Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Artist as Detective

Almost every mystery I pick up these days includes a nugget of information I haven't encountered before, or a window into something that is new to me. I enjoy these aspects of crime fiction, and often pick a book based on the jacket promising me an unusual perspective or discovery. I especially like mysteries featuring artists in any medium, and I always look for those who use their artistic skills to solve the crime. But these mysteries are hard to find.

In most mysteries featuring artists, the description of the detective or suspect as an artist is little more than window-dressing. The skill of the artist doesn't serve the mystery. In Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh, a group of painters at a summer workshop are suspects in a murder that happens right in front of them. But their skills as artists don't influence the investigation or solve the crime. In M.M. Kaye's Death in Kashmir the solution to the mystery depends on one character's artistic talent, which the sleuth has to recognize to solve the crime. 

Two more recent books inform the reader about art forgery but the skill of the artists involved are not essential to solving the crime. In The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, an artist shunned by the art world is drawn into the underground world of art forgery, and describes in detail how a painting is created to pass tests of authenticity. Inspector Diamond also deals with forgery in The Vault by Peter Lovesey. But only standard modes of detection lead to the guilty party.

In the Anita Ray series, one of my goals is to use Anita's talent and life as a photographer to understand and solve crime. Sometimes this means little more than questioning someone who walks into her photography gallery in the resort where she lives and works. In Under the Eye of Kali, a character sees something in the gallery that upsets her, and Anita tracks this down to help solve the crime.

Anita is concerned about art theft in The Wrath of Shiva, and this leads her more deeply into other unexpected circumstances. Her commitment to a life as an artist is part of her zeal to uncover the theft of family art but her eye as a photographer doesn't help solve the crime.

In For the Love of Parvati, Anita visits relatives who live in the hills. During a break in the monsoon, she takes a walk with her camera and discovers a body washed down in a flood. She photographs the corpse to record suspicious marks on his body, and relies on these photographs when the police later tell her that the man died from drowning during the monsoon.

As the series progresses I plan to do more with Anita's way of looking at the world, her eye as a photographer-artist. Her talent and career as an artist give her a freedom not available to other women, and a curiosity that leads her into unusual situations.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Beta Readers

I recently gave a short story to a friend to critique, and because it involved an activity her husband enjoys, sailing, she gave it to him to read also. Both came back with useful and pertinent suggestions, and I felt fortunate to have their reviews. As I finish an Anita Ray story, I'm getting ready to send it to someone who has also lived in India and will warn me when I conflate the ways Indian and Americans think.

These particular readers are among the three or four I rely on to comment on my work, and I have always felt comfortable with that group because their critiques are spot on and precise. But when I look at the acknowledgments in some of the books I've been reading lately, I notice the author often includes a long list of names of people who have read and commented on or helped with the book. The list includes friends and relatives as well as editors and a large number of beta readers. Sometimes the number of people in the last category can reach forty or more.

At a writers' conference I listened to another mystery writer describe her process. She sent out her ms to four writers, read their comments and edited her ms accordingly, and then retyped from word one the entire ms. Then she sent it out again. She did this until she had sixteen reviews, retyping the book each time. (Yes, that's a lot of typing, and a topic for another time.)

When I was writing my first mystery and learning about structure and character and plot and clues and all the rest of it, I read chapters of the book that would become Murder in Mellingham to my writers' group and sent opening chapters to friends in the publishing world. I learned from all the comments, but the total number of beta readers did not number more than ten.

How many beta readers do you need? I don't know the answer but I am wondering. A quick Google search for "Beta readers" brings up 55,400 entries, including a call for beta readers, a listing for a group on Goodreads, advice on how to apply to be one, things to do and not do, what to expect if you become one, and more. It there has been an explosion of writers in the marketplace, there has also been an explosion of beta readers and posts about them.

But there is one big difference between today, 2015, and the 1980s, when I began writing my first mystery novel. When I began I knew all my readers, and asked them for their views because I knew, first, that they liked to read and, second, they read carefully and often made astute comments about a story line or character. I wanted the benefit of their expertise. I didn't know about anyone who served as a beta reader for a writer they didn't know personally, and I didn't know any writers who sent their mss to readers they didn't know personally.

Today, in many case, beta readers are strangers to the writer seeking feedback. We have no idea if the people who post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site can read well or easily, like reading, or even care about books.

I don't know how many beta readers are considered enough, but I know that a good one is worth every effort it takes to find him or her. I consider myself fortunate to have several who have supported and guided me over the years.

But as I watch the writing and publishing world evolve, I wonder how the institution of the beta reader will also develop. How many will be considered enough? Will a group spring up to set standards for becoming a beta reader? Will we formalize the process? Will writers be expected to find strangers to serve as readers? I don't have any answers but I'm curious to hear what others think.