Saturday, October 16, 2021

Chris Chan’s Writing Workshop: In Plain Sight and Getting the Moral Wrong

Chris Chan’s Writing Workshop: In Plain Sight and Getting the Moral Wrong

 

There are times when an episode of a television show completely misses the point.  Its entire perspective is skewed, sometimes because it works too hard to demonize one character or to bring about a fake conclusion.  I’ve seen more episodes with problems like this than I can count, but one that’s stuck with me for several years is the episode “Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” from In Plain Sight.

 

In Plain Sight was a series about U.S. Marshalls and the Witness Protection Program.  Each episode would show a character entering the WPP in Albuquerque, and the issues that resulted from having to start a new life.  Sometimes the witness in question was a criminal, sometimes it was a totally innocent person thrust into uncontrollable circumstances.  Depending on the episode, the narrative might be driven by the witness’ misbehavior or by villains trying to track down the suspect, or some other kind of problem caused by being transplanted into a new life.

 

“Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was an episode based around an African-American teenager witnessing a gang shooting, and the resulting need for her entire family to be relocated.  Here is a portion of the IMDB summary of the episode:

 

When teenager Iris McBride witnesses her boyfriend, Lawrence, being shot by a member of a violent Hispanic gang, she and her family must enter WITSEC to prevent retaliation for her planned ID and testimony. Iris's arrogant father, Dr. McBride, now Dr. Morris, goes ballistic, refusing to accept his forced circumstance, making life difficult for his family and the Marshals alike. Fed up with his new lifestyle that he feels is beneath him, he tries to make his wife choose him, and their old life, over his daughter. 

 

The problem with the episode is that it decided to make the father, Dr. McBride, the antagonist of the story.  Dr. McBride is a successful physician.  He lives in a big, beautiful house.  He’s built an incredible life for himself through decades of hard work.




 

And now, in the space of a day, it’s all taken away from him.  He, his wife, and his two daughters are rushed halfway across the country and moved into a small, shabby apartment.  His name is taken away from him.  It’s made clear that he’s very close to his large extended family, and he’s told he may never see them again.  His career is gone.  His patients have to be cared for by other doctors, and it’s possible this may adversely affect their health.  In short, his life has been destroyed.  The bottom line is this: HE HAS A RIGHT TO BE UPSET.

 

The above summary is emblematic of just how cruelly the storyline seeks to slime him.  All his hard work is erased in a moment, and he’s dubbed “arrogant.”  His standard of living is shattered, and he’s criticized for being “fed up” with his reduced circumstances.  He wants to continue being a doctor, but the only place he’s allowed to work is at a free clinic, which means he won’t get paid.  It’s a bit vague how the family will support themselves, but it’s implied the government pays for the family’s run-down apartment and groceries, but he is being denied the opportunity to live above the subsistence level.  And his parents, siblings, cousins… they’ve been cut out of his life.  Dr. McBride is a victim here, not a villain.

 

But the show paints him as a selfish monster.  It expects him to coo over his witness daughter, assuring her that it’s totally fine that his life has been destroyed, that as long as the four of them are together, it’s O.K.  But it’s not. The show tries to push the line that the family is all you need, but he has so many other relatives he loves.  The nuclear family is all the show cares about, apparently.  Indeed, the show goes out of the way to forget the rest of the family.  What happens if a McBride who isn’t in WITSEC is kidnapped by the gang, who announces that the Dr,’s mother will be killed if his daughter won’t recant her testimony?  There’s no reason for everybody to assume that the McBrides outside the four core characters are safe.

 

Dr. McBride is played by Wendell Pierce, a terrific actor who seems to realize that the script’s heart and head are in the wrong places.  He’s not “arrogant,” he’s indignant, because he is being twice victimized.  His daughter and perhaps his entire family are targeted by a violent gang.  The gang is the villain of the story, not Dr. McBride.  And now the government tells him to shut up and take what he’s given.  Frankly, there’s something vaguely racist in the way a formerly successful Black man is told to shut up, forget his dreams, accept the theft of his identity, and embrace his new, impoverished lifestyle.  All of Dr. McBride’s feelings are valid and understandable. He’s being crushed, debased, and attacked.  And he’s treated like a monster.

 

One marshal shouts at him, telling him how his daughter’s braver than he’ll ever be.  His wife insists she can’t be separated from her daughters, which is understandable, but now Dr. McBride’s mother is now separated from her son. What of her heartbreak?  And Dr. McBride’s comment about leaving WITSEC when his daughter goes off to college is a fair point– he’s sacrificing everything for her.  Will she stick around for them after high school?  

 

The apology Pierce is forced to deliver at the end is a travesty.  The condemnation levelled at him by his elder daughter struck me as the angry sneer of a self-absorbed adolescent, who may be doing something brave by testifying, but she also needs to recognize the harm that’s been done to her father.  If the show had allowed him his dignity, by recognizing his sacrifice and acknowledging that he is totally justified in feeling this way, the episode would work because it would be honest.  He’s stuck in a terrible situation and the government won’t let him escape.  He’s being crushed by a program that’s trying to save him by destroying him.  The fact is, this is a far more morally complex situation than the show acknowledges, and the episode’s moral compass is broken.  It asks the viewer to pretend that Dr. McBride is completely off-base, when in fact pretty much anybody else would have similar feelings in this situation.

 

In Plain Sight liked to portray itself as a show about new beginnings, starting afresh, and letting go of your past.  Perhaps it was, but more often than not, the show’s narratives centered around people being forced to live a lie, shoved into a false identity that could keep them physically safe but not emotionally and psychologically protected.  Instead of embracing new beginnings, it was often about stifling your true self.  Ultimately, “Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is emotionally and intellectually dishonest.  Dr. McBride deserved better.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Chris Chan’s Writing Workshop: Frank Costanza & Efficient Scene Writing

Chris Chan’s Writing Workshop: Frank Costanza & Efficient Scene Writing 

 

I was watching some justly uncelebrated crime shows recently, and I realized just how poorly some of the scenes where the detectives question the suspects were written.  Going from the dialogue alone, it was impossible to tell anything about the suspects.  There was nothing to distinguish the characters, nothing to make them unique.  Elsewhere in the episode, when the screenwriter tried to “develop” the characters, the characters droned on about themselves to tell the audience what made them unique individuals.  In the end, none of them were that memorable.

 

In contrast, a really skilled writer can create dialogue that tells you all you need to know about a character and more. Paired with a talented actor, in less than a minute, the viewer may not know the character’s third-grade teacher or political viewpoints, but it’s obvious what the heart and soul of a character is.

 

For an example of this, let’s not look at a mystery, but at a scene from the classic sitcom Seinfeld.  Here, George Costanza and his father Frank are at the diner, and George wants to ask his father what he was doing in the city the other day:

 


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3fCt0Smfks

 

Forty-eight seconds.  In this length of time, you get a brilliant picture of the man who is Frank Constanza.  Even if you never saw another episode of Seinfeld, you’d have a pretty strong grasp of Frank Costanza’s personality.  In his first line, he apparently comments right out of the blue, that of all the aspects that might impress him about Manhattan, he most appreciates the absence of mosquitos.  For the first fifteen seconds, Frank’s pretty calm, reflecting on insect populations, comparing Manhattan favorably to Queens.  This exemplifies a trait expanded upon in a different episode: Frank cannot abide infestation.  This bit of conversation illustrates his dislike for bugs, and he appears to be taking pleasure in being far from insects.  At this point, he seems to be a fairly laid-back man.

 

Five seconds later, George mentions his father’s recent trip into the city, and Frank’s temper changes immediately. “YOUR MOTHER HAS TO TELL YOU EVERY MOVE I MAKE!”  What does this tell us?  It illustrates Frank’s mercurial temper, but the use of “your mother” and his tone immediately provide us with insight into his relationship with his wife.  Any regular Seinfeld watcher knows how flammable their marriage is, but for people unfamiliar with these characterizations, this one line of dialogue tells us everything we need to know about their marriage.  Now, to survive in a marriage with Frank, his wife would have to be either extremely meek and tolerant, or just as temperamental as he is.  To work comedy-wise, it would have to be the latter (and we know this to be the case if we’ve seen the show), so we now know the basic character of Frank’s wife.

 

Not only that, but when we ask ourselves, “When you’re raised by a father like this, how does his son turn out?” we get a pretty fair estimation of the essence of George Costanza.  As we can see in this scene, George walks on eggshells with his father, but he’s not afraid of him.  He clearly doesn’t hate him.  George even seems to show concern for his father, but he has to be cautious about questioning him.  Yes, his father has a temper, but their relationship doesn’t appear to be fueled by animosity.  It follows then, that while anger is a defining character trait of Frank Costanza, he is neither cruel nor abusive.  Indeed, in order to be funny, Frank’s anger must be played for laughs, which means that nobody can ever be actually hurt by it.  It follows, therefore, that Frank may rage frequently and he often rants, but the Costanza household is not scarred by hatred, only constantly punctuated by arguments.

 

Moving forward, we see Frank obsess over Jerry and Elaine not saying “hello” to him.  Taken independently, we know nothing about Jerry and Elaine from this clip– not their ages, ethnicities, or their relationships with each other.  We do know from the dialogue that Frank is not particularly fond of Elaine, though his assessment of her as “supercilious” is not necessarily accurate, only his personal take on her.  Furthermore, Frank is clearly closer to Jerry, as the thought of a snub from Jerry seems deeply hurtful to him.  Jerry must therefore be able to abide Frank’s temper as well.

 

Frank cannot bear to be disrespected.  He clearly believes he deserves the courtesy of a “hello.”  At the same time, he’s utterly unaware of the fact that he’s drawing attention to himself in a crowded diner.  He’s so focused on being denied the “hello” he thinks he deserves that he doesn’t even hear George’s question about meeting with a man in a cape, a sartorial decision that George clearly finds ridiculous.

 

There is a lot more that can be extracted in a deep dive of this scene, but for now, this is enough for the purposes of this blog post.  Not counting the three-second guitar riff at the beginning, in forty-five seconds, this scene provides a thorough picture of the essence of Frank Costanza, and his relationships with his son, his wife, Jerry, and Elaine.  We now know how he should be written as a comedic character, and we know how he responds to questions– he ignores them, in order to focus on his own obsessions.  It’s a brilliantly information-dense example of character description, brought to life by two highly skilled comedic performers at the top of their game.

 

When writing scenes regarding questioning and interactions, mystery writers (or writers in any genre) would do well to have this question in their minds at all times: “HOW (Clap) COULD (Clap) JERRY (Clap) NOT (Clap) SAY (Clap) HELLO (Clap)?”  It’s a reminder on how to cram so much about a character in so little time.

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

 

Friday, October 1, 2021

Cookie-Cutter Mysteries

Cookie-Cutter Mysteries

 

Joyce Porter once quipped that the secret to successful mystery writing was writing the same book over and over again in ways that people wouldn’t notice.  There’s some truth to this.  There’s a basic pattern to most mysteries, though certainly not all.  Someone gets murdered, the detective investigates, and eventually solves the crime.  It a formula that works, but it’s surprisingly hard to get right, and really easy to get wrong.  




 

The best authors are sufficiently creative to shake up the pattern.  Agatha Christie managed to create a wide variety of solutions and situations that made her books distinct.  Other authors seem to be completely lacking in creativity.  Some of the lesser writers I’ve read seem to follow exactly the same template in every book, with exactly the same number of chapters, with the murder happening at the end of the first chapter, and the same number of suspects (none of which are in any way distinctive), and a solution at the end that’s revealed rather than deduced.

 

Part of the problem is unimaginative authors, but unfortunately, the issue is exacerbated by undiscerning readers and publishers who seem to be averse to risks.  Mysteries are already given precious little respect, and bland, disposable entertainment seems to be a common business plan.  It’s the equivalent of chain restaurants that provide a consistent, if mediocre product.  It’ll fill you up if you’re hungry, but it’s not all that nourishing, and if you have a palate for high-quality products, you won’t be satisfied.  Cookie-cutter mysteries are all over the place, on the bookstore shelves, and on television shows.  Follow the recipe and you’ll get a perfectly edible result.

 

But it’s nothing special.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindleedition.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Discovering a New Favorite Author

Discovering a New Favorite Author

 

How did you discover some of your favorite authors?  When it comes to mystery authors, I learned about a lot of them through gifts.  My parents gave me a copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes when I was pretty young, and I received a copy of And Then There Were None from relatives when I was ten.  Looking for more authors who wrote in the style I liked, I looked for authors with a connection to Agatha Christie and found Dorothy L. Sayers and G.K. Chesterton.





As for  Joyce Porter, I came across her totally by accident.  I was visiting a BBC radio webpage, listening to some other mystery adaptations from favorite authors.  Then I discovered a collection of radio plays starring “Scotland Yard’s laziest detective.”  A note to one side said they were funny, so I thought I’d give them a try.  I listed to five adaptations in rapid succession, and I was hooked.  Soon I tracked down copies of all of the Dover books, and I was amazed that more people didn’t know about Joyce Porter’s mysteries.

 

So I wrote a book about her: Murder Most Grotesque.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Inspiring Sherlock’s Secretary

Inspiring Sherlock’s Secretary

 

When I started writing Sherlock’s Secretary, I had a basic idea for a plot.  It would be inspired by the fact that in real life, there used to be a bank on Baker Street that hired someone to reply to all of the people who wrote to Sherlock Holmes.




 

This was the initial premise.  But what next?  What sort of mystery would be involved?  What made the central character move from a desk job to solving a case himself?  I realized early on that as this was set at a bank, there ought to be a robbery, but it took a lot of plotting and brainstorming to come up with a workable idea for the central mystery.

 

I also realized early on that I wanted this to have a lighter tone– a comedic tone, if possible.  I’ve read a lot of very dark, intense crime novels lately, and I realized that I wanted something different.  Inspired by my study of Joyce Porter’s comedic novels, I decided to craft the story on a kind of investigative road trip, with a bunch of weird and colorful characters entering the tale along the way.  My main point was that the story was supposed to be fun, and hopefully leave the reader laughing as well as trying to fit together the puzzle pieces.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Good News This Week!

Good News This Week!

 

There’s some good news this week– Murder Most Grotesque was released on Tuesday in both Kindle and paperback formats!  Not only that, but the Kickstarter for Sherlock’s Secretary just ended this morning, and it was a success!  




 

I’d like to thank everybody involved– I really appreciate it!

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Busy Week Ahead!

A Busy Week Ahead!

 

Hello everybody!  There’s a lot happening in the next seven days for me.  First, Murder Most Grotesque will be released on Tuesday, the 7th!  If you’re looking for a book that will introduce you to a highly entertaining author, please consider taking a look!  Some incredible news– as of today, it’s the #1 New Release for Mystery Literary Criticism on Amazon!




 

Not only that, but we’re in the final week for the Kickstarter for Sherlock’s Secretary!  I’d like to thank everybody who has backed the project so far.  If you’d like to get a special deal on Sherlock’s Secretary, or my earlier book Sherlock & Irene, or even get some never-before-published Funderburke mysteries, please take a look!  

 

Also, please check out the Kickstarters of some other great MX authors, like David Marcum’s The Collected Papers of Sherlock Holmes series, and the following projects below (the descriptions are quoted from Steve Emecz’s coverage of these projects:

 

Sherlock Holmes Advent Calendar - Volume 3- the first two calendars sold out last year so we expect the new one to go the same way!

Beasts of London - Sherlock Holmes, his brother Mycroft, and their associate Mary Morstan are some of the most adept mages in London, safeguarding the peace of the city. Their daily life of solving crimes is interrupted when an ancient threat rises in Dartmoor.

Dark Arts, Dark Acts - A Sherlock Holmes Adventure - 1940 - The British Foreign Office sends Holmes and Watson on a top-secret mission to Berlin

Sherlock Holmes and The Man With The Twisted Script - Imagine you are a caption writer and your editor drops a pile of old Sidney Paget illustrations on your desk and says 'get these ready for printing’.

Sherlock Holmes: New Adventures in the Realms of H.G. Wells - a two-volume anthology with 25 new adventures of Sherlock Holmes solving cases involving characters from the stories of H.G. Wells.

 

Thank you all so much!

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

 

Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th.  His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter will be published by Level Best Books on September 7th.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.comand the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.