The Challenges of Storytelling
By: Nev March
I’m reading Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and just like that, a line had me tearing up.
What was the line? A cop tells Philip Marlowe that he’s been wasting his time trying to clear the name of his dead friend Terry Lennox. He says, “And he wasn’t much of a man.”
Marlowe’s reply: “What’s that got to do with it?”
Ah, so poignant! What does it matter if the fellow was a lush, a weak, polite, charming, old-fashioned stoic? What if he did take the blame for a murder he didn’t commit and run away to draw suspicion to himself? Did he obligingly leave a confession and commit suicide to clear someone he might once have loved?
But Marlowe wouldn’t have it. He keeps gnawing away and figuring, and poking about to get at the truth, even though he won’t make much cash on it, after all, the client’s already dead. So why does he do it?
Why? Because of a sense of fair play, of decency, and the support one gives to a friend, even a drunk, even a dead friend who used to be a drunk. That’s worth a few tears, because it leaves us thinking that such people might just exist. We read and watch TV for those stories.
Now, have you ever found yourself chatting about television series with a friend… and can’t recall the show you just watched? Perhaps you saw two entire seasons, but its name escapes you. Why?
For my example, I’ll flay Perfume, a German TV series that I made the mistake of watching to the end. To start, Nadja Simon is the only woman in a tough police squad. I like that. She’s subject to the usual smirks and put downs and her suggestions are ignored, but she perseveres. Okay, I’m in. Then a twist: she’s madly in love with the Police Chief, who’s married and has no intention of leaving his wife and kids. Hmm, major character flaw. I’m still along for the ride.
Then a woman is killed and her body is found strangely mangled. “Hate looks different,” says Nadja. Okay, I’m engaged. That’s a great line. Through the next six episodes we watch Frau Simon sluggishly investigate a group of adults who were once a teenage cult-like gang. Old enmities surface, and the discovery of abuse. More bodies are discovered, each with those strange markings that indicate the removal of sweat ducts. Weird yes, but that’s interesting, in a macabre sort of way. So, what’s the problem?
The trouble with the plot is two-fold. First, the murderer revealed at the end makes no sense. Though introduced earlier, this character seems to have no real motive for the earlier crimes, but only for the final one. This suspect seems to be chosen simply to dazzle us with an unexpected ending.
Alas, plot holes abound: If she killed a cop at the end, where’s her gun? Why not use it on Nadja too?
Motivation for the older crime lacks credibility. If Elena, an orphan, killed a child to “steal” his mother as her foster parent, then how come her own father is alive 20 years later? Can she be adopted as a teen, despite having a living parent? Is this realistic for Germany?
But the most disappointing flaw is the lack of a character arc. Nadja is needy and clingy at the start, desperately begging her lover to leave his wife. That’s okay for the story opening, we can bear with her inability to notice other individuals who might have more depth than the boss, and who seem more than interested in her.
Alas, at the end she’s still clinging to a man who doesn’t want her, still desperate to draw his interest, even to the point of wearing the bra of a victim who had a ‘sexy’ scent. Ugh.
It left me wishing I’d done something else with my time, like cleaning out my garage. Yes, the motive was clever, an obsession with creating a perfume that makes everyone love the wearer, an end the villain considered loftier than art, something this perfumer believes is more sublime, and therefore worth the death of a few women.
In this ultimate commoditization of women’s bodies distilled down to their smell which can be transferred and monetized, we hear the echoes of a social comment, but they are distant and lost to the shock value of the crime show. A clever provocative premise, but one that has no heart. Remember the show you watched but couldn’t remember the name of? Did it have similar flaws?
How does one balance a provocative premise, which also reveals a heart-breaking truth and bares who we are and what we strive for? No one said it would be easy.
In my historical mystery Peril at the Exposition, young newlywed immigrant Diana is puzzled, then increasingly worried when her detective husband is sent to Chicago to investigate a murder, and she receives no word as the weeks pass. The story weaves in social upheaval and gender roles as Diana
uncovers unpleasant realities in the power structure of the gilded age. The alternating first person point of view gives readers both Diana and Captain Jim’s perspectives as they try to avert a looming disaster. The ticking clock forces Diana to step out of her familiar environment into a dangerous world which constantly challenges her judgement.
There’s also the fact that couple-hood is new to both Diana and Captain Jim, so there’s lots to learn and misunderstand and discover about each other. Readers of my debut mystery Murder in Old Bombay will notice that Captain Jim continues the pattern of his investigation using disguises to infiltrate possible suspect groups. However, when seen from a woman’s point of view this has a startlingly different impact. Under all this, readers will glimpse Diana’s own struggles to assimilate, treading the emotional journey of an immigrant who strives to learn what makes their new home worthy and worthwhile.
As the Michael Connelly quote goes, “The best crime novels are not about how a detective works on a case; they are about how a case works on a detective.” We can only try!
Nev March is the first Indian-born author to receive the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Award for Best First Crime Fiction. Her debut novel, Murder in Old Bombay was nominated for six national awards including the Edgar and Anthony awards. Nev’s books deal with issues of identity, race and moral boundaries.
The New York Times listed Murder in Old Bombay as one of the “Best crime novels of 2020”. Nev has appeared on NPR, and been featured in Mystery Tribune, Mystery Scene Magazine, CrimeReads, BookPage, DearReader, The History Reader and other publications.
After a long career in business analysis, Nev returned to her passion of writing fiction and now teaches creative writing at the Rutgers-Osher Institute. A Parsee Zoroastrian, Nev lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Her sequel, Peril at the Exposition is published by Macmillan.
Visit her website at NevMarch.com