Bill Petrocelli

Solved: The Mystery of the Mystery Seller who became a Mystery Writer

Mystery Fanfare wanted to know how a bookseller decides to become a book writer. With this group, I know I am in good company. The Berkeley-base Mystery Fanfare Magazine claims to be “the largest mystery fan/reader organization in the world with members in all 50 of the United States and 18 foreign countries.” Members vote each year to nominate and select the winners of the Macavity Award. I know I had to come up with an airtight alibi for my decision to be a writer.

Let me introduce you to Julia Moro, the Security Director for the revitalized United Nations. At the moment – which happens to be 2082 – she is trying to foil a terrorist plot against the U.N.Yes, I’ve now joined the thriller-writing ranks.

The Circle of Thirteen is now sharing space at Book Passage with the hundreds of other mysteries on our shelves. I’m happy to be in such good company. I’ve been hanging around with mystery writers for so long, it’s inevitable that a lot of their ideas would have rubbed off on me. The real question is: why did it take so long?

The Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference is now entering its 20th year. During that time we’ve welcomed more than 600 mystery writers as faculty members. (We’ve also welcomed over 1,500 attendees to those conferences, many of whom have gone on to be published mystery writers. And some of them, have come back as faculty members. But that’s another story). And if you add in the hundreds of mystery writers who stop by the store each year for author events, you end up with many, many hours that we’ve spent thinking and talking about perps, vics, wits, and all the other staples of crime-writing.

That sampling of mystery writers is probably big enough for a statistician – even an amateur statistician, like me – to draw some conclusions. First, mystery writers are nice people. Sure, there are lots of other nice people in the world, but mystery writers are nicer than most. If this were a bell-curve, they’d mostly be huddled over on the right side. And there’s a pleasant corollary to that: mystery writers make good faculty members. They’re easy to work with and willing to share ideas with students.

There’s a theory what could explain this: mystery writers spend so much time getting their aggressions out on paper and channeling the nasty parts of their psyche through their villains, that they are perfectly pleasant when it’s all over. It seems valid to me.

Here’s another generality about mystery writers: they don’t horse around with inconsequential stuff. Good mystery writing is visceral. That’s not just because of the blood, the gore, or – pardon the expression – the viscera described at the scene of the crime. Rather, it is visceral because the language of mysteries is usually specific and tactile, being rooted in characters, situations, details, and clues. Good mystery writers adhere to the dictum of the late, great Elmore Leonard: “Leave out the part readers skip.” In a good mystery, the tension doesn’t wander off in extraneous directions. It’s the kind of writing I like to read.

But is it the kind of writing I could write? That was the challenge I was up against when I began The Circle or Thirteen. The idea behind the story was to take a look at the changing role of women in our society by setting the story a few decades into the future. I wanted the scenes to be close enough to the present to seem relevant, but I didn’t want them so close that readers would expect me to fill in all the missing details (“Who wins the next election?” “How’s the market doing?” “What does the next IPhone look like?”). Readers might think they want that, but those types of scenes would quickly run afoul of Elmore Leonard’s dictum. Readers would skip them and be annoyed with me for even tempting them to read them.

There were other problems as well. Telling such a story in a linear fashion, like a family saga, would force me to make up all kinds of extraneous, intervening detail that would even put me to sleep. The plot would have all the tension of yesterday’s noodle soup.

In the end I employed a plot device used to great success by the British crime writer Robert Wilson in A Small Death in Lisbon. Wilson won a Gold Dagger for that great mystery novel in 1999. In it, he employed two narratives – one a contemporaneous story that was compressed within a few days; the other an historical tale stretching over 40 or so years. As the historical narrative inevitably caught up with the contemporary one, the tension was ratcheted up.

And that brings me back to Julia Moro, as she tries to protect the United Nations. While she is focused on foiling a terrorist plot, the history of the last several decades is beginning to close in on her. She’d love to tell you about everything she is going through.