For example, at the outset Marlowe is summoned by a wealthy crotchety old woman to recover a vintage coin. During their first exchange, in her crotchety way, the lady defends her wine drinking and snaps, “It’s medicine for my asthma.” In turn, Marlowe narrates, I swung a leg over my knee hoping it wouldn’t hurt her delicate condition. At this point, it was clear that Marlowe would always be a wise-guy, whoever he encountered would be typecast, and there would be no one for the reader to identify with. Whatever happened was scripted and never involved the interplay of self-generating human beings with all their flaws and contradictions.
In contrast, in his first detective novel The Big Sleep, Chandler’s Marlowe was changeable: by turns wised up, hopeful, thoughtful, adventurous, sentimental, cynical and rebellious. Moreover, there was the sense that Marlow was keenly aware that pain hurt, life really mattered, and you never knew what you were going to run into. He found himself immediately taken with his client the General, a dying millionaire with “only a few locks of dry white hair clinging to his scalp,” a man who spoke slowly, “carefully using whatever strength he had left.” It seems that one of the General’s unpredictable and troublesome daughters was being blackmailed. In addition, he’d lost touch with a dear friend and wished to clear up both these loose ends before he passed away. Soon enough, the reader comes upon intimations of kidnapping, pornography, seduction and murder as a number of characters, working at cross-purposes, send the action winging in different directions.
Arguably, the prototype for freewheeling characters in detective fiction is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In this edgy, breakthrough novel there’s always a subtext beneath the surface behavior. As Sam Spade endeavors to catch the person who killed his partner Miles Archer during a stakeout, Spade runs into a trio of colorful characters like Brigid O’Shaughnessy who is so deceitful, she seems to be lying even when she may be telling the truth and leaves Spade perplexed to the point of even falling in love with her.
Years later, and by extension, the playwright Edward Albee confided to a handful of us graduate students that he’d had a problem with his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The circumstances centered on a jaded couple he called George and Martha, stuck in a small New England college campus, who’d invited a newly arrived younger couple over for fun and games. The payoff, Albee assumed, was the outlandish behavior this setup would unleash. However, reaching an impasse, he realized the results were actually flat and predictable. Soon enough, George and Martha imaginatively came to him and threatened to quit if he didn’t back off. In truth, the pair of them claimed, they were not only unpredictable, they had deep dark secrets percolating underneath and all hell would burst loose if, and only if, he’d let go of his outline and set them free. Albee complied and the fresh and compelling results can be seen in the movie version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The possible link with the Falcon may stem from the influence the volatile playwright and longtime companion Lilian Hellman had on Hammett’s view of characterization. Admittedly, that’s just a notion.
On a more modest and personal note, I recently attended a book fair in New York and, at the same time, was having trouble with my crime novel Murder Run. The story centers on a laconic handyman named Jed who’d been falsely accused of the untimely death of a woman he’d been working for in the Connecticut hills, a choreographer who had a studio in New York who’d taken a hiatus for her health. Jed had good reason to believe the real culprit was a mobster who drove down the night in question and then took off back to the mean streets. Eventually Jed found himself in New York completely at a loss. At the same time, there I was, sauntering around the Little Italy section on a bright spring morning when I ran into a stocky character who called himself Johnny Diamonds and announced, “This is my territory, man.” Then a fourteen-year-old scamp named Angie came along and said, “If you’re lost, mister, I can show you around for a little coin.” I began to see that this tough little girl could be developed into Jed’s sidekick and guide, a figure like Johnny Diamonds could be the key to the world of the local Mafia, and anything could happen as Jed proceeded down this path.
Perhaps the novelist E.L. Doctorow put it best when he said that writing fiction was like driving at night with only the headlight beams to guide you. You know where you’re headed but have no idea of the turns you’ll make, who you’ll meet along the way, and what influence they’ll have on your journey.
For my part, after I create an intriguing springboard and open-ended structure, I rely on a set of vital characters to surprise me and keep me going. Or, as Rilke, the Bohemian novelist and poet wrote, “All art is the result of being in danger, of going as far as one can go and beyond.”