“The Finlay Millions” and the Carr Detective Series by S. L. Franklin

S. L. Franklin, author of the Carr detective series, first appeared in AHMM in the July/August 1999 issue with “Capriccio with Unaccompanied Violin.” Since then he and R. J. Carr have appeared in our pages thirteen more times, most recently in the current issue with “The Finlay Millions,” which he talks about here.

The basic situation for “The Finlay Millions” came to me several years ago—the old house, the death of the reclusive owner, some heirs in the wings including an estranged wife—but converting the situation into an R. J. and Ginny Carr mystery wasn’t as simple as turning open a tap and letting a story run out.

I once heard the jazz musician Patricia Barber explain in an interview that to recast a classic standard song by, say, Rogers and Hart, into an effective jazz performance, she first had to find a way to “break into” the piece. That was my original difficulty in writing “TFM”—discovering a means of cracking this particularly hard nut of an undeveloped set of characters and situations. Those familiar with Carr mysteries will realize that my difficulty was compounded by the fact that the series stories are always told via multiple voices, those of R. J. and Ginny, but often those of other characters as well, so it’s a rare Carr mystery that follows a straight narrative line.

Another problem was—as it always is for me—bringing new characters to life. R. J. and Ginny seem, I hope, well-defined in every story, both in what they do and in how they think and express themselves. Other characters, especially those who narrate, need to be just as well-defined, and when the sometimes kindly but often dilatory muse of detective fiction finally fired my feeble brain cells with images of Bill Finlay—bulky, limping, seventy-three years old, a retired engineer from Syracuse—I had at last both a means to break into the plot outline and a narrative voice and perspective that actually drew me, the author, into the story even as I put Bill’s words down on paper. (Yep—Carr stories: still made by hand.)

Some mystery plots are schematic, others formulaic; some psychological, others ratiocinative. Mine tend instead to be intuitive and organic.

To illustrate what I mean with a rather trite and overblown metaphor: From the kernel of an original, dormant idea grows a story—living, if it succeeds—that is shaped and nurtured by its characters as they come to life and respond to the fictional situations they face. In the case of “The Finlay Millions,” the tale’s outcome is in many ways the product of R.J. and Ginny, the Finlays and Penny Wright, at least as much as it is a result of the tentative original design of the author.

Put in another way, “TFM” is not plot driven but character driven, as—within reason—is every Carr story. The basic premise of the Carr Detective Series, in fact, has always been a what if: What if real people with real human weaknesses and strengths, thoughts and feelings, were suddenly to find themselves in the artificially melodramatic strictures of a mystery plot? How would they behave? How would the action advance?

Ambrose Bierce defined literary realism as the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” He, of course, was a fantasist with a grudge, who had only the works of contemporaries like Theodore Dreiser to gauge by. The Dreiser version of realism, however, largely consisting of a mix of human failing, squalid situations, and cynical fatalism (which mix, incidentally, underpins many a noir mystery story) is not the only realism the mind can conjure. There exists a far different realism of everyday concerns and problems—e.g., Bill Finlay’s physical frailties and objections to his younger brother’s attitude; Penny Wright’s struggles to relocate her aged and ailing father—and this realism is what I have attempted to establish as the hidden though underlying scenario of all the Carr stories.

A final note. Anyone who has made it through to the end of this ramble and still wants to know more about the Carr Detective Series, especially about R.J. and Ginny, can satisfy his or her arcane tastes at www.carrdetective.com. No charge and worth every cent.

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