Geoffrey Thorne is multi-talented. He’s an actor who, in the 80s and 90s, appeared in many hit television shows, including Hillstreet Blues, ER, In the Heat of the Night, and Diagnosis Murder. By the early 2000s, he had turned to television writing and producing. He was a writer-producer on the cable TV show Leverage, which ran through the end of 2012 and was recently voted Favorite Cable TV Drama; he has also written for Law and Order: Criminal Intent and other series. Novel writing is in the mix too: He’s the author of the Star Trek: Titan novel Sword of Damocles and other books, including several graphic novels. Several of Geoff’s short stories have appeared in nationally distributed anthologies, but his first mystery story is in the March/April issue of EQMM, which goes on sale next week. Despite all of these accomplishments, the Los Angeles author has a reverence for the Mystery that has made him hesitate, previously, to try his hand at it. We’re glad he finally did!—Janet Hutchings
This isn’t my normal thing.
I want that out front so all the devotees of mystery fiction and gifted writers thereof understand that, for me, landing a story in America’s premier mystery fiction magazine is a miracle of cosmic proportion that is equal parts terror and thrill.
In fact, let’s all pause while I do an interpretive dance describing both my sense of achievement and absolute humility over this event.
Good. Thanks. Excellent. Now, as I was saying. . .
I’ve read only a few true mystery novels aside from the complete Doyle and a smattering of modern writers such as Turow. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series is tops on my list, because, WOW.
I’ve read a few more short stories than novels. More than I thought before I sat down to write this but nowhere near as many, I’m sure, as have the folks who read this.
I would also like it known that, along with Comedy, I consider Mystery writing to be the most difficult branch of the tale-spinning field and, coward that I absolutely am, I have made a point of steering as far as possible from both of these genres for most of my so-called career.
You know why. You know it every time you make it halfway through a reasonably well-written mystery and you find yourself ahead of the story. You know it when you make it all the way to the end of the yarn where the bastard author “reveals” it was that no-name bellboy, the one who had one line, on one page, at the opening of the novel, who was the secret mastermind of all the killings even though he never appeared again in the entire six thousand-page tome.
You want to find that guy and murder him yourself, right? Sure, you do. We all do. His days are numbered.
But, the thing is, in that guy’s defense, this stuff is hard.
There are clichés to avoid and tropes to shore up; you have to play fair with the audience while never letting them get ahead of you. You can’t make the mystery too hard to solve; you can’t make it paper-thin. It’s a juggling act, done on a high-wire over a pit of vipers and, no, nope, sorry, I’m just not brave enough to climb up there. Because I’m just not, that’s why.
Mystery, like Comedy, is filled with traps and I make a point to avoid traps in all aspects of my life. Coward, remember? How many times do I have to say it?
So, why am I here, holding the tennis balls, about to step out on the wire?
Well, because of two things, really: the caprice of editors (Lord knows what goes on in that chaos behind their eyes) and my wife.
You see, generally, I write elves, superheroes, super spies, super thieves, space aliens, stuff like that. Stuff which, for the most part, she declines to read, even when it’s me writing. She wants something real, she says, even in her fiction.
To date this unfair (yet oddly firm) position of hers has prompted the writing of a novel, Better Angels, and the story I have in the upcoming issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
The other reason I’m often drawn to Mystery as a reader while shying away from it as a writer is that mysteries, I think, more than other forms, more closely mirror Life. This means they are about death, even when they’re not.
Think about it. You creep through a mystery yarn, trying to find clues that will help you sort out the story. You think you have something but it turns out to be the wrong something but then that leads you to something else that you hadn’t thought of but which, for a time, makes things clearer. Life. Lifety, life, life.
Then, at the end, whether you sussed it all successfully or were pulled up short by the author (Fairly. Always fairly.), the story ends and you’re done. Over.
That’s life. At least it feels that way to me. Any story that feels like life, any genre that does, therefore, really, feels a little like death.
Every story that ends with anything other than the characters’ funerals is one that is cut short, yes? Because, no matter how many dragons are defeated by maidens rescuing their prince, Life really ends in the grave for everybody. Mysteries not only embrace this principle, they’re made of it.
Yikes, right? Chilly. So, you understand why I mostly shy.
But, I do love a good one, is the problem. Like moths love candlelight.
Filmed. Prosed. Poemed. Pencilled. There’s something hypnotizing about the form that keeps us all coming back. Even us cowards. Once you’ve been bespelled enough times, if you’re a writer, you’re going to want to put your toe in to test the waters.
The good news for me is, they don’t have to be played straight. One of my favorite mystery stories, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” by Thurber, isn’t one. And yet it absolutely is. Neil Gaiman’s “Murder Mysteries” is set in Heaven and features several familiar angels; so magic is certainly acceptable as long as the rules are followed. The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King, has to be one of the most frustrating and engaging pieces of fiction, Mystery or otherwise, I’ve ever read. It proves breaking a fundamental rule can be as rewarding as following them all without flaw.
Brave guys like that make room for cowards like me to dip in that toe, to test. Spouses like mine add that extra push.
My test is “The Playlist.” It’s not as funny or deft as Mr. Thurber’s work (as if) nor as delicately beautiful as Gaiman’s (as if, again) but it’s my kind of mystery. Which is to say, it’s the sort I hope my wife will read. I hope it’s your sort too.
If it is, I’ll keep at it and, in a decade or so, I might be bold enough to try comedy.
Mr. Thorne: I look forward to reading “The Playlist” in the March/April issue of EQMM since I subscribe. By the way, “Leverage” is a great series. What I find most inspiring is your apparent excitement at having your work accepted by such an esteemed publication. That gives me hope. Even to this day. EQMM has found my past efforts as not “meeting their needs at this time.” For six decades! That must be some kind of record for not giving up. Anyway, congrats! And I bet your story is terrific! Yours truly, Toe.
Congrats on making it into EQMM. I have scored there once in over eighty tries. But I am writing to say I have the opposite problem; my wife doesn’t like to read anything set on planet earth. Oh well. Your comment about death reminds me of a line from the great fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. “The graveyards are full of people who rushed in bravely but unwisely. BUt sooner or later the graveyards are full of everybody.”
Mystery is tough. Ever since Sherlock Holmes became Public Domain, I’ve been intrigued with the idea of writing my own Holmes story, but I just don’t have the knack of that type of thing.
@Tom- I love writing. Every time I try something new I’m as nervous as the first time I sent out a story. When EQMM said yes to this story I ran around the house like a maniac.
Geoff: I realize it’s probably not proper etiquette to offer reply more than once. Nevertheless, after reading “The Playlist” I have only one comment. WOW! Best thing I have read in quite a while. Once India came into play your story took off. It has a certain haunting atmosphere I have experienced only once before. It reminds me of what I felt after viewing the 1944 film “Laura” with Gene Tierney. [By the way, this is one movie I am surprised hasn’t been redone with someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones.] Superb story, perfect ending. Please do more. Yours truly, Toe.
thanks. really. thank you for that.
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