Thursday, July 7, 2011

Relating Classic Mythology to Today's Mysteries by Thomas Kaufman

I love private eye stories. As a teenager I read Raymond Chandler and knew, then and there, that I wanted to write a detective story. The result was DRINK THE TEA, and now the sequel, STEAL THE SHOW.

What was it about Chandler's book that appealed to me? Well, in one way it seemed that Marlowe was a romantic. There's poetry in him, and a great sense of humor. Though he's a bit jaded, he still knows right from wrong. When he has to, he puts his life on the line. He's an individualist, irreverent, an investigator who left the police due to insubordination. Plus, he's good at what he does. Very good.

Years ago Joseph Campbell recorded a series of conversations with Bill Moyers and George Lucas. Campbell, as you probably know, wrote extensively about myth, and how myths inform our writing today. (Check out Campbell's book, HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.) Lucas, who created the STAR WARS saga, was a devotee of Campbell's.

But myth structure is not only for science fiction. When we look at Raymond Chandler, we see how he uses the story of the knight-errant. (In fact, before he settled on the name of Marlowe, Chandler had called his private eye Mallory, the same name as the author who wrote MORTE D'ARTHUR.) And Chandler's private-eye-as-knight-errant goes forward to this day.

So, what's a knight-errant? They are warriors, highly skilled, who travel the countryside. They are knights who may or may not have a king to command them. They are men (and these days, women) who look for trouble. Who were some of the famous knight-errants?

Sir Gawain
Sir Lancelot
Amadis de Gaula
Don Quixote

The Ronin of Japan can fit into this category of hero, (the Japanese film by Kurosawa, YOJIMBO, based on the Hammett novel RED HARVEST) as well as the American cowboy (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, based on YOJIMBO – talk about coming full circle!).

Are there modern equivalents to the knight-errant?

At the Indiana Bouchercon I had a pleasant conversation with Lee Child, and we talked about myth and its importance in writing. Mr Child talked about the myth of the knight-errant, and its impact on his writing about Reacher, a warrior and a loner, who wanders the countryside, righting wrongs, and rescuing fair maidens. Sound familiar?

I see my private eye, Willis Gidney, as a knight errant. For me, the journey of the hero is a means of self-discovery. This is one of the changes in modern detective stories – that the mystery to be solved is not exclusively that of the detective's client, but also, in part, that of the detective him/herself. That, instead of the private eye as an immutable character, she/he changes over time, grows, and maybe even learns something.

I think Tony Hillerman did a wonderful job when he wrote about Navajo Tribal Policemen Leaphorn and Chee – you can see them progress and change from book to book. There's a psychological variant on the detective story: in the film LETHAL WEAPON, the detective is suicidal, but over the course of the story learns to overcome (some of) his self-destructive tendencies. In THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION, Holmes must rid himself of cocaine addiction, while solving a baffling case.

When I write about the private eye in STEAL THE SHOW, I'm writing about a guy who had been abandoned as a child. His first six years of life are a blank. And this affects his actions, the cases he takes, the reasons for doing what he does. You and I might not go down the paths Gidney travels but, as the writer, it's my job to help you understand why Gidney chooses certain paths over others.

How about your hero? Can you relate him or her to this classic myth?

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Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July. His blog tourcontinues this week at Murderati, Gelati's Scoop, and Spinetingler Magazine.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Tom,

Thank you for joining us at The Thrill Begins. As a writer of romantic fiction (with a decided dark side), my heroes are definitely the knight errant sort. They're driven by the need to protect the heroine.

Looking forward to reading STEAL THE SHOW!


Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Tom!

Thanks for the great post. STEAL THE SHOW sounds fabulous. Congrats!

jenny milchman said...

I love Campbell's book, and relating this structure to contemporary works is so interesting. Congrats on your debut!

Thomas Kaufman said...

Tracey, thanks for hosting.

Joelle, glad you enjoyed the post. Let me know what you think of STEAL!