by Jan Burke
An all-star gathering of mystery writers debates recent developments in the mystery…and agrees on at least one eternal truth.
The sound of something being pushed through the slot usually fills me with pleasant anticipation. Like one of Skinner’s pigeons–dancing around in a box, hoping the gyrations will result in a handful of grain–I run to the front door hoping for a letter, a contract, or a check, even though I know the odds are in favor of a catalog, an advertisement or a bill.
This time, there was no running, no hope–only unease. After all, it was almost midnight. An increase in postal rates couldn’t account for night owl delivery. Wrapped in a bathrobe, a pair of oversized slippers on my feet, I padded my way to the front door. A small, flat packet waited on the carpet. I opened it.
A floppy disk. And on it, crudely marked in felt pen, these words: If you boot it, they will come.
“I don’t need this!” I said. “I’m on deadline!” No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than I realized I had a tradition to uphold: procrastinate. I hurried to the computer and fed the disk into the drive.
The drive whirred. Suddenly, the office lights went out, leaving only the screen to provide illumination. When the lights came back on, an elderly woman appeared before me. She was carrying a bag of apples.
“My dear,” she said in a refined British accent, “I don’t mean to frighten you, but it is of the utmost importance that we discuss your work in progress.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Agatha Christie. Dame Agatha to you.”
“What an honor. Your books were some of the first mysteries I read.” She smiled and nodded. “Thank you.”
“Why are you here?”
“To warn you about your victims.”
“Exactly. Too likable by half.”
“But Ms. Christie, things have changed. Publishers relented on the rule about despicable victims some time ago. The tradition is not abandoned–a long-running television series comes to mind–but other options are available now.”
“Hmm. We’ll get back to that. Now, about your protagonist, Irene Kelly. Not ladylike at all!”
“She would be the first to admit it.”
“And she’s…she’s…well, no better than she ought to be!”
“What do you mean, Dame Agatha?”
“Oh, that’s another rule that’s been relaxed. Detectives need not be virgins–“
“You tell her, baby!” a whiskey-and-rye voice said.
“Dashiell Hammett!” I said in wide-eyed amazement.
“At your service,” he said, sketching a bow. “Allow me to introduce another friend–we get mentioned together so often, we decided to pal around for a couple of days.” He glanced toward a gent in a suit and round eyeglasses. “Meet Ray Chandler. Maybe he’d be happier with you, Aggie–old Philip Marlowe had sex about as often as Miss Marple.”
“Sex!” Dame Agatha declared. “Who wants to read about sex!”
“Write about a mid-life affair in the Midwest,” Chandler grumbled, “and you might stay on a bestseller list for a couple of years.”
Hammett wandered over to my bookcase, pulled out a worn copy of a short story collection and smiled. “You read Chandler’s essay?”
“‘The Simple Art of Murder?’ Many times,” I said. “‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…'”
Hammett laughed. “As if you ever walked down them, Chandler.”
“I worked in the oil business, remember?” Chandler said defensively. “So did I,” I said.
“You did?” the men said in unison. “A woman?” I nodded. “Times have changed. Take Chandler’s quote. ‘Down these mean streets a man–or woman–must go.’ And while few protagonists are actually mean these days, they are sometimes tarnished–
“And afraid,” Chandler said accusingly. “Your protagonist shows fear.”
“Yes, sometimes she’s afraid, but fortunately she’s nosy and mule-headed, too.”
“Things aren’t what they used to be,” Dame Agatha said, sighing. “Well, that’s not entirely true. In most of our books, justice still triumphs; if it doesn’t, well, at least the protagonists put up one helluva fight. And readers still want us to play fair with them. We have more options now, but…” I paused and looked over to my bookshelves, each shelf three rows deep in mysteries. “The biggest advantage I had as a mystery writer is right up there on the shelves. I’ve read your works. Yours and many others–is Ross Macdonald lurking in there, by the way? Dorothy L. Sayers? Margery Allingham? Cornell Woolrich? Arthur Conan Doyle, perchance?”
“Yes, they’re around,” Hammett said. “They’ll drop by later. Why you’d want to hear from a moody bird like Woolrich, I’ll never know.”
“I’m indebted to all of you. Mystery is changing. There are new choices available to us. Our victims can be likable or unlikable. Our sleuths come from all sorts of backgrounds, have all sorts of jobs. They can be found in more places than the English country house or the alley behind the gin joint. They don’t have to talk tough, but it’s okay if they do. They don’t have to be loners–“
“Or virgins!” Hammett said.
“But they can be!” Dame Agatha said.
“Yes,” I said. “Anything. Even cats, dogs, and ghosts solve mysteries now.”
This statement brought on a new round of debate. Soon other writers arrived. The discussion became noisy and heated. I desperately sought a topic which would unite them. I cleared my throat and the room fell silent. “Just wondered,” I said, “if any of you were paid an adequate advance on your last book?”
Some things never change.
Buy Jan Burke Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Selected Irene Kelly Mysteries By Jan Burke
- Good Night, Irene by Jan Burke (1993; series debut)
- Dear Irene by Jan Burke (1995)
- Remember Me, Irene by Jan Burke (1996)
- Hocus by Jan Burke (1997)
- Liar by Jan Burke (1998)
- Bones by Jan Burke (1999)
Jan Burke is the award-winning author of the Irene Kelly series and numerous mystery short stories. Her newest book is Bones. Her short story “Two Bits” is currently nominated for an 1999 Anthony Award.