Looking to the Past for Plots and Originality

A few years ago I was on a panel to talk about creativity and originality, and we were asked to describe the great, original works of our mystery genre. I thought at once of Oedipus the King, who with hubris and anger, strides forth to disprove the prophesy that he’ d kill his father and bed his mother–only to discover that he himself is the murderer. Of course he gets his comeuppance. After his wife Jocasta hangs herself by her hair, he blinds himself with her gold brooches and is led off to a hell of darkness and torment.

I love the chorus of old men who comment on the tragic situation, offering warnings and advice. There is also a lot of plain old detective-like questioning and interviewing: “Is there anyone to whom I should sooner speak?” Until the inexorable ending when Oedipus has to self-convict!

I borrowed this plot myself in a short story when someone digs up the ashes of a 4000-year-old mummy. The cemetery sexton, whose child was buried in a Haitian mudslide, interviews a group of suspects, then discovers that she stole them in her sleep-walk. But the greatest and most original use of the plot was by the Russian writer Dostoevsky in his psychological novel Crime and Punishment. We know from the start that Raskolnikov is the murderer–and then discover that he was, as well, his own detective. His urge to kill was overwhelming, but so was his need to confess, and thereby punish himself.

I suspect we’ve all borrowed bits of plot from 19th-century Edgar Allen Poe, particularly from his short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” again told in the POV of the villain himself. I’ve written on occasion from the killer’s viewpoint, but never a complete story! The wicked narrator even tells us why he is walling up his prey: because of the “thousand injuries” his friend Montresor inflicted on him–and the latest “insult.” Stone by stone, Fortunato walls Montresor up with friendly talk, and this time we don’t see the murder coming until it happens. A brilliant bit of suspense with no detective at all on the case! And unlike Oedipus and Raskolnikov, with no punishment.

Have your villains ever gone free? I think of Patricia Highsmith, whose amoral Tom Ripley escapes justice in at least five novels. Who can forget the terrifying Strangers on a Train? I’ve mostly stuck to the conventional retribution, but in Harvest of Bones, I had four people involved in a killing and let two of the more “accidental” offenders through the police net, yet still examining their consciences.

Undoubtedly Highsmith had read and, to a degree, emulated the fiction of Dostoevsky. Almost all his novels involve murder, and The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest, deals with parricide. The passionate Dmitri Karamazov threatens openly to kill his feckless father who has not only been abusive, but is trying to steal away his son’s true love. The father is indeed murdered, but someone (I won’t be a spoiler here) killed the man at a time when all the evidence would point to Dmitri.

I think most of us leave our novels with the villain’s downfall and just before a trial. At least I do–especially when the case seems clear-cut. But Dmitri’s trial is told, not only from his own viewpoint, but through long speeches by both prosecutor and defense attorney. The latter’s speech is insightful as he intuits the truth of Dmitri’s innocence, “proving” in his own way that there was no robbery (after all, no one saw it), and even no murder. Spectators and readers are convinced of Dmitri’s acquittal. But the jury, composed largely of peasants who hate their landowners, pronounce him guilty. And Dmitri is condemned to hard labor in Siberia.

How many of us allow an innocent protagonist to suffer in this way? Would our readers and editors repudiate us?

A multi-voiced novel, too, is harder to pull off, because one must give each character a distinctive voice and personality. In Dostoevsky we have layers of text echoing other voices (like a Greek chorus), all commenting on one another. Surely many writers have tried this, as I have. Such fun to get inside all those heads! The downside of course, is that some readers find this switch of viewpoints a challenge to read.

Many of us, like Dostoevsky, use our own life experience in our books. His father was allegedly murdered by his serfs, and his son felt guilty because of his absence at the time. Then in Siberia where he himself was sent because of an early brush with socialism, he met a convict who was falsely accused of killing his father. So real-life guilts, angers, and passions poured into his novels, as they inevitably must do in ours, as we look to our own pasts for our plots.




13 Responses

  1. I love reading observations from your (enviable) background in the classics! I find myself using my own experiences and hope simply that I haven’t used the same one in an earlier book!

    • Thanks, Camille. You commented at 01:28? Good heavens, what a night owl! Anyway, I guess it is a problem to write so many books that one might re-use an “experience.” Although the same experience can be recycled in myriad ways, through a host of characters, can’t it? So I doubt you’ve anything to worry about!

      • More like 10:28 PM, Nancy! I’m in the PST zone. It’s now 6:27 AM (I think) 🙂 And you’ve made my morning with your comment as I recycle a motive from a previous book.

  2. Reading the classics is a great way to prepare for writing our own work. Since we are unique individuals, we bring our new perspective to old stories. Makes for great reading.

    • I wholly agree, Jacquie. I’ve learned so much from my re-reading of Dostoevsky. I’d read him in college, but decades later bring my new perspective/ life experience to his work. And he is a master of psychological suspense. Such insights into the criminal mind!

  3. Nancy, your post stirred memories of classics I’ve always loved. I also believe our current perspectives can only add to previously read works.

    • I’m glad the post evoked memories,Betty. It’s such fun to reread old books one loved but had forgotten. And Poe’s and Dostoevsky’s works are so startlingly “original!” I’m dusting off a lot of my old bookshelves just to reread. And not just mysteries, either. Jane Eyre for the 20th time! Always something new to discover. Some remarkable insight.

  4. How many of today’s novels will be read again and again with such pleasure? Authors are encouraged by their various constituencies to “get to the point” and not digress into back stories and explanations. Yet it is the complexity of character relationships and backstories that made the classics compelling and worthy of reading again and again to find new connections missed before.

    • Yes, D.K.: You’re most insightful! As I read Dostoevsky and others, I kept thinking of places a modern editor would cut-cut. And yet the book would have lost much of its “complexity,” as you note. I love the backstories that nowadays we’re told to merely weave with as much brevity as possible. And the backstories offer in-depth characterization.

  5. As usual, an insightful and inspiring post. Now, where is my copy of War and Peace?

    • Right in my bookcase, Nikki. A copy too heavy to read in bed–best to have it in a kindle. I may tackle it next.

  6. Crime and Punishment was a favorite of mine while teaching AP Literature. A long book, the crime is about 1/2 inch and the punishment takes up the other 3 inches of pages. My students loved talking about all kinds of “crimes” and their punishments–ranking them from gossip to prostitution. Remember in Rebecca by DuMaurier Max gets away with murdering his first wife? It had to be altered for the movie because in those days crime was not allowed to pay! Thanks Nancy for lots of thought-provoking ideas!

    • Good response, Susan, and I like your 1/2 inch vs 3 inches of space comment. Interesting, too, that Hollywood had to make the criminal receive his comeuppance back in the 30s while novelist duMaurier could get away with Max murdering his wife. I guess the Hayes Office in the world of film was more conservative than the world of books.

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