Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"This Private Plot"

Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London. He moved to Manhattan in his twenties and now lives with his three sons and his rescue mutt, Leila, in Rye, New York.

Beechey applied the Page 69 Test to This Private Plot – the third title featuring children’s book author and amateur sleuth Oliver Swithin and his girlfriend, Scotland Yard detective Effie Strongitharm – and reported the following:
I wish this were The Page 68 Test. That’s a new chapter. I think I do new chapters rather well.

Okay, we’re still ahead of the shattering end-of-Act-I twist, and our hero, amateur detective Oliver Swithin, has gone to an Oxford college to meet a don whose academic interest in blackmail may help him understand the apparent suicide that kicks off the novel. Page 68 introduces the fictional college – St. Basil’s, which some readers may recognize as the city’s main bookstore in real life. Page 69 introduces the don herself, Dr. Hyacinthe McCaw, her first name pronounced the French way, her whole name the homonym of a South American parrot. (I promise the humor gets better.)
She was a short, sturdy woman, probably in her eighties, wearing a garment that was either a high-quality floral housecoat or a low-quality floral dress. She had a tangle of long, gray curls gathered loosely on top of her head that seemed in permanent danger of slipping off, whether or not they were actually rooted in her scalp. Her eyes were also gray and bright in a pleasant, remarkably unlined face.
I do a workshop on writing the mystery, and one of my favorite examples of how a really good writer adds depth to the details is by Laura Lippman. It’s a character description in which the current appearance of a female attorney also contains signs of her past and clues to her likely behavior in the future.

In my description, I’ve tried to use details that imply a sense of ambivalence about Dr. McCaw – is she overdressed or underdressed, is her hair real or artificial, is its haphazard style appropriate for an Oxford don in her eighties, has she had cosmetic surgery? This all prefigures a revelation about her past that stuns Oliver. On page 72.

(Dr. McCaw’s appearance, principally the hair, is based on an old friend, the late actress Sylvia Davis, who made it to 100 years old before her death in 2010. I’ve written a lot about Sylvia in my blog, with links to some funny commercials she did in her nineties. The entries are all labeled with her name.)
Visit Alan Beechey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue