The third Muse blog in the lead up to the “Maintaining Pace in Mystery” panel set for October 10th, at 1 pm, in Raleigh, Bouchercon 2015, is panelist Laura Benedict. Her muse is a classic — if you haven’t read the book, I’m sure you might have seen the movie. If you have no experience with either, you must try. Both the book and movie are super.
In the summer of 1990, I spent the five weeks leading up to my wedding living with my future in-laws. My soon-to-be husband slept in his old bedroom, which seemed about a half-mile away from where I was quartered in his sister’s childhood bedroom. What did I do during those long, lonely nights in my room? Why, I read like a madwoman, of course. The house—way out in the West Virginia countryside—was stuffed full of books; my husband’s father is a big non-fiction reader and loves history, and his mother is mad for mystery and suspense novels.
While I’d been writing for a couple of years, and had taken a few post-grad writing classes, I hadn’t yet found my material. That sounds a bit presumptuous, doesn’t it? Found my material. But it’s an important step for a writer. There are so many avenues to explore, and, truthfully, unless a novice writer already has a passion for one type of material, she should try her hand at several different ones before committing.
My temporary bedroom was full of mystery and crime novels by established writers: P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George. I could’ve read a new writer every night for weeks. But once I discovered a Patricia Highsmith compendium on a bedroom shelf, I was completely smitten. I spent a scandalous day and a half tethered to my room with that book.
Have you seen the 1951 Hitchcock suspense film Strangers on a Train? That was all I’d heard of Highsmith back then. The film follows her novel up to a point, but I recommend both.
Two men, Guy Haines (a famous tennis player) and Bruno Anthony (a wealthy, boorish playboy), meet on a train and strike up a conversation. Sly Bruno brings the conversation around to murder, suggesting that Guy kill Bruno’s father, and that Bruno will kill Guy’s wife, Miriam (an unpleasant woman who won’t give Guy a divorce so that he can marry the sweet, lovely daughter of a senator—because Guy is famous, Bruno knows the gossip about him). Bruno says they won’t get caught because no one knows they know each other, and neither would have a motive for their respective murders.
It’s a grisly idea, yet terribly clever. Bruno is a psychopath, but Guy is a pretty good guy who would never imagine murdering anyone. He has even remained married to Miriam after she became pregnant by another man. He leaves the train after saying something patronizing but not serious to Bruno. Bruno misunderstands and thinks that they have a deal. Not long after, Guy learns Miriam has been murdered. When Bruno comes to Guy looking for kudos, ready with instructions for getting into the Anthony home to murder his father, Guy is stunned. He tells Bruno that he won’t do it, that he never meant for Miriam to die. Unfortunately, Bruno has stolen Guy’s lighter, and threatens to use it to implicate Guy in his wife’s murder. Guy has to do something…I won’t tell you more. If you don’t know the story, I can’t recommend it enough.
One of the things Highsmith does frequently and very well is put an average person in a morally-charged, thrilling kind of danger. One moment a character is sitting on a train, or throwing a dinner party, or on vacation in Greece, and the next moment they’re running for their lives. The 1950s was a time for intense realism in both books and film (okay, so the dresses weren’t necessarily so realistic), and morality was always in question. But I just love that sense that life can turn on a dime—and rarely in a pleasant way. There’s something more to Highsmith, though. Her villains are rarely thoroughly villainous. They are terribly human, and they sometimes get away with their crimes.
Highsmith’s pacing is perfection. She marches the reader right up to the edge of reasonable behavior and gives a little push—and we tumble into the story, compelled to follow her, peeking between our fingers at the awkward encounters, the necessary murders, the shamefully easy criminality.
There has never been another crime writer like Highsmith. I’ve read just about everything except her previously uncollected stories (I don’t think it’s fair to posthumously publish stories that a writer purposefully left unpublished.), and re-read her style book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction about once a year. Her prose is simple and declarative, yet wildly intense. It’s that intensity that I yearn for in my own work. That sense that really bad things can happen to just anyone, and they probably will. Once immersed in that world, I could hardly imagine wanting to write anything but suspense. Everything else pales for me—science fiction, romance, historical fiction—I want that constant tension. As a writer, I want to keep both myself and my readers guessing.
And a little postscript—Yes, I married him! We celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary this past July. So Patricia Highsmith is sort of our marriage muse, as well.
Laura Benedict is the author of five novels of dark suspense, including CHARLOTTE’S STORY and BLISS HOUSE, the first two books of the Bliss House trilogy. Her work has also appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like THRILLERS: 100 Must-Reads, and THE LINEUP: 20 Provocative Women Writers. She lives with her family in Southern Illinois.
Visit her at laurabenedict.com.
“Murder, sexual obsession, and misogyny explode in the final scenes, bringing all the simmering evil to the surface in a shocking finale, that, like all good horror stories, is probably not the end. You just can’t look away from this bombsite—nor forget it. Dripping with southern gothic atmosphere.”—Booklist,starred review, Charlotte’s Story
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