My second master’s program was mostly on-line with two one-week residencies on campus per year, but that one week was so packed with intrigue and drama and mental illness; it was like setting up and taking down a circus tent, twice a year. I’ve been thinking about writing a mystery set there, because the campus becomes like a small town, with a lot of viable suspects and a ticking clock. The characters are vivid and verbal and often jealous and unpredictable. And then there’s the irony of setting a mystery in an environment where they look down on genre writing, and mysteries in particular.
But I struggle with mystery plots in the same way I struggled with chess as a kid. My father expected me to learn the strategy just by watching him play, and expected me to be a grand master within a few days, maybe a week. I felt stupid for not being able to think three moves ahead; I didn’t understand why one piece was more valuable than another, or why each piece had different rules; and I felt an undeniable empathy with the pawns, because they were small, like me, and easily sacrificed.
Despite reading endless mysteries, and reading endless books on how to write mysteries, I do not even know where to start. I went through a severe addiction to Rex Stout and Agatha Christie that has never really ended, I just ran out of new material to feed it. Lately I’ve been reading Deborah Crombie, Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Donna Andrews, Henning Mankell, J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith, Louise Penny and Charles Todd. I want to be Sherlock Holmes, with a nicer disposition. But so far, my brain has not rewired itself into puzzle-solving-mode.
My other possible mystery setting is my synagogue. I’d love for the sleuth to be an eighty-year-old woman, or a middle-aged rabbi, or both of them together. And the senior citizens in the bible study class (retired doctors, and lawyers, and teachers, and social workers) could help decipher the clues. But I worry it might seem as if I’m writing about specific people, and that could get me into trouble.
My mystery would, of course, have to have a dog in it. Even a fictional dog calms me down, reduces my stress level, and reminds me about what’s important and what isn’t. There could be a German shepherd who is more wayward puppy than officious guard dog (I couldn’t train even a fictional dog to be well behaved. I just don’t have it in me); there could be a yapping Yorkie biting at the criminal’s ankle to slow him down; or a sweet Great Dane sitting by her dead owner’s side; or a black Lab sniffing for clues and finding the murder weapon under a pile of leaves.
I used to think about using Cricket as my detective and writing a children’s mystery. Cricket would make a wonderful Sherlock Holmes; she’d even look good in the hat. She has all of the characteristics of the irascible, obnoxious detective who doesn’t get along with other people, but she would be a terrible police dog, not at all reassuring to the populace.
I’d love to write a detective like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. I’ve watched every episode of that show, at least three times. She is smart and stands her ground, but she’s had many disappointments in life, including never having children of her own, like me. She’s unassuming and uncool, and has to stand her ground against people who don’t believe her, but she doesn’t doubt herself or what she saw, or what she deduced. She’s friendly with everyone but doesn’t mind confrontations when necessary.
My detective would not be quite like that. She would need to take naps, first of all, and she’d have trouble with heights, and social anxiety. She’d have to sit down a lot, and maybe she’d need a driver. So, a female Nero Wolfe, but, again, with a nicer disposition.