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How to Write Killer Fiction author Carolyn Wheat talks books

Carolyn Wheat talks about the inner lives of detectives, and her favorite books...

RV: In How To Write Killer Fiction you note a change in the psychology of mystery detectives to one where they must not only solve the crime but also solve their many personal problems. In contrast, characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Perry Mason attempted to solve other people’s problems without experiencing much personal anguish. What has brought about the popularity of the troubled detective theme?
CW: I think in part this is due to the intense self-exploration that the entire latter half of the twentieth century is known for. Why should the detective be the only one not on the analyst’s couch?
This shouldn’t, by the way, be attributed solely to a female influence in the detective genre. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is always re-examining his values and his Code – and finding them good, each and every time – and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and those guys from Mystic River are all heavily into personal growth through crime-solving.

In addition, it speaks to the progression of the detective story from those early, 1920’s puzzle mysteries with suspects who were little more than chess pieces to be moved around at the author’s whim, to crime novels with a lot more depth of character. Once you added fully dimensional human beings to the mystery, you couldn’t leave the detective as the only one made of cardboard.
Ultimately, there are two truths here: done well, this kind of thing adds immeasurably to the mystery; done badly, it screws it up beyond belief.
RV: You mention plenty of authors and titles in How To Write Killer Fiction including Robert Crais’ Hostage, Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, Thomas Harris, John Le Carre and Mary Higgins Clark’s A Cry in the Night. There is also a list, at the end, of books you recommend that are both entertaining and instructive in the art of writing mystery and suspense. Does the list include your favourite books of all time? Which are they and why? If not could you tell us what other books are your favourites from the same or different genres and why?

CW: Whew – what a question. My first favorite book, and I mean that quite literally because I was a very small child when I first had it read to me, was Margaret Wise Brown’s Wonderful Storybook. It was a Big Golden Book and my favorite story in it was about a little girl who received a steam shovel for Christmas. She went all over town rolling over people and turning them flat as pancakes. Then her parents gave her a steam shovel so she could shovel them up again and they’d be fine. I have no idea what this preference means to my later development, but I’m sure it’s highly significant. (In case the author’s name means nothing, she also wrote Goodnight Moon.)
I then fell in love with Betsy and Tacy, the heroines of many Maud Hart Lovelace books. Betsy wanted to be and later became a writer, so of course, I identified with her, as I did with Jo March.
Adult books: one of my favorites of all time is The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. I read it after seeing Camelot with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and it led me to a lifelong interest in things Arthurian. It’s an almost-perfect book in that every time you come to it, you get something you missed the last time. It deals in history, satire, social commentary, human emotion, and legend, all at the same time. Amazing.