Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Heart of Fiction

Michael Malone; photo from the Web

By Pat Browning

Some of my friends were disappointed when I wrote a mystery. For some reason they expected me to write “literature.” I was apologetic at first but I got over it.

Michael Malone, one of our great Southern writers, raised a few eyebrows when he wrote for the TV soap opera “One Life To Live” but there’s a man who knows what he’s doing. His letter on the mystery is so eloquent that I refer to it when I need a boost.

His short story “Red Clay” won the Edgar in 1997 and appears in Best Mystery Stories of the Century. His three acclaimed crime novels feature North Carolina police detectives Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum. Uncivil Seasons was published in 1983, Time's Witness in 1989 and First Lady in 2001.

The soap opera experience surfaced in one of his novels. In 2005 he co-wrote a thriller spoof, The Killing Club, with “Marcie Walsh.” It was published by Hyperion, but there is no Marcie Walsh. She’s a fictional character from “One Life to Live.”

There’s a lengthy, wide-ranging and fascinating interview with Malone in January Magazine online. In it he talks about his writing, past, present and future, and writing in general. You can read it at

Michael Malone first came to my attention when I bought an Advanced Reading Copy of First Lady at a library book sale. The ARC included Malone’s Letter on Mysteries. For reasons known only to the publisher, the letter was omitted when Sourcebooks, Inc. published the novel in 2002. Fortunately I had saved the letter in My Documents, and here it is.


A Letter from Michael Malone On Mysteries

We think of a "mystery novel" as a book with a murder in it. But all stories, like all lives, are mysteries. We listen to stories to meet strangers and learn their plots. What happened before, what happens next? We are private eyes searching for clues to our connections. Safe in fiction, we are testing our hearts.

Huckleberry Finn is a murder mystery in which the young hero fakes his own death and learns of his own father's murder. Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery in which the detective discovers that he himself is the killer. Who did it? How was it done? And most of all, why was it done? The heart of fiction is always to get at the secrets.

Because murder is the highest crime against our shared humanness, it is to murder that the community responds most collectively and dramatically. We search, we unleash the law, we expose and expel the violator. What could be better for a storyteller than a world of such secrets, such discoveries, such consequences? (It is no coincidence that there is a murder mystery in almost every one of Dickens's novels.)

American detective fiction was fathered in the South by Poe and Twain, and has carried that strong heritage through Intruder in the Dust and To Kill a Mockingbird to the novels of my contemporaries. To solve murders, detectives must unearth all the buried social and familial entanglements that led to the crimes. Hiding secrets, digging them up -- it's a Southern tradition. The roots of our lives are tangled deep in a shared rich and painful past that is always struggling up out of its grave to haunt us.

I think that readers today turn to the "mystery" because they can find there the kind of storytelling they once found in general fiction. I turn to the mystery for the same reason. When you write a murder mystery, you enlarge your canvas beyond the relational and domestic, beyond the intimate confines of many modern novels. You move your story into a public realm where plots have moral and political and social dimensions, where private acts have consequences beyond the personal. In short, you bring in a world.

End Quote.


Chester Campbell said...

Interesting take on the mystery, Pat. It takes us out of the microcosm of the familial into a broader world.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I love the letter from Michael Malone on mysteries. Readers like to be involved in solving puzzles and sorting out the mysterious aspects of a plot. And as long as we play fair with our readers, they're going to be more than satisfied at the conclusions of our books.

Helen Ginger said...

I like that letter. Thank you for sharing it. The murder in a mystery goes beyond the killing. A mystery, in fact, may not even involve a killing.

Straight From Hel

Anonymous said...

Jean and Helen:

Thanks for your comments.
I never cease to be grateful that I saved Malone's letter, never knowing that it would be omitted in the published version of FIRST LADY.

I drag Malone's letter out periodically, to refresh my memory, refresh my outlook, and inspire me all over again.

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

Oops, Chester:
Somehow I missed your comment. Thanks!