After finishing A Stab in the Dark, I decided to revisit the novella that kicked off my mystery-writing spree, Where Do They Bury the Survivors? If you missed it (easy to do, as it hasn’t been accepted anywhere for publication) it’s a locked-room murder mystery that takes place on a space station in interstellar space. A lot like the most recent one, when I put it like that, but only in the same sense that, say, half of Agatha Christie’s stories were about people poisoned in English country houses.
I’ve long been somewhat discontent with various aspects of that piece (part of the reason I shelved it) including its ending. It makes sense, but it’s not the kind of tone I wanted: it’s not as personal for the murderer, and in no small sense lets him off. The moral ambiguity appealed to me at first — it’s not at all clear what the reader is supposed to think, and I liked that. But I’ve come to realize that it is also somewhat unsatisfying. This evening I came up with a twist on it that I think will work better: the murderer does not escape culpability in any form, and yet it is still possible for the reader to feel sorry for the character.
Partly, this excellent new ending came from a pretty mechanistic exercise: I forced myself to write out a simple timeline that filled in some of the details of a long-past event that I’d glossed over. I had previously simply posited, “This character was in the right place at the right time.” Well, I asked myself (just filling in the blanks, not motivated by anything): Why was this character in this position? How long was he there? What was he doing there? I jotted down simple answers to these questions, and realized that there was an alternate explanation there.
This new ending was also partly inspired by a blog post by Jed Hartman, itself a thought-provoking read about putting characters in moral danger rather than physical danger. Such a danger is at the heart of every mystery novel, really: someone was presented with such a challenge, and failed. That is the “wrong thing” at the center of the story that must be corrected. In a number of stories from the Golden Age, the correction was not in the form of an arrest but of a suicide. There is some misdeed or mistake, and everything flows from that.
There is a spot in this story containing a moral danger to the detective, and I realize now that this is properly the point of tension in the story: just how far does his interest in justice go? In the original story, I allowed one scene’s worth of doubt, and then immediately dispelled it! In retrospect, I was basically patting the reader on the head and saying, “Oh, don’t worry.” No! Worry, reader, worry!
Anyway, to sum up: I have a new ending to the story. I have a better sense of where the tension is coming from in the overall plot. And I have ideas for two (count `em, two) new subplots. I might just squeeze a novel out of this story after all!
More thoughts later on what form that novel ought to take, and what the practical considerations appear to be.