Monday, February 2, 2015

How not to write a mystery

Some very good, if not great, novels are written by teams of writers. I'm thinking specifically of the mysteries by Charles Todd, actually a mother-son writing team; the mysteries by Claude Izner, actually two Paris booksellers; and the thrillers turned out by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There have been many others. I don't know how they manage it, perhaps one person concocts a plot and the other does the actual writing, but the results often prove successful.

Much less successful are those so-called collaborative novels in which two or more established writers provide alternative chapters, each building on what was written before. This has been tried a number of times. Back in 1991,  Lawrence Block, Peter Lovesy, Donald E. Westlake, Tony Hillerman and others pooled their efforts to produce something called The Perfect Murder. Despite all the talent involved, nobody remembers that as the perfect murder mystery. A few years later, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaason, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan and several others combined for Naked Came the Manatee, a novel best remembered for its title.

I just finished Heads You Lose, a collaborative mystery by just two people, Lisa Lutz, an established mystery writer, and David Hayward, a poet who accepted the job after several other established mystery writers wisely turned down Lutz's proposal. Hayward also happens to be Lutz's former boyfriend.

Whatever lovers' quarrel ended their romantic relationship seems to be continued in their literary relationship. They seem to delight in killing off the other's characters. After Lutz kills one of Hayward's favorites,  he brings him back to life. Then Lutz kills him again, this time with more finality.  So Hayward introduces a new character, a brother, with the same characteristics as the dead man. So Lutz kills him, too. In the end, there are more bodies than suspects.

Meanwhile, although the premise calls for each writer to write alternate chapters, building on what the other has written, Lutz persists, in between-chapter notes, in trying to tell Hayward what he should do with his chapters. Of course, he resents the interference and plows off in his own direction, which angers her.

The basic plot involves a brother and sister, Paul and Lacey Hansen, who grow marijuana on their property. So when they discover a headless corpse on their land, they move it so the authorities won't find their pot. Then the body gets moved back near their house. At this point, both of them get involved in investigating the murder, Lacy more willingly than her brother.

Hayward seems to do better at creating characters and adding color and humor to the plot, while Lutz, the veteran mystery writer, does better with the plot itself. She takes the final chapter and amazingly wraps everything up in a neat, almost logical bundle. It may be the only good chapter in the book.

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