Wednesday, September 1st 7:00 pm
Central Library Auditorium
Winston-Salem Writers will kick off their fall programming with “The Mystery of the Mystery” hosting two North Carolina writers as guests. Author, playwright and television producer Mark de Castrique will join Kernersville author Lazarus Barnhill to discuss mysteries, The Maltese Falcon and more. De Castrique is the author of the Sam Blackman and the Barry Clayton mystery series along with young adult mysteries. Barnhill is the author of The Medicine People, a police procedural set in Oklahoma. Barnhill will explain the different genres of mystery and crime writing while De Castrique will discuss how he goes about crafting his novels.
Meet the speakers…
On The Same Page asks the author for a preview of his ideas about crafting the mystery novel, and his thoughts on Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade’s relationship to his own hero, Sam Blackman.
OTSP asks: Does crafting the mystery story get easier as you develop a character like Sam Blackman, and you know him better over time?
Mark: Each novel presents its own set of challenges and in many ways mirrors the detective trying to get at the truth. I have to create the problem and figure out a solution, but most importantly the conflict has to grow out of the characters’ needs and desires. I made a decision with both my series’ main characters to have them grow through the experience of each story. Frank and Joe Hardy never got out of high school as far as I know, truly living in an endless summer. Author Michael Connelly has a great quote: “It’s not how the detective works on a case; it’s how the case works on a detective.” I think that’s excellent advice and makes for a more character-driven mystery.
Sam Blackman was created because the particular story I wanted to tell needed an outsider who was in Asheville, NC. I also wanted him to have internal conflicts to deal with, so he became a wounded Iraq war veteran in the V.A. hospital. He and the novel then developed together. But there are things about Sam I’m still discovering, and I went back to his war years to look at Sam’s experiences from a different perspective — what if his past wasn’t exactly what he thought it was — and that gave me a fresh angle to approach the second Blackman novel, The Fitzgerald Ruse. With each book, I hope the detective will be changed somewhat by the ordeal. To me that seems more natural.
OTSP asks: Sam Blackman and Sam Spade. Your Sam, Sam Blackman, has been described as an “amiable” character and Sam Spade as the original “hard-boiled” detective. Are there any points of comparison between the two? Brothers under the skin in any way?
Mark: First of all, I love The Maltese Falcon and have read it numerous times. Sam Blackman is Sam Blackman because I thought his name had a similar sound to Sam Spade.
There are other points of comparison. Both men have a code of honor that they adhere to. Sam Spade’s is, shall we say, more fluid. He has an affair with his partner’s wife, a women he really doesn’t like, and he hates his partner. But, at his core, he holds to his beliefs in a way that becomes a surprise to the other characters and readers alike. Both Sam Spade and Sam Blackman take their cases personally. That’s what pulls them into the story and brings the reader along with them.
The two stories are told in different ways. Sam Blackman tells his case in first person so we see everything through his filter; Sam Spade’s actions are told in third person, a very close third-person because he is in every scene, but the method is effective because the reader never knows what Sam Spade is thinking except through his actions and dialogue. That was a critical choice Hammett made for maximum impact at the end.
Sam Blackman isn’t as dark or as iconic an “anti-hero,” but I hope that he is an authentic product of his time just as Sam Spade was an authentic product of 1929 San Francisco.
Finally, I’m hesitant to make any comparison between my books and a classic like The Maltese Falcon. Such a work is an aspiration for mystery writers. It rises above genre because it is a book that people read again and again, even though they know the outcome. Such is the stuff that writers’ dreams are made of.
Mark gives us a tour of Sam Blackman’s Asheville on YouTube.
The mystery genre, easily one of the most popular genres with our fiction readers at FCPL, has grown enormously in diversity–the caper, the medical/legal, the cozy–suspense, noir, even romance makes its way into the mystery genre. Lazarus Barnhill will introduce us to aspects of the mystery genres, and On The Same Page asks him about particular qualities in his own writing.
OTSP asks: Humor and romance are strong elements in your novels. Can you tell us how that came about?
Lazarus: There’s an old joke that rattled around my family when I was a kid: Cousin Kenny happened upon Uncle Lou sitting in a saloon and looking distressed. Kenny was taken aback because Lou was the calmest guy he knew. He wondered what could possibly get him so upset. “What’s wrong, Uncle?” he asked. “I got a phone call. Fellow told me to stay away from his wife or he’d come after me with a gun.” Kenny shrugged. “So why don’t you just stay away from his wife?” Lou took a drink and said, “He didn’t mention his name.”
Humor and romance are both expressions of the underlying passion of human life. Powerful human emotions tend to erupt when there is crime, trauma and violent conflict. We’re accustomed to the fear and anger that are so inevitable in such situations, but we tend to overlook that all our other emotional responses are heightened as well. Recently I heard it said that London was never sexier or funnier than it was during the blitzkrieg, as perverse as that may sound. Also, from a purely literary standpoint, the use of humor can control the timing and tone of the scene you’re writing. Strong physical attraction is a wonderful tool that, skillfully used, can lead or mislead the reader as dictated by the needs of the story.
OTSP asks: Who do you like to read who’s working in the mystery genre today?
Lazarus: I’d like to mention three names, all of whom I enjoy and who will appeal to different tastes. First is a fellow who died in 2008, but for whom I feel great kinship: Tony Hillerman. He was so prolific and his death so recent that I still consider him current. Of course he wrote detective novels centered in the Southwest with great insight into Native American culture. He was actually born in the tiny town of Sacred Heart in central Oklahoma, about fifty miles south of where I’m from. When I read Hillerman, I’m reading a person who has great respect for his characters, even the really bad guys. Plus he is so gratifying to read.
Kathy Reichs is the second author I enjoy, who is now a part time resident of North Carolina. Of course she is the creator of the Temperance Brennan character who has become so popular via the Bones television program. She based this character on herself, in that Kathy really is a forensic anthropologist. Ironically the Temperance in her books is a lot more like Kathy—and a lot more likeable in my view—than the Temperance on TV. The mysteries are a lot more baffling in the books as well.
The third writer, and the one I appreciate most purely from a literary perspective, is Dennis Lehane, the Boston writer whose police and PI mysteries are currently riding a crest of popularity. I get a lot out of his work because in my view he accomplishes what I’m also trying to do in my work. He uses the genre as a platform for exploring the human condition. When you read his work, you must be prepared to exam your spirituality, your morality and your important relationships. With Lehane it’s not just finding out “whodunit,” it’s an equal measure of “what are you going to do about it?”
You’ll find Lazarus Barnhill’s books at Second Wind Publishing