Back in early May, I read about a contest for Rex Stout fans called the Black Orchid Novella Award. Being a Stout fan from way back—and yes, you can read that any way you like, and I’m sure you will—I decided to try my hand at a Stout-ish novella.
The brief was clear: a novella, under 17K words, original, unpublished, that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series, as in: ‘no overt sex or violence; emphasizes the deductive skills of the sleuth; does not include characters from the original series’.
Easy-peasy, right? Sure. Nothing to it. Uh huh.
Do you KNOW how many mysteries have been written? Series, stand-alones, noir, cozy, hard-boiled, classic, historical, and so on? Mystery series have been set in medieval England—I’m talking to you, Brother Cadfael—late 19th century Egypt—I love me some Amelia Peabody—and every other time period you can imagine. And the classic sleuths have ranged from the Eddie Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Campion, Marsh’s Alleyn, Chesterton’s Brown, Hammett’s N&N Charles….and that just covers a mere hundred years or so. Since the 1930s—when FER DE LANCE, the first Nero Wolfe, was published…well, whoa. The idea was staggering that I could add something new and original to a genre so vast.
But nothing ventured and all that. Living as I do in the South, near a small town that started out as a cotton mill village, I thought a mystery set in a mill village might be a workable concept. After all, I’ve read—obviously—a lot of mysteries and I couldn’t recall any of them set there. Also, a mill village has always seemed to me much like the small English villages where Miss Marple roamed: everyone had his or her place and position in the hierarchy, from the lowliest mill workers, up through the supervisors, and the owner of the mill being something along the lines of the local lord.
So, venue decided upon. But then I ran into another difficulty. A clever plot. Look at Christie; all her plots are twisty-turny-complex. Could I do something like that?
I reread some Nero Wolfe’s—never a chore, as all Stout’s books are eminently re-readable—and some of my other favorite mystery writers, plus some new ones I’d never read, and I discovered an interesting point: popular mystery series aren’t about the plot, but the characters. I can’t always remember who done it in my favorites, but I’m always glad to spend time with folks like Wolfe and Archie and Nick and Nora and Albert and Roderick.
Hmmm. I appeared to be onto something. More about that in part two....and I promise it'll be soon.