding genuine friendship? The woman who isolates Lauren from her peers, pretends to be her friend, then reveals herself to be a kind of predator.

Alice Munro at first led me to think Delphine might be a sexual predator. She seems to keep that as a reveal at about midpoint. This is what I’m thinking as Lauren learns it, up in Delphine’s attic bedroom. Perhaps this is why Munro’s narration first lets us into Harry’s head; along with Harry, we become wary of Mr Palagian instead — that old magician’s trick of misplaced focus. Or, ‘disorientation’.

There are story-external factors encouraging the reader along this line of thought — namely, the real world statistics on gender and sexual predators. A sex offender is simply more likely to be gendered male. When we think ‘sex offender’ we think of a man: a man like Mr Palagian, perhaps — uncannily foreign (intersecting with xenophobia), gruff, lacking in social graces.

Unfortunately, the most dangerous predators have very good social skills. Poor social skills make one an equally poor predator.

Delphine knows exactly how to win Lauren over. But again, I have been fooled. Delphine is not a sexual predator but with completely different intentions — she wants a connection with the girl she believes to be her adopted daughter.

PLAN

DELPHINE

Delphine’s plan, at first appears as following: to coax an attractive, vulnerable underage girl to her bedroom where she will see what she can get away with.

But my focus was (deliberately?) misplaced. Delphine is not a pedophile. She is a troubled woman and grieving mother. Her plan is to move to Harry and Eileen’s town and strike up a connection with her daughter.

LAUREN’S PLAN

Without a plan of her own, Lauren goes along with Delphine’s pla.. Lauren is only ten, so she is reactive rather than proactive. Except in fantasy and in children’s literature, ten-year-olds don’t tend to rescue themselves from adult opposition.

People respond in unexpected ways to trauma. Lauren is scared by Delphine, a trauma which follows her all the way home. Once home, she decides to eat — not because she is hungry but because she is trying to expunge something horrible. The symbolism of the whiteness outside feels like a type of cleansing:

The felling in her stomach was of both a swelling and a hollow. It seemed as if she might get rid of that just by eating the right sort of food, so when she got into the house she went straight to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a bowl of the familiar breakfast cereal. There was no maple syrup left, but she found some corn syrup. She stood in the cold kitchen, eating without even having taken her boots and her outdoor clothing off, and looking out at the freshly whitened backyard. Snow made things visible, even with the kitchen light on. She saw herself refelcted against the background of snowy yard and dark rocks capped with white, and evergreen branches drooping already under their white load.

This paragraph reminds me of the ancient tradition of ‘sin eating’ in which the sins of the recently dead were transferred to a village person who, for a fee, consumed food & drink handed to them over the coffin. This sin-eater would be shunned by their village, much like lepers were. Mourners would pay the designated sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all their sins. The sin-eater would then perform a ritual. This would allow the dead person to enter Heaven without sin-free. I wonder if the sin-eaters really did believe they would be forever damned in hell after they themselves died. Apart from societal shunning, it doesn’t sound like a bad gig in a starvation economy — sin-eaters received both food and payment.

One well-known account of sin-eating goes like this:

The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.

Enacademic

(Does anyone know what a maga-bowl is? If so, I’m interested.)

I wonder if Alice Munro encountered this account. I’m aware that in Canada maple syrup is a pantry staple, in which case Lauren’s penchant for maple syrup could be symbolically unloaded, but might the maple syrup be doing double (‘multivalent’) duty — an intertextual reference to the ‘maga-bowl of maple’ described above?

In any case, Lauren’s attempt at sin-eating don’t work. She throws the food back up.

BIG STRUGGLE

Lauren faces two main scary moments and the reader is right there with her:

  1. In Delphine’s room
  2. At her own house, as her parents get drunk and fight

There is nowhere Lauren feels safe.

ANAGNORISIS

Sure enough, The Lord’s Prayer has been the thematic backbone of this short story. I have this confirmed when Eileen says “Our Father which art in Heaven—”

Eileen seems to have had a Anagnorisis about her family — she knows that she can’t create a homely environment for Lauren so she’ll be better off at boarding school. Harry never realises that. He will continue in his delusion that he has found the perfect home in this little town where he owns the newspaper and they live in an idyllic little house on the edge of a vacationland wilderness.

But still, um, is this story really finished? For real?

Munro not only strains readers’ desire for narrative closure by providing information that seems incidental (apparently useless) at the outset but forestalls readers’ ability to begin sorting information and thus shaping the narrative by refusing to establish an orienting perspective within the setting. In rendering problematical the truth that readers are cognitively predisposed to pursue—initially, a factual account of past events and their connection to the present—Munro redirects attention to the self-justifications of her characters and the implications of their stories for the submerged main character, Lauren, and her potentially focalizing perspective. The story of her life, in fact, is one of a faltering, or long-deferred, orientation—in other words, of an unrealized because unrecognized self.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

In other words:

  • Lauren doesn’t get the straight truth about herself, so dear reader, don’t think you can have it told to you straight, either. This is how it feels, see?
  • Lauren does have a bunch of other information, about life in general. But that info isn’t exactly helping her out. I mean, she’s only ten.

NEW SITUATION

She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.

Surely the burrs, too, are multivalent. We have burrs in our yard and the dog collects them. Here’s the thing about burrs: If you don’t get rid of them they bury their way right into your skin and cause a lot of pain. They can even get infected. Symbolically, a burr could stand for anything that works like that. Perhaps in this story the burrs symbolise the little bits of information Lauren gathers as she grows up.

Ultimately, since a ten-year-old doesn’t have much agency, what else can Lauren do but sit and wait out her childhood, until she can be free of these parents?

We don’t see this happen on the page, but we extrapolate that Lauren will be sent away to a boarding school. I imagine a Sally Draper future for Lauren, followed by a clean break from her ageing parents.

Sally Draper boarding school

Header photo by Patrick Tomasso

The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro

The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:

The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”

from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May

Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.



  • Both are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
  • Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
  • Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
  • Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
  • Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

The story begins with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secretes. At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Mrs Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid, who cares for Rupert, decides she must tell him what she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: she asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind but cannot escape the situation. the story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether Enid confronts Rupert and, if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.

“The Love Of A Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out, as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated.  It is a classic example of Munro’s technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality, while all the time pulling the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

NARRATION

[Alice Munro] is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfield stamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.

from a Goodreads reviewer

(I happen to be a Katherine Mansfield fan, but I see what the reviewer is talking about.)

CHARACTERS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

  • Cece Ferns — never tells his family anything. An only child. Older parents than usual. The older Cece Ferns is a heavy drinker and smoker. He abuses the son. It’s not clear if he abuses his wife or if the wife is suffering from another ailment. Cece has stepped into the role of carer.
  • Bud Salter — called “Buddy” by adults (he doesn’t like that). Bud comes from a bustling nuclear family with older sisters who are in the throes of romance and teenage-hood, and a much younger brother.  The mother is harried and the father is presumably at work. This household feels a bit like that depicted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Malcolm in the Middle. Far from ‘perfect’, but also very homely.
  • Jimmy Box — Jimmy lives with a huge extended family. His father is disabled after polio as a 22-year-old. He has a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house. This is another bustling household a little similar to Bud’s, except the family seem to genuinely get along. In contrast to Bud’s self-absorbed older sisters, Jimmy’s sisters apologise whenever they bump into one another. And his father is as nice outside the home as he is in it.
  • Ralph Diller — mentioned by name — another boy who could have easily been swapped out for any of the others. Not present for this particular discovery.
  • Mrs Willens — is out in her garden, seemingly unaware that her optometrist husband is dead in the water.
  • Colonel Box — related to Jimmy but slightly estranged
  • Mr Pollock — retired from the drugstore
  • Fergus Solley — ‘not a half-wit but looked like one’
  • Captain Tervitt — had been a real captain. Now special constable. Deaf and doesn’t normally wear hearing aids. Sleeps on the job but is nonetheless respected around town. A very prankable grown-up, in other words.
  • Enid — the home nurse for Mrs Quinn. Went to school with Rupert and was part of a group which bullied Rupert. Grew up next to Mr and Mrs Willens.
  • Mrs Quinn — says she’s age 27, on her death bed. Liver disease.
  • Mrs Olive Green — Mrs Quinn’s sister-in-law.
  • Rupert Quinn — Mrs Quinn’s husband, Olive Green’s husband. Tall. Potato Irish face. If he remembers Enid from school, he doesn’t let on.
  • Lois Quinn — Quinn daughter
  • Sylvie Quinn — Quinn daughter

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

In its structural sophistication, richness of theme, and moral complexity, “The Love of a Good Woman” is one of the most thought provoking stories in Munro’s oeuvre, arguably her most ambitious achievement. In the two collections published in the first half of the 2000s, namely Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Runaway, the writer continues to surprise and challenge readers, and scholars. Much in the fictive territory is familiar— the southwest Ontario settings; one narrator’s impulsive infidelity, another’s long- practiced aloofness— but the reader will notice some changes in the landscape.

Isla Duncan

SHORTCOMING

Clearly, Alice Munro has never been an adolescent boy herself. But I swear she’s been following a group of them round, including inside their heads. I’ve never been an adolescent boy either, but I fully believe she’s depicted their psychology perfectly. These boys are stuck uncomfortably between being children and respected men in a patriarchal culture, expected to behave in a certain way — strong and stoic — that is their arch Shortcoming. Or perhaps their real Shortcoming is that they are prematurely wanting to be treated like men when they don’t have the skill set yet. If they could just relax and enjoy being children for a while longer, they wouldn’t have any problems, to be fair. They could’ve just told their parents about the body, after all. Alice Munro makes sure to explain why they didn’t do this, within the third person narration.

Enid is the main character of the other thread in this story, and psychologically complex. Alice Munro is a writer who understands that people behave differently according to the situation. Enid is a wonderfully kind, giving and self-sacrificial adult. Yet as a teenager she was on the wrong side of bullying. This describes many adults, I think. Munro doesn’t do anything basic like try to convince us that Enid’s utter goodness as an adult is all down to the  guilt she feels about picking on Rupert in high school. This really is a matter of situational psychology — sociable people who are decent adult human beings can be drawn into the bullying system of high school due to those exact same sociable attributes.

DESIRE

They want to be taken seriously. But they also don’t want the responsibilities of adulthood just yet. In this particular story, this Desire manifests in several competing desires: To earn the prestige of having found a body; to run away from the confronting reality of death.

Enid’s backstory tells us that she wanted to be a nurse, but because of she belongs to the last generation of girls who were never expected to have a job, she is persuaded away from becoming a registered nurse and instead becomes a practise nurse (less corrupting). She would obviously like to be useful and helpful. And what is her Desire in this particular story?

OPPONENT

Who stands in the way of the boys being taken seriously? Natal families tend to stand in the way of this, no matter how ‘good’ they are. The job of the adolescent is to bifurcate oneself from the natal home and establish an independent identity. The families themselves are therefore the boys’ Opponents, as well as all the adults around the town who treat them as boys, rather than as the respectable men they are hoping to be (prematurely).

The unseen Opponent of the entire town is obviously whoever killed the optometrist. But this  literary short story does not belong to the thriller/detective/murder mystery genres, and so Alice Munro is under no obligation to prioritise the importance of the murderer.

Who stands in the way of Enid’s wish to feel useful and helpful? Mrs Quinn herself achieves this by being such an unpleasant patient. This provokes unwanted, unpleasant emotions in Enid that Enid would rather pretend she never experience. So Mrs Quinn is one of her Opponents.

Enid’s mother, too, is an Opponent because this is a woman who believes women of means should not be working, and certainly not working so hard. But because she is reliant as an adult upon the income of her natal family, Enid is in a similar situation to the boys who found the body — not fully realised as an independent person. For the boys this is because of their age; for Enid it is gender.

PLAN

As expected, due to their Shortcoming and Desire, the boys do a very responsible, adult thing by Planning to report the body to police. But when faced with the reality of the sergeant their younger selves win out, this time. They prank the old man and run away.

BIG STRUGGLE

Once the boys have pranked the deaf old man, they disappear from the story. For them, the Battle scene was the conversation at the police station.

The reader is shown the scene of the murder via a hypodiegetic section in which the narrator summarises what Mrs Quinn has told Enid.

ANAGNORISIS

Unlike the novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, [“The Love Of A Good Woman”] reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous, open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

In other words, this plot is shaped like a vortex.

How else can we explain by Alice Munro left us hanging like that? This is a story about truth vs reality, and reality is presented as unattainable. Via dreams and unreliable narrators (the sick and dying; the boys; and even Mr Quinn’s testimony, whose word would be so unreliable it’s not even worth us hearing it) we live out our lives and we all need to find the particular kind of humility in which we’ll never know the full truth of any situation. We are all unreliable narrators.

Notice how Munro has set this up. She has included:

  1. Narration about how sick people often go through a phase of extreme pessimistic and lack of confidence, all out of whack with the reality of their sometimes very nice lives.
  2. Enid has these sex dreams which disturb her, but which she puts down to mind garbage.
  3. Enid has this false memory in which she sees her father sucking a woman’s breast. Some people mistakenly use the phrase ‘false memory syndrome‘. Avoid that, because it’s not a syndrome in the medical sense. False memories are so common that we should in fact consider them a natural mechanism of the human brain. I have a few myself. I distinctly remember walking around as a young kid at my nana’s motel. I encountered one of the cleaning ladies in the linen cupboard. Instead of saying hello, she pushed me right over to the ground before walking past me. The ‘memory’ is as vivid as any other from my preschool years, but I don’t believe it happened. I was far too clingy a child to be walking around the motel complex without my mother, for starters.

NEW SITUATION

The boys probably told someone about the dead body eventually, or perhaps someone else did. In any case, we never find out more about them. Their story feels a little like a McGuffin. But we can extrapolate what will happen to the boys, because Munro has given us enough to go on with Enid’s backstory, and the description of all the people who use the textbooks, and how people’s lives tend to go in this town after they finish their high school education.

We don’t know whether Enid lives or dies. We don’t know whether Mr Quinn committed the manslaughter. But what we do know is that Enid has reached the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. Whatever happens out on that lake, she’ll never be the same again.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia
TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird
  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

SHORTCOMING

Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral shortcomings.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW SITUATION

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

What is a detective story?

The Mystery of the Fire Dragon detective story

A detective story is a type of mystery told through the eyes of law enforcers. Crime stories, in contrast, are often told through the eyes of the criminal. An example of a crime story is The Sopranos.

Detective stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a main character who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character. It always contains criminal and detective settings.

Though a typical audience probably doesn’t have a firm idea of the differences, from a writer’s point of view detective, crime and thriller are three very different forms and structures. Detective stories are often marketed as mysteries, perhaps with mystery in the title.

Detective stories are super popular. The detective story, specifically the police procedural, is far more popular than crime, worldwide.

Examples of Popular Detective Stories

The copy generally reads something like this:

In The Woods by Tana French

Katy Devlin, a 12-year-old girl, is found dead at an archeological site in Dublin. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case — the biggest case of their careers so far. But Ryan is shook by the similarities between Katy’s murder and the murder of Rob’s two best friends 20 years ago. Only Maddox is aware of Ryan’s potential involvement in that long-ago crime, but soon, Ryan becomes a suspect in this one, too.

THE FALL

A seemingly cold but very passionate policewoman goes head to head with a seemingly passionate father who is in fact a cold serialist in this procedural out of Belfast. The only thing they share is their common complexity.

The Fall is an example of a crime/detective blend, because the criminal and the detectives’ stories play out simultaneously.

If you follow the Midsomer Murders bot on Twitter, you’ll realise how the structure goes. Though Midsomer Murders is not exactly a parody, it’s considered as such by fans of gritty detective stories:

[murder victim] is found [description of dead body]. Suspicion falls on [local character or group], [motivation].

A banjo-playing philosopher is found lacerated with a prehistoric animal skull. Suspicion falls on Lower Pampling’s witch, angry that badger culling might threaten the return of the Microsoft Office paperclip.

A local pigeon enthusiast is found very well preserved after a stiff drink of embalming fluid. Suspicion falls on Bishopwood’s shuttlecock appreciation society, angry that multiculturalism might threaten more first world problems.

A celebrity atheist is found crushed under the world’s biggest scone. Suspicion falls on Midsomer Worthy’s famous magician, Gideon Latimer, angry that a police-car-fender-eating goat might threaten to turn England into a nation of coffee drinkers.

Raison d’être of Detective Stories

Detective stories are about searching for the truth. A detective story such as Broadchurch is about what lies beneath the surface of an snail under the leaf setting, and how crime can bring new revelations and meaning to long-term relationships. Our main characters don’t just ‘solve the crime’, but learn all sorts of other things, about themselves and about other people, along the way.

Political Problems With The Detective Story

Audiences love detective stories so much that journalism uses fictional tropes when reporting on real life crimes:

We will never have a real conversation about victims’ rights or decarceration or prison reform or sexual assault and harassment until we stop framing everything as a detective story, until we stop being so obsessed with these murder stories, and until we see that having everything resolved in the end, as satisfying as it is, is not the truth. That’s a narrative that [lets] us overlook all kinds of injustice.

Alice Bolin

A Brief History Of The Detective Story

Some say Oedipus is the world’s first great detective story. Some say the first real detective story is “Murders In The Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.

On television, Prime Suspect paved the way for other TV dramas like it:

Detective chief inspector Jane Tennison was the gateway drug. As played by the actress Helen Mirren on the British series “Prime Suspect,” she triggered my now-entrenched addiction to international crime dramas. Tennison — a relentlessly driven, hard-living, sexually indiscriminate female detective (as written by Lynda La Plante) — was exceptional and revolutionary; when the show debuted here in 1992, she had no equivalents on American TV. And Mirren was abetted by an equally riveting costar: the city of London as I’d never seen it — grubby and bristling with colorful miscreants.

NYT

We are now in the age of the ‘stage magician’ as detective:

A new way to do a cop show where most episodes see the characters solve a new case — often dubbed a “crime procedural” — is the holy grail of TV development. At this point, there’ve been so many slight variations on the detective template that something like “a stage magician helps the police solve crimes” is an actual show coming to your TV sometime next year.

Vox Culture

Lately, police procedurals are to detective stories as psychological horrors are to horror:

But now we may be heading into more of a police procedural/psychological horror blend, beginning with Mindhunter as an example.

We don’t see gruesome acts of violence — outside of the occasional crime-scene photo — and many of the criminals the cops talk to are already in prison. But there’s a creeping, chilly horror at its center, a growing sense that something is irreparably broken in the world, and nobody’s going to put it back together. […]

Mindhunter is not, by any means, a perfect show, nor does it succeed at everything it sets out to accomplish. But its intense focus on the inner workings of the human brain makes for a surprisingly fascinating watch that examines the roots of human darkness without seeming to revel in it.

Vox Culture

WRITING DETECTIVE STORIES

The detective thriller has the strongest narrative drive of all the plot types, and this is especially important for novels.

Settings of Detective Stories

The setting is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s shortcoming—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.

The city is the classic detective arena. But writers can stretch that out and/or zoom in close.

In his article “In Defense of the Detective Story” Chesterton argued that the most important reason for the detective story’s cultural significance was its poetic treatment of the city.

The first essential value of the detective story,” Chesterton writes, “lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.” In other words, the detective story is a celebration of the symbolism of the city.

Characters of Detective Stories

There are certain compulsory characters in a detective story, most obviously the detective or detectives. Then there’s the victim, who may or may not be fleshed out as a 3D human being with a backstory.

Internationally, TV crime drama is becoming a feminine genre, as romance has long been a feminine genre:

More refreshing still, there is no double standard — a bonus, no doubt, of so many more female crime show creators outside of the U.S. Just like the men, women maintain their sex appeal no matter their age or shape (see the 50-something small-town cop of Britain’s “Happy Valley,” played brilliantly by Sarah Lancashire); as for hygiene — or, rather, a lack thereof — they sometimes exceed men. Weeks of plot can pass without a change of clothing. My favourite detective, Saga Noren (“The Bridge”) — she of TV’s saddest pair of leather trousers — is prone to smelling her armpits before pulling out a “fresh” T-shirt from her desk drawer. In five seasons, Laure Berthaud, the police detective on “Spiral,” has perhaps washed her hair, perhaps not. And then there’s the junk-food-scarfing detective sergeant Jackie Stevenson of “River” (Britain); her disinterest in cleanliness is staggering — though, to be fair, she is actually dead.

NYT

Whether detective stories are typically feminist (as well as feminine), however, I’m not so sure, especially as a disproportionate number of dead victims are pretty young women.

Unlike in genres such as romance, audiences don’t seem to want glamour in our detective stories. We want gritty realism:

Occasionally, American actors will cameo on these shows to jarring effect. Who are these artificially enhanced freaks with teeth like gleaming Chiclets? Any semblance of reality quickly deflates. In fact, international crime dramas have ruined our slicker network options for me. Not only do they provide off-the-beaten-track sightseeing opportunities (minus the ever-worsening indignities of flying), but viewers are treated to the attainable beauty of people who don’t look like, well, actors. Why vape when you can still smoke?

Karen Woodward

See also: Five Crime Novels Where Women are the True Detectives from The Millions

The cop with the inner demons is very popular in a detective story. Here are 5 examples of cops with big ghosts, from SBS.

The Elements And Structure Of A Detective Story

This kind of story is at the opposite end of a spectrum of a drama like, say, Mad Men, in which every single episode has a completely different story structure. In a police procedural, every single episode has exactly the same structure.

Reveals normally happen in reverse chronological order.

Like several other genres (romance and action) there is usually a chase:

The chase is one of the basic building blocks of drama, but it does not necessarily have to involve physical movement. Detective films involve the pursuit of the killer; in conventional love stories the boy pursues the girl. […] The Terminator, Alien, The Matrix and many other recent films revolve around one long chase. One reason they work so well with audiences is that, rather than alternating between action and character development, the two proceed simultaneously.

Howard Suber

The hero’s Desire is always to solve the crime.

One police procedural that manages to be original by breaking out of the ‘single structure’ constraint is The Killing. Another is The Bridge.

7-beat Plot Structure Of A Detective Story

This is just a slight honing of universal story structure:

  1. Problem – someone brings a mystery to the detective
  2. Desire – the detective wants to solve the mystery
  3. The Opponent – is hidden in a detective story
  4. The Plan – investigation and surveillance, looking for clues
  5. The Battle – the detective confronts the suspect, or sets a trap
  6. Knowledge – the truth is revealed
  7. New Level – the detective solves the crime or fails to solve it

The Dual Plans of a Detective Story

In a mystery story, there has usually been a crime and there is a usually hidden Opponent. These steps apply to the Opponent, too. If you are writing a detective story or mystery, you must think of their plan as carefully as you think about your detective’s plan.

When writing Detective genre, figure out the criminal’s plan first. It seems obvious but is easily forgotten. This is how you make the story seem like magic.

The Criminal’s Plan

  1. Criminal has a problem
  2. Criminal wants something
  3. Criminal’s opponent is usually the law or an authority figure
  4. Criminal’s plan usually involves breaking the law
  5. Criminal commits the crime
  6. They usually do not learn anything
  7. They are happy if they succeed but…

…something usually goes wrong. Then the steps are:

  1. New, extra problem – someone is onto them!
  2. Desire – they have to keep their identity and/or crime hidden. In storytelling terms, the writer is making use of masks now.
  3. Opponent – the detective and/or the vigilante person who suspects them
  4. Plan – they often try to eliminate those who suspect them
  5. Battle – they confront the detective
  6. Knowledge – they usually learn they haven’t got away with it
  7. New Level – usually a lower level than before, as those who break the law should be punished, according to a typical audience, which is conservative.

So you, the author, have to come up with the opponent’s original plan and crime and also work out the detective’s plan to uncover the crime and the opponent.

You must think like a crim.

Part of the detective’s plan is looking for clues which point to the identity of the culprit. The detective looks for objects which are out of place or being used in a strange way. They rely on sight, touch, taste, smell and symmetry, or lack thereof.

Tips For Writing Murder Mystery Subplots

We’ll expect the hero to care about identifying the killer. The mystery can be in the background, but it can’t be something the hero just doesn’t care about until someone else solves it.

We’ll expect a satisfactory conclusion. Once you hooked us with a murder mystery, we’ll be deeply unsatisfied if you just end on “I guess we’ll never know.”

If there’s a murder mystery, the reader is going to get wrapped up in it, and other dramatic questions like “will she forgive her father?” will seem less important.

Because it will become your primary dramatic question, you’ll have to wrap the book up fairly quickly after the killer is revealed. You can have more scenes to wrap up your drama, but they will feel like epilogue scenes. 40 pages at most, I’d say.

I read a lot of books that try to cheat, including a murder mystery element but not giving it its due.  If you want to do it, be aware that you’re taking on certain responsibilities to the reader.

Matt Bird

Detective Stories As Children’s Literature

William Pene du Bois wrote and illustrated some picture books which were parodies of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction. The Alligator Case (1965) and The Horse in the Camel Suit (1967) are examples of picture book crime parody.

Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven and so on). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, writers use tropes from the subgenre of ‘cosy mystery’, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery).

Nate the Great is a cosy detective series for children which began in 1972. Nate is known for his unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. Pets.

A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.

So, there’s the crime genre in a nutshell.

A SHORT LIST OF MIDDLE GRADE DETECTIVE MYSTERIES
  • The Peski Kids by RA Spratt
  • The Jack Russell dog detective series by Darrel and Sally Odgers
  • Violet and the Pearl of the Orient
  • The Curious Cats Spy Club series by Linda Joy Singleton
  • A to Z Mysteries
  • Calendar Mysteries
  • Friday Barnes series
  • Kensy and Max series by Jacqueline Harvey
  • Billie B Brown mysteries (a higher reading level than the Billie B Brown chapter books)
  • Truly Tan by Jen Storer
  • Mysterious Benedict Society
  • Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobel

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction. To what extent do these commandments still apply to contemporary work?

How To Write Mystery

how to write mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

Ken Kesey

The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing.

Raymond Chandler

Mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.

Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.

Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books

What Is A Mystery Story?

Some long fiction has mystery and revelation as a subordinate element, but very often they stand alone as a novel’s main motion.

Mystery fiction involves stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until the climax. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit. A few other types of mystery novels are Cozy Mysteries (where a group of people who are very unlikely to be mixed up in a crime become involved – these are usually not gory) or Hard-Boiled Mysteries (where the detective/private eye is very tough and unsentimental).

Mysteries often include crime, but not necessarily (for example the grandchildren spending the summer on an island will attempt to find out the source of the jewels hidden in the attic). If they are about a crime, they don’t have to have a detective, because some crimes are solved by clever veterinarians or clever quilt-shop owners.

Even when there is no mysterious past, our interest in the story is maintained by the question, “What’s going to happen next?” If we can predict what that will be — if there is no mystery — the story is boring.

By definition, a mystery requires that we be aware that some powerful knowledge exists that we do not possess. Mysteries, therefore, deal not with things that are totally hidden, but with things that are obscure.

What we often call “Mystery Stories” are, in fact, usually “Question Stories,” and once we have an answer to the question, the “mystery” disappears.

A true mystery, no matter how much we analyse it, remains a mystery. Great films, like all great works of art, are often like that — the more we learn about them, the more we realise that the mystery of their power remains.

Howard Suber

That’s what great fiction does, I think: A writer uses narrative to ask a question more clearly than it has ever been asked before. When a question is asked perfectly, it doesn’t need a tidy answer. To discover the precise shape of what the mystery is: That can be enough.

John Rechy

HOW TO PLOT A MYSTERY

Here’s one way:

I start by writing a brief, extremely dull short story. No one will ever see one of these if I can conceivably prevent it; it’s usually only about three pages, but I refine it for weeks, as carefully as Rudy Giuliani mixing his old fashioned before he Skypes in to Hannity, because, like Rudy, I’m focused on doing a crime. Specifically, that small story contains a full, straightforward account of the case my detective must solve, told in simple English. It enumerates who committed the crime and why, how they covered it up, and all the stuff of mystery novels: clues, red herrings, false leads, bloody knives, mysterious scars, anonymous notes, midnight rendezvous — in short, all the details I know I’ll have to omit from the real book I write, the actual mystery novel.

Charles Finch, mystery writer

Subgenres of Mystery

Some people divide mysteries into those that deal with the past and those that deal with the future. In the most obvious kind of mystery stories — detective films and thrillers — the mystery about the past concerns “Who done it?” and the mystery about the future concerns “Who’s going to be done in?”

A whodunit (whodunnit) is a type of mystery best described as a ‘mind-riddle’. The reader is encouraged to put pieces together themselves.

A whydunit (whydunnit) is a type of mystery where the audience knows who did it from the outset. Emphasis has now shifted onto how the situation got this bad. In this type of mystery we’ll generally be introduced to the criminal at the outset.

A ‘locked door’ mystery refers to a story in which the answer to the question is ‘this person’, and that person won’t come out of nowhere — they’ll exist in the cast. You eliminate them one by one until you find the person who did it. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death is an example of this kind of mystery.

Detective fiction has become synonymous with mystery, but of course detective fiction requires a detective, even if it’s a nosy middle aged woman such as Agatha Raisin.

Raison d’être of Mystery Stories

There are said to be two main reasons for reading — intellectual engagement or emotional engagement. Mysteries of the Agatha Christie type offer us intellectual engagement as we are encouraged to work out a puzzle.

There’s something in mystery for everyone, or rather there’s a bit of mystery in everything, since plot is basically another word for ‘surprise’. That said, mystery is not like SF, in which readers are either SF readers or they are most definitely not.

A murder mystery, which is always solved at the end, provides a sense of justice sorely lacking in the real world.

Two Approaches To Writing Mysteries For Children

chasing vermeer children's mystery book cover

When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one — neighbors, parents, teachers — is spared from suspicion.

Now let’s talk about how you set up a mystery novel for kids. There are two ways to go about it. I call the two options The Agatha Christie and The Chasing Vermeer.

The Agatha Christie model is the hardest to pull off. You give your readers all the facts, lay them out plain and clear, and let them solve the mystery alongside you. When done well this engages the reader and makes them complicit in the solution. Instant audience identification! Brilliant!

Then you have The Chasing Vermeer method. Now the book Chasing Vermeer was very popular with kids, so you can’t knock it on that account. It was, however, a book where the mystery and solution was based entirely on coincidences. That’s a frustrating way to set up a novel.

From a review of York by Betsy Bird

If writing a Chasing Vermeer type mystery, best to add some Agatha Christie elements and make the coincidences as disguised as possible. Betsy Bird, children’s librarian points out that the Chasing Vermeer series is very popular with children, which suggests young readers don’t mind coincidences so much, being more in line with adult readers of cosy mysteries in that regard. (Children’s mysteries are basically cosy mysteries.)

General rule of thumb: If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient.

Janice Hardy

A lot of children’s mysteries have something in common with a scavenger hunt, where children go looking for something (a lost dog, the answer to a secret, an absent parent).

Ciphers, puzzles, treasure, secret codes… these are all commonly found in children’s mystery stories.

The ‘Fair Mystery’ Approach To Storytelling

I like smart movies about smart people, and enjoy it when most of the facts are on the table and we can contemplate them together.

Roger Ebert

Common Features Of Murder Mysteries

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Twists are really common in lots of mysteries. A twist is another word for a reversal, which is a type of reveal. They’re hard to do well because the reader isn’t meant to guess early on. But when they do find out, everything should click into place for them.

Basic plot elements of the murder mystery:

  • The baffling crime
  • The singularly motivated investigator
  • The hidden killer
  • The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  • Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  • Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  • Identification and apprehension of the killer.

Things murder mysteries must have:

  • Someone is killed early in the telling, perhaps on the very first page
  • An investigator will be called in to solve the crime.
  • Stock characters: the hero, the villain etc.
  • False clues in the plot (“red herrings”)
  • An eventual confrontation between investigator and murderer
  • An ending that either results in justice, injustice or a pyrrhic victory. In other words, the murderer is discovered and pays for the crime, the murderer gets away, or the investigator gets the killer, but loses someone or something in the process.

The Hero

Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathya fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain

The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster. In story as in real life, the winner is the person who controls the narrative. She succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting

Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals

Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.

David Corbett

Writing Techniques

Clues/Red Herrings

To be fair to the reader, it’s probably best to have a few subtle clues scattered throughout the story.  Clues can be verbal—something that contradicts a suspect’s alibi or that points to a possible motive for murder.  Clues can be physical—a suitcase in the back room. Clues can even result from insights our sleuth gets into the suspects’ characters.  That’s one reason why our investigation isn’t just about the crime—it’s about the people who might be involved.

It’s very tricky to use our sleight of hand with mystery readers. They’re extremely savvy readers who usually read a lot of mysteries each month. They’ll frequently believe any extraneous detail must be a clue (which is why we need to be careful about wrapping up anything that seems like a loose end or a Chekhov’s gun at the end of the book).

The best ways to slip clues under the radar: lay them near the beginning of the story and then introduce things that seem more interesting (the victim’s body, perhaps), and then continue laying them out throughout the book but being very careful to distract from them (maybe with an argument between two suspects, etc.).  It also helps to have an especially well-thought-out red herring near the end of the story to lead the sleuth and reader in an entirely different direction.

The puzzle has to be fair. Modern mystery readers won’t be happy if the killer is someone who was introduced at the very end of our story, etc. The modern mystery reader expects to be able to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth—it’s an almost interactive experience, or it needs to be.

Challenges For The Mystery Writer

Technology

Anthony Horowitz — wrote Alex Rider (a young adult mysteries), Magpie Murders, Midsomer Murders and makes gleeful use of Agatha Christie’s techniques. Here’s what he has to say about technology:

[Anthony Horowitz] placed the Conway novel in the 1950s, he said, because he likes murder mysteries that are “forensic free,” without surveillance cameras and DNA. “I want sprinklings of clues and red herrings,” he said. “And having no mobile phones is wonderfully helpful; it slows the pace down, and you have more time for atmosphere and character.

If writers want to write a mobile phone free story for adolescents and teens today they have to either contrive it, or set the story in the past.

Reversals and Reveals

The mystery writer needs to master this technique.

Examples of Culturally Significant Mysteries

  • Rebecca — an example of a gothic mystery
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — Scandi crime mystery which lead to what is now a huge boom in Scandinavian crime/mystery.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There’s usually a central question in her books. (Suspense is the official mystery blend to describe these books.) This is the mystery which started a successful wave of psychological thrillers with complex female leads, mostly with dark covers. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is another example. 
  • Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter is another example of how ‘Girl’ in the title these days indicates a murder mystery, probably with tantalising reveals and definitely female characters (solving the mystery as well as falling victim to it).
  • Tana French is another author who writes bestselling mysteries.
  • Little Face by Sophie Hannah. A weird, creepy central mystery.
  • Into the Water by Paula Hawkins immerses readers in a town where a river has mysteriously claimed the lives of two women.
  • The Passenger by Lisa Lutz
  • What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is an Australian novel with a romantic subplot, contrasting a domestic violence subplot. This story manages to be both light and dark at the same time. Later made into an American limited TV series. Narrative is punctuated by excerpts from interviews with a journalist, commenting on and encouraging the intense drama between the women and their husbands during the school year.. We don’t know who the interlocutor is until the end of the story — another minor reveal. (I thought it was probably a police officer.) Note that when we find out who got killed, the reader/viewer is rewarded with a sense of just desserts, because this is the least sympathetic character of the cast.Other big reveals show us how the characters are more linked together than we anticipated, but is foreshadowed with the information that everyone knows everyone in this small town.  
  • Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
  • Notice how many of these examples I’ve picked are by and about women. In an historic turnaround, men are apparently pretending to be women in order to sell crime fiction.
  • 50 Essential Mystery Novels From Flavorwire.
Mysteries Aimed At Children
  • Lord Of The Flies — Though you may not think of this book when you think of the mystery genre, the most central part of this story is the developing answer to the question, “What is the beast?” This example shows that almost all children’s literature (in particular) contains mystery elements.
  • Ginger Pye — An easy Agatha Christie mystery story for children in which their pet dog is stolen by a boy in their class. Young readers are supposed to work this out before the characters do, making use of dramatic irony. (The mystery is for beginners, rather than the text.)
  • Harry Potter — J.K. Rowling’s wizard series is basically of the mystery genre. For adults Rowling writes hard-boiled detective novels with plenty of plotting to show that she’s a master of mystery.
  • Encyclopedia Brown series for children — Donald J. Sobol wrote ‘two minute mysteries’. In two or three pages you have to solve them. To find the answer you flip the book upside down. They all hinge on reasoning things out.
  • T.O.A.S.T. Mysteries by James Ponti — for kids itching for a hilarious mystery to solve. Florian Bates is a bit bored at Alice Deal Middle School. Math class just can’t compare to helping the FBI solve the mystery of an art theft or uncovering a spy ring in DC. But in the second book of the series his dull life is soon interrupted when he gets a call from the FBI inviting him to investigate a series of seemingly-harmless pranks involving the daughter of the President of the United States. Florian and his best friend Margaret begin to investigate, just as the pranks evolve from innocent to dangerous.
  • Pretty Little Liars has a mentor text of Desperate Housewives. Originally a YA novel series, later a TV series. Unlike Desperate Housewives, the big reveal (reversal) was withheld until the end of the series. Desperate Housewives mysteries were neatly tied up at the end of each season, and the writers must have been confident viewers would happily return for a new mystery.
  • Riverdale is a Netflix series based on retrograde tropes, inspired by the Archie comics but with a more diverse cast. The other thing the writers of the TV series did was incorporate a murder mystery at its heart. Though aimed at teens my nine year old daughter loved it.
  • Wolf Hollow is the perfect example of a middle grade mystery.

FURTHER READING

‘Alex Rider’ Novelist On The Joys Of Reading (And Writing) Mysteries at NPR

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration?

Rumours are things with wings, too.

A Long Way From Chicago, p 118

Later in the story, a few years after Joey has ridden in that plane at the circus, Grandma shows him the power of rumour and gossip. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. Most often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The car Joey loves to drive, not coincidentally, is called a ‘terraplane’ (a vehicle that ‘flies’ across terrain). The terraplane was a type of automobile produced by the Hudson Motor Company, previously called Essex. This particular type of car was designed to be more affordable, for families.

The Terraplane automobile A Long Way From Chicago
The Terraplane automobile

The Terraplane and I were becoming as one.

Historically literate readers will be keenly aware that Joey will come of age just as WW2 breaks out. I read this story without really acknowledging that fact, but in the final chapter we realise it is so, and of course he wants to fly planes. The experiences of his childhood summers with Grandma have lead to his wish to be a fighter pilot.

For more see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NARRATION AND TRUTH

The boy narrator is Joey Dowdel, a first person storyteller. His sister is Mary Alice Dowdel, two years younger. 

Because there is a full year elapsing between each story, the children change a lot. While each summer with Grandma teaches Joe something elemental about life, a lot of the change happens off the page, in the way that kids of that age change a lot year by year, regardless of what they’re doing.

The ageing of the children is the thread propelling the story forward in a linear direction. This line gives shape to the separate incidents taking place each summer. Without this narrative thrust the incidents would suffer the same problem as any journey story — the various characters and incidents would seem disconnected and the story as a whole would seem scattered.

Is this a coming-of-age story, then? Yes, but only insofar as any story about kids this age is a coming-of-age story. But this story isn’t about Joey and it’s not much about Mary Alice, either. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a bystander narrator entering a community and the star of this story is the grandmother he spends summers with. Eventually, the grandchildren learn all the tricks of their grandmother, picking people’s shortcomings to do what they feel is good in the community.

Truth is a popular topic when it comes to middle grade literature, and the same applies here. When you were little you were told to never lie. But now you’re in middle childhood you’re starting to realise that good people lie for good reasons. Look and learn. That’s what’s happening in this book.

The choice of narration is an excellent vehicle for this kind of theme:

“Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.”

This is a twisted spin on unreliable narration — Joey is old enough now to have a deeper understanding of the things he experienced as a child. Whereas we might expect old Joe’s memory for exact details to have faded somewhat, we are to trust his general interpretation of events, and the wisdom he brings to this long-ago story.

“We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. […] What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma.”

“[The ghost — actually cat — in the coffin] was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.”

STORYWORLD OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

When these scenes take place it is always August — the hottest time of the year.

That first summer it is 1929.

THE WIDER WORLD

This is the America of:

  • Al Capone, Bugs Moran
  • The St Valentine’s Massacre
  • Prohibition — alcohol is banned, which achieves little but serve to make bootleggers rich.
  • Joey and Mary Alice’s family in Chicago has no car telling us they don’t need one due to living in a city but also that they’re from an ordinary middle class family.  By 1931 the Great Depression hasn’t yet ‘bottomed out’ but is heading that way.

THE COUNTRY/CITY DIVIDE

In Chicago there are characters such as the real life John Dillinger, who robbed banks with two female accomplices. Richard Peck makes reference to these in part to contrast Chicago with this small town.

John Dilinger as mentioned in A Long Way From Chicago

Once in the country, Joey is the ingenue narrator, describing the town as an outsider. (This is a useful trick because readers are also outsiders.) Joey tells us that back then, Chicago has an ‘evil’ reputation.

  • Prairie chickens can still be seen waddling about
  • Horses are still common in the rural towns, though the rich family in town drives a Hupmobile.  
  • Fireworks — baby-wakers, torpedoes, bigger one is called a Cherry bomb
  • Snowball bushes grow in Grandma’s yard, which later come in handy for breaking a fall. I doubt they’re all that soft to land on, but they certainly have that image.
  • Grandmother lives in a small town ‘the railway tracks cut in two’. We know how sleepy and unexciting it is because we are told that people stand out under their verandahs to see the train pass by. This town is somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis.
  • “The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip.” Story arenas need some local meeting place for the community. Gilmore girls also has a coffee house, as does Twin Peaks, Friends, 13 Reasons Why and many other stories about a community of people. Especially cosy stories. 
  • There is a local Holy Rollers church — ragtime and tambourines in the church at night. A Holy Rollers church refers colloquially to Christian churches of the Pentecostal or Holiness type — the kind where there is a lot of singing, standing up, moving about and falling down. It can be used derisively but has also been reclaimed by members of these churches themselves. There’s also the more staid United Brethen Church, where they have the rummage sale.
CHARACTERS IN THIS STORYWORLD

Fictional small towns where nothing much usually happens almost always have a town gossip. Effie Wilcox is the town gossip in A Long Way From Chicago, “whose tongue is attached at the middle and flaps at both ends.” Cosy mysteries need town gossips because the (usually old ladies) who solve the mysteries don’t have easy ins at the local police station (though they’re often related somehow to a copper.) Likewise, kids benefit hugely from a town gossip — being kids, their main insight into the adult world comes from hearing adults talk. A variety of mysteries happen in each of these chapters and I initially expected Effie Wilcox to feature more prominently, but as it happens, Grandma herself somehow has her own ear to the ground.

Wolf Hollow also has a town gossip, as does Anne of Green Gables, in Rachel Lynde.

Also like Anne of Green Gables, A Long Way From Chicago features  a mouse in the food (milk, though planted). This must have been a reasonably common occurrence in rural areas before fridges and modern housing. The grandmother is a trickster archetype — a common character archetype beloved by audiences. She’s getting up to tricks like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, putting the mouse in the milk. I’m reminded of The Twits.

FOOD

They eat things like green beans and fatback for dinner followed by layer cake. For breakfast: pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions. See also: The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts.

Nehi is a type of orange pop sold for a nickel a bottle. There are also grapettes, Dr Peppers. 

nehi orange soda

Lack of refrigeration affects what they can eat. Food is home cooked and homegrown, especially at Grandma’s house, as she abhors spending money.

ENTERTAINMENT
  • Mary Alice is reading The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew mystery novel). The Nancy Drew stories are themselves mysteries, and Mary Alice’s interest in helping people out may have influenced her decision to harbour a runaway.
  • Tom Mix movies — an American actor well-known for his cowboy movies. Westerns were popular at this time — it wasn’t until after the world wars that Westerns turned into anti-Westerns.
  • Skipping ropes, skipping chants about presidents, puzzles of famous people. 
  • Tap dancing is popular with girls due to Shirley Temple.
DIALECT

Some of it is regional, some owing to the era.

  • Working like bird dogs
  • You’uns instead of y’all.
  • Throwed instead of thrown
  • Lit running means ‘started running’
  • Chilrun
  • Pecks of potatoes
  • Dagnab it
  • Stir yer stumps
  • ‘Specialty house’ equals a privy equals an outside toilet
  • Skin to the church and get their maw and paw.
  • One of the characters is called ‘Miz’, which at first looks like an unnecessary call to attention of the woman’s unmarriageability, but it’s no such thing — at that time in that part of America women were called ‘Miz’ So-and-so, and it was simply a respectful generic used traditionally. This applied to the American South and places like St Louis.

Family means what you need it to, here. Though Aunt Puss is no blood relation of Grandma’s, the grandchildren are, yet Grandma does not acknowledge to Aunt Puss that they are her own.

TIME

Peck’s treatment of time in this novel borrows from the Gothic tradition.

There are still people alive in this story who fought in the Civil War. It is clear from The River Between Us that Richard Peck’s reason for writing for children (or at least part of it), is to connect young readers to generations they’ve just missed out on knowing. As an older writer, this is something he can do for us. 

In A Long Way From Chicago, Aunt Puss exists as a link to this earlier era. Aunt Puss has dementia and hasn’t noticed the passing of time. She thinks Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice are all the same age.

This does something for the reader’s appreciation of time. A Long Way From Chicago was first published in 1998, so the young reader is about 3 generations younger than Joey, 5 younger than Grandma and 6 younger than Aunt Puss.

But here we all are, each of us a child at some point, each of us connected by this story. Scholars would use the word ‘chronotope’ to describe the treatment of time in literature. Below we have a good explanation of why the Gothic chronotope is particularly well suited to coming-of-age stories like Peck’s:

The Gothic chronotope is often a place, very often a house, haunted by a past that remains present. As a child grows, more and more experiences, good and bad, displace into memory, forming the intricate passages where bits of his or her past get lost, only to re-emerge at unexpected times. The child’s mind becomes a crowded, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible place at the same time as his or her body morphs in uncomfortable ways. […] Gothic motifs of the uncanny are particularly apt for the metaphorical exploration of the vicissitudes of adolescent identity. The uncanny emerges in the adolescent novels they explore to both highlight change and trigger it. It becomes a complex metaphor for the transition the characters undergo with respect to their place in their families and their family history. […] the Gothic also offers fertile ground to explore beyond the conventions of the family to the adolescent’s place in larger social and cultural constellations of identity The results can affirm psychological models of development of they can open those models of development up to scrutiny and critique.

The Gothic In Children’s Literature: Haunting The Borders

The expedition into the past is further extended in the Centennial Summer chapter, when the town lives in the past for a week and dresses in old-fashioned clothes. This is when Joey meets the very old man who apparently fought in the Mexican War. Joey can hardly believe it — the Mexican War was so long ago. Joey himself will be fighting in a war when he gets older. These experiences, where he meets people who have lived through similar events before him, will contribute to his understanding of why he is fighting.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

This novel could be considered a series of interconnected short stories. I wasn’t surprised to read that the first chapter began as a short story, but Richard Peck realised he could get a lot more mileage out of Grandma Dowdel, so continued writing. Because each chapter is a short story in its own right, it’s possible to break down the structure of each one separately — each has its own desire/plan/big struggle/self revelation sequence. Instead I’ll make some general observations.

SHORTCOMING

Grandma Dowdel comes across — at first — as a misanthropist. She keeps to herself, doesn’t seem to have any friends in town and is so good at lying and tricking that she seems to be on the sociopathic spectrum. Her mistrust of people seems her main shortcoming, shown in the first chapter by the Cowgill boys picking on her as a target, first shooting her letterbox, next hoping to steal her gun.

DESIRE

Grandma Dowdel is gradually revealed to be not a misanthropist but a kind-hearted person who fights for the little guy. She is probably something like INTJ on the Myers-Briggs.

Grandma wants to make the world a better place. At least, her little town. She does not want glory for doing so — she wants to be left alone to do her good deeds. These deeds in themselves give her purpose. Her reasons for doing these things come from within. Unlike the vast majority of rural Americans at that time, Grandma Dowdel is wholly unconnected to the local (Holy Roller) church.

Although Grandma is the main character of interest in this story, Joey himself undergoes the classic ‘doubling down of desire’ that you often see in stories when the main character is required to do something against their will. Joey does not want to spend summers with his grandmother in hillbilly county.

Is Illinois really hillbilly country?
‘Hillbilly’ towns are found in Appalachia (Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, East Central and Southeastern Ohio, Western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama).
However, another hillbilly region could be considered people residing in the Shawnee Forest region of Southern Illinois, or the Illinois Ozarks as they are called, and also South Central Missouri. This area starts around Rolla then heads southwest to Springfield and south into the Northern 2/3 of Arkansas.
The Ozarks and Appalachia are what make up the primary region of “hillbilly” country. Note that hillbillies are therefore not exclusive to the South, as they reside in a good chunk of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York.

But sure enough, when we get to almost the middle of the book, both he and his sister have changed their mind. They now both actively want in on these adventures with Grandma:

I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us,” Mary Alice said. It had taken her a while to come to that conclusion, and I had to agree. It reconciled us some to our trips to visit her. Mary Alice was ten now. I believe this was the first year she didn’t bring her jump rope with her. And she no longer pitched a fit because she couldn’t take her best friends, Beverly and Audrey, to meet Grandma. “They wouldn’t understand,” Mary Alice said.

We weren’t so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn’t noticed we looked forward to the trip.

— A Long Way From Chicago, Page 61 (out of 148 pages total).

This change in desire is marked with the odd snippet of dialogue in which Joey accidentally comes out with regional dialect.

In each chapter Richard Peck sets up the desire without telling us that’s what he’s doing. For instance, in The Phantom Brakeman the story opens with Joe and Mary Alice at The Coffee Pot enjoying a Nehi soda. We’re told these drinks cost exactly a nickel. We’re also told how hot it is, and that there’s no air-conditioning, and just plunging one arm into a barrel of water provides relief. Later, when Joe is asked to do something for a nickel, it’s very clear to us just how much Joe wants that drink. We didn’t know that the heat of summer and the price of the drink were going to be significant — at the time it seems like Peck is simply setting the scene.

OPPONENT

Everyone in town is against Grandma Dowdel.

There is the town gossip, the Cowgill boys in the second chapter, the policemen who want to keep drifters out of town, whereas Grandma wants to provide them with a good feed. Then there’s the comical opponent Rupert Pennypacker, who has made an excellent gooseberry pie.

“The Day Of Judgement” chapter also has Joey wanting something badly for the first time — to go for a ride in the plane at the Country Fair. He really wants his grandmother to win the pie competition because then he’ll have the opportunity.

PLAN

Each chapter is a new summer and a new vignette in which Grandma comes up against someone and wins the big struggle by hard work and wits.

Grandma is described as ‘a little grey shape, mouselike’. Mice are smart tricksters themselves. They may be depicted in children’s books as weak and helpless — most often as child stand-ins — but Richard Peck takes the reality of the mouse here when he compares the grandmother to one. Mice are small but they are very brave, and extremely resourceful. They’ve learnt to thrive around people, living on the edge of civilisation. The mouse is an extended metaphor for the grandmother.

As well as mice, Grandma is also associated with gooseberries. Being a sour fruit, the gooseberry is a motif for Grandma’s general demeanour. When Grandma dresses up for the fair, this is the human equivalent of adding sugar to a gooseberry pie to make it palatable.

This is Hillbilly county and from what I learnt reading Hillbilly Elegy, Grandma works by ‘Hillbilly justice’. She’ll lie, thieve, threaten, trick and practise hard to get what she wants. Since the law has their own selfish agenda, she’ll happily take things into her own hands.

BIG STRUGGLE

While each chapter has its own big struggle, the big struggles do not ascend in any approximation to a dramatic arc. Peck has used a variety of big struggle scenes, including slapstick falling from a window to threats with actual guns, but often it takes a less deadly tone.

ANAGNORISIS

Joey realises that he wants to become a fighter pilot, that his sister is growing into a woman, that things change even though children don’t want them to.

NEW SITUATION

Joey sees his grandmother (perhaps for the last time?) as his army train zooms past her house in the middle of the night. She has lit up her house like a Jack-o-lantern even though she is normally really stingy with lighting.

The full meaning of the title now becomes clear. “A Long Way From Chicago” refers to all the international places Joe will visit via plane during the war.

 

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death

In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance.

A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH BAKERY

STORY STRUCTURE OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

SHORTCOMING

Wallace has a kindly nature, and is perhaps a little over-optimistic. This blinds his view on reality. In a Courage The Cowardly Dog sort of character combo, it’s up to Gromit to save the day while his owner goes blithely about his everyday business. Wallace is basically Muriel. While Wallace wants cheese and hot pots all the time, Muriel likes a nice cup of tea. (No coincidence that Muriel is from the British Isles, even in an American cartoon series.) Isn’t it a shame that Wallace never met Muriel? Now they would’ve made a happy couple.

DESIRE

Wallace is a single man who readily falls in love with any attractive woman who crosses his path. He wants a pretty wife. (This is also his downfall because he keeps meeting the wrong women.)

OPPONENT

A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH PARK BENCH SCENE

This story has a romantic plot, so the romantic target is also the opponent in any romance. Here, the romantic opponent is also the villain.

Piella Bakewell is a hyper-feminized villain whose lipstick, elaborate hair-do and sausage-skin-tight dress work to tell us that she is not as she appears underneath. She is also a middle-aged woman who was thin in her youth, and has a vendetta against bakers because they bake all the delicious things which have made her fat.

I find this character and her storyline problematic. Femininity as artifice is a trope common throughout both fiction and real life. This is most clearly seen in stories (including reality TV shows and documentaries) featuring male-to-female transgender people. But it also applies to feminine cis-gendered women.

In our present system of gender, when drawing the lines between femininity and masculinity, we’ve positioned the latter as being the natural, stripped down, down-to-earth, nice and simple, no-frills, no-frivolity concept. We like to imagine that the masculine is just pragmatic and to the point, lacking in any unnecessary aesthetic considerations. We imagine it to be efficient and direct. Conversely, the feminine is believed to be artifice, an elaborate costume, all just poses and aesthetics and frivolous dalliance, wholly lacking in any pragmatic value. It’s an ornament, rather than a tool, and is anything but direct, instead regarded as endlessly complex, subtle, mysterious and intuitive. Full of uncanny, inscrutable excesses like feelings and beauty and style. The feminine is fey, precious, wild, unknowable. The masculine is rational, basic, objective, and ever so apparent.

FTB

While Wallace is stupid, any individual male character can be stupid, especially when it comes to love. This is not connected to hyper-masculinity. Wallace’s stupidity does say something about how men can be easily taken in when they fall in love, but this is provoked by the woman’s artifice. It started in the Garden of Eden.

At least since Biblical times, Women Are Liars is a cultural narrative from way back. Femininity As Artifice is a subtype of that idea.

As for the message about body shape, the whole story relies on the audience’s implicit knowledge that, for this middle-aged woman, putting on weight is one of the worst things that could happen. There is never any critique of this idea. Fatness is the joke. Specifically, female fatness. Wallace is allowed to glory in food to his heart’s content.

The thing is, this is a very clever story. The symbolism and the jokes work so well. It makes total sense that Piella would want to get rid of bakers — not only that, there’s a perfectly timed joke about getting a full ‘baker’s dozen’. The dough itself resembles doughy middle-aged people. Piella’s hyper-femininity works well as a ruse because pink, flowers and 1950s housewives are popularly considered the antidote to the masculinity of big struggles which take place in the outside world. Because this is all so clever, it’s can all be explained away. But a story is never just a story. This particular story relies heavily on worn-out sexist tropes.

On a less annoying note, Piella Bakewell has a little dog — a female who is a poodle. The poodle is a victim — a mute cute — and does what she can to help Gromit defeat their mutual opponent. I am grateful to the writers that Gromit and Fluffles do not end up an item, a la Milo and Otis and many other stories, where it seems the only truly happy ending for a boy character involves falling in love with a pretty girl character, even when the personalities are animalised children.

PLAN

It’s up to Gromit to save the day. Realising Piella’s evil plan, he is unable to talk owing to his being a mute dog, so he is left with no other choice but to research how to build a security machine. He frisks Piella at the door to their house with an airport security type thing. He confiscates her ladle. He has already locked away all the knives in the house.

BIG STRUGGLE

This is foiled with Piella cracks on Gromit bit her. Gromit is muzzled with a bread basket and chained to the sink.

GROMIT LOAF OR DEATH

Fortunately he has already set up a Rube Goldberg type machine to send her flying with a sack of flour on a string.

For a while it looks like the story is over, but we sense it’s not. How does the audience know that, after Wallace and Piella have first split up, that the story isn’t finished? What exactly is it that we’re sensing? If the story had ended there, there would have been insufficient build-up. A big struggle is a big struggle sequence. Sending Piella flying with one small sack of flour does not match the formidableness of the villain.

Piella arrives for a forced reunion and has bought a ‘cake’, which viewers know to be some sort of trap — is it poisoned? Is there a punching machine inside? We soon find out there’s a cartoon bomb — the big round ball with a single lit fuse.

LOAF OR DEATH BOMB

There is an extensive action scene in which the bomb is caught inside Wallace’s trousers. Gromit saves him by filling his trousers with dough.Jokes involving trousers and the exposure of bums are particularly funny to a middle grade audience. The bomb blows up but Wallace is saved. This is the exaggerated, comical final big struggle that viewers expect from a comedy which has already opened with masterful action sequences (the cycling downhill and the near death experience falling into the alligator pit).

LOAF OR DEATH BAKE O LITE BALLOON

ANAGNORISIS

Wallace seems to have a anagnorisis after the break up, sitting at the table drinking tea with Gromit, the Only Sane Dog in the room. There is no true anagnorisis because these are plot driven stories and we can’t have Wallace coming to his senses or there would be no more adventures to be had. When Wallace turns his attention back to food this is funny precisely because he has zero anagnorisis.

NEW SITUATION

Piella is thrown into the alligator pit, the one we saw earlier, which just so happens to exist nearby. Her vanity is her downfall. She has insisted on riding the advertising blimp despite being too heavy for it. The murder conveniently takes place off screen, down the well and out of view, but we know she’s been killed because the alligator burps.

As in every Wallace and Gromit story, Wallace soon turns his mind to food, the clock which runs his day.

The story ends with a setting sun.

LOAF OR DEATH STREET SCENE

Retro Kids’ Mystery Story Title Generator

Long Title

First, pick a number between 1 and 24.

Now pick two numbers between 1 and 55.

1. The Mystery Of The Old Bungalow
2. The Secret Of The Spooky House
3. The Clue Of The Broken Parrot
4. The Case Of The Black Cave
5. The Crime Of The Hidden Puppet
6. The Curse Of The Dancing Cat
7. Intrigue Of The Moonlit Scarecrow
8. The Haunting Of The Dark Dragon
9. Sign Of The Invisible Ghost
10. What Happened To The Fire Magician
11. The Story Of The Shrinking Footsteps
12. Adventures Of The Crooked Cipher
13. Night Of The Double Labyrinth
14. Day Of The Sky Maze
15. The End Of The Thirteenth Witch
16. Crusade Of The Underground Wizard
17. The Tale Of The Twin Dungeon
18. The Crime Of The Disappearing Pearl
19. The Search For The Black Treasure
20. Operation: Christmas Mountain
21. The Disaster Of The Dangerous Island
22. The Time Of The Murderous Crow
23. The Final Hours Of The Green-eyed Spider
24. Sabotage Of The Doggone Hand
25. Living Jungle
26. Cliff-top Stranger
27. Flaming Professor
28. Underground Thief
29. Scarred Claw
30. Secret Escapade
31. Musical Butterfly
32. April Fool’s Day Cat Burglar
33. Wedding Day Train Robbery
34. Sneaky Trouble
35. Flower Show Lighthouse
36. Museum Valley
37. Art Gallery Mess
38. Thanksgiving Disaster
39. Evil Floor
40. Fearsome Gold
41. Winking Silver
42. Blinking Boomerang
43. Moaning Mask
44. Muttering Chest
45. Sneezing Clock
46. Terrible Shed
47. Cranky Basement
48. Kidnapped Nightmare
49. Invisible Terror
50. Talking Pumpkin
51. Wandering Lair
52. Two-toed Trap
53. Nervous Slumber
54. Headless Smoke Screen
55. Melted Cauldron

 

Short Title

Pick two numbers between 1 – 55.

1. The Magician’s Secret
2. Ringmaster’s Sapphire
3. Crocodile’s Mother
4. Joker’s Silver
5. Spider’s Wedding
6. Werewolf’s Revenge
7. Viper’s Key
8. Monster’s Mansion
9. Stalker’s Summer Camp
10. Ghost’s Circus
11. Vampire’s Trumpet
12. Zookeeper’s Blues
13. Librarian’s Fright
14. Substitute Teacher’s Last Resort
15. Rogue’s Target
16. Stamp Collector’s Games
17. Dog’s Trail
18. Wolf’s Footsteps
19. Station master’s Island
20. Whale’s Cavern
21. Pigeon’s Lake
22. Master’s Mine
23. Shark’s Deathtrap
24. Mermaid’s Creep-show
25. Witchmaster’s Cabin
26. Scorpion’s Splutter
27. Phantom’s Tale
28. Skeleton’s Mirror
29. Owl’s Shadow
30. Warrior’s Twin
31. Pirate’s Brother
32. Professor’s Laugh
33. Shop keeper’s Knee
34. Monkey’s Father
35. Raven’s Scar
36. Chum’s Giggle
37. Wildcat’s Wail
38. Detective’s Helmet
39. Dinosaur’s Sister
40. Serpent’s Pyramid
41. Devil’s Mark
42. Apeman’s Siren
43. Millionaire’s Freighter
44. Zombie’s Arrow
45. Outlaw’s Bridge
46. Demon’s Flight
47. Kennel-keeper’s Journey
48. Smugglers’ Sting
49. Criminals’ Sock
50. Psychic’s Tunnel
51. Robot’s Ransom
52. Renegade’s Crime
53. Candy Striper’s Challenge
54. Rhino’s Vision
55. Trick-o’-treater’s Seven

 

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, the moon on this cover would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

Continue reading “Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study”

How Police Procedurals Are Different From Real Police Work

Police procedurals are the most popular subgenre of story worldwide. We have police procedurals such as The Wire, which has a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase of those who like mimesis in their fiction, but the fact is, cinéma vérité is pretty hard to follow if you’re trying to just relax and enjoy. Of course the audience knows that police procedurals are just stories, but after listening to a podcast interview with a retired Australian homicide detective I couldn’t help but think that writers of police procedurals might make more use of reality to no ill-effect. I’ve also been listening to In The Dark and watching a bunch of Forensic Files on Netflix.

PROCEDURAL REALITIES THAT DON’T WORK IN FICTION

  • Detectives work on more than one homicide at once.
  • Crime takes a very long time to solve — months, years, decades.
  • There are more people walking around guilty than there are innocent people in prison. It’s a very high bar, getting someone to prison.
  • Police are short on resources. They’re generally unable to put cars outside houses of witnesses who testify. Likewise, it sometimes happens that the police basically know who committed a crime but are unable to bring the case to court. The public like to think that in these cases the police are ‘keeping watch’ over this person in the community, but in reality the police don’t really have the resources to watch someone’s every move.
  • Corruption in the police isn’t the big problem it is in fiction because people who come into the police force for the wrong reasons tend to get weeded out in early career.
  • In lots of shows — Broadchurch springs to mind, another is True Detective — we see a big city cop get sent to a rural area for some reason. He’s probably some sort of renegade cop genius with personal issues. He has such an excellent nose for the job that he is able to solve these smalltown crimes no problem. He learnt his skillz in the city, you see, and brought all his knowledge of ‘real’ crime with him. It’s easy for us to assume, therefore, that smalltown cops are not as good at solving crimes as big city cops, or that the solve rate is better in the city. The opposite is true when it comes to the solve rate. There’s no evidence that city cops are better than rural cops or vice versa. The fact is, rural crimes are easier to solve. There are some obvious reasons for this. Namely, any witnesses are quite likely to have seen the criminal before and may even know the full name and where they live. Added to that, the criminals in small towns are pretty well known to police because there are fewer people and therefore fewer criminals. Small town cops therefore don’t need any big city cop coming in and telling them how to do their job better, showing them all up; any newcomer to a smalltown police department would actually be at a huge disadvantage, having to learn the criminal landscape from scratch.
  • Killing someone and placing the in their hands afterwards won’t make it look like a suicide, because it’s pretty clear to the forensic team when they find blood spatters on the gun where the hand should’ve been holding it.

REALITIES THAT WE MIGHT SEE MORE OF TO NO ILL-EFFECT

  • When a criminal is charged with homicide, the police offer support to the perpetrator’s family as well as to the victim’s family. Sometimes the perpetrator’s family accept support, other times they don’t want a bar of it.
  • Police officers are people people. They’re dealing with such a wide variety of people every day that they have to be. The messed up drunken loner is a fictional trope.
  • Specialists who do things such as criminal profiling don’t work full-time doing that thing. They are called in on contract, and will have another main job, say as an academic in psychology.
  • Different types of suspects need to be interviewed using quite different techniques. For example, a suspected pedophile needs to be treated sympathetically, with kid gloves. If the interviewing officer lets their disgust/temper get the better of them they’re likely to blow a confession.
  • When someone kills themselves with a gun they don’t tend to drop the gun. For some strange physiological reason they tend to grip the gun and hold onto it even after they are dead.