Running With Marathon Man, or How I Stopped Worrying About Genre and Learned to Write Mystery (by Sylvia Maultash Warsh)

Sylvia Maultash Warsh is the author of the Dr. Rebecca Temple novels, one of which, Find Me Again, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original in 2004. The other two books in the series were nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award (To Die in Spring) and a ReLit Award (Season of Iron). Her many short stories have been short-listed for both Arthur Ellis and Derringer awards.  Despite all this success in our genre, the gifted Canadian author wasn’t always sure she wanted to write mystery—as you’ll see in this post.  —Janet Hutchings

My serendipitous discovery of William Goldman’s novel, Marathon Man is a marker in my writing life. Before and after. In the Before stage, I spent too long shopping around a literary novel no publisher wanted to touch. I finally gave up and was licking my wounds, trying to distract myself by reading mystery novels. They were charming amusement and I loved them. Then I stumbled upon Marathon Man and realized that an entertaining book could have gravitas. It made me rethink what I wanted to write. Though many years have passed, I still remember thinking while I read it: if I could write a novel half as good as this one, I’d be happy.

I am a finicky reader. I don’t say this with pride but embarrassment. Some books considered essential reading for mystery writers gather dust in my library. I want to read them but have trouble getting past page three. It’s humbling to admit but I have precious little control over my mind. It thinks what it thinks. And if it thinks Nancy Drew is a bore, well, my eyes glaze over on page three. When I find a book I like, it’s a revelation. I was never a fan of thrillers, but Marathon Man pulled me into its life and wouldn’t let go. The story throws the reader around as much as any in the genre, but it also takes the time to develop character, devoting more pages than you’d expect to delineate the leading roles—Babe, Scylla, and Doc—though it’s painless because Goldman knows how to keep our attention. Sometimes you wonder if you’re actually in a thriller, then all hell breaks loose. Goldman doesn’t follow rules. He aims to entertain, but also takes great pains to make us understand.

The villain in the book, Szell, is a Nazi dentist who worked on concentration camp prisoners, but the emotional depth of the story arises out of family relationships. Babe and his older brother, Doc, are tied together by their tragic past: their father, a brilliant historian committed suicide after being accused of spying during the McCarthy era. (I only recently learned that Goldman’s own father had committed suicide.) Though the brothers live in different cities, they are close; Babe was ten when he discovered his father’s body. Afterwards Doc, ten years older, becomes a surrogate parent.

One of Goldman’s many talents lies in manipulating the reader, holding back crucial information until he deigns to reveal it. Deliberate obfuscation. But isn’t that why we read mysteries—to have the writer pull the wool over our eyes and then be thrilled when the blind is lifted bit by bit until the secret is revealed? Halfway through Marathon Man Goldman hits the reader with a gut punch. The construction of the book with its different points of view hides a key piece of information in plain sight. We have Babe, a brilliant grad student in history, who is training in New York’s Central Park to run a marathon; Scylla, a tough secret agent whose main job seems to be killing people; and Doc, traveling the world in the oil business. And there’s a short chapter about a mysterious unnamed man traveling in disguise from the Paraguayan jungle to Manhattan.

Doc comes to New York at Babe’s invitation to meet the woman he’s fallen in love with. In a swanky restaurant, Doc throws hostile questions at Elsa and implies that she has ulterior motives for her affair with Babe. Soon after the unnamed man arrives in New York, Scylla meets him in Central Park. From their conversation we know they have a working relationship. So we are astounded when the man pulls out a long switchblade knife attached to his arm and stabs Scylla in the stomach, leaving him for dead. It’s a brutal scene that was edited down in the film version because the preview audience found it too violent. Scylla manages to pull himself up and stumble away, holding his stomach together with his arms.

(Spoiler) The shock comes when Doc shows up at Babe’s door, mortally wounded. Only then, in an emotional moment of clarity, do we connect Scylla with Doc. Not wanting to die alone, he drags himself to Babe’s apartment to die in his brother’s arms. I’ve never forgotten that instant of realization, like scales dropping from the eyes. Goldman was a magician.

I envied him, playing mind games with the reader. I wanted some of that fun for myself. In the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I lifted a few items from Marathon Man for my first mystery novel, To Die in Spring.

Though it is not original to Goldman, he uses chapters from different points of view to advantage. In the end, the sum of the parts creates a rich mine of character and setting. He performs sleight of hand by presenting three points of view which are, in fact, only two people. But I’m not Goldman (who is?) and the plot points in my book are less of a twist (by a wily writer) and more a result of events held back from the reader (by a writer trying to be wily). I admired his skill with structure and decided to include three points of view in my novel: Dr. Rebecca Temple, a young widow who practices medicine in Toronto in 1979; her patient, Goldie, who is paranoid after being tortured in Argentina in the 1970s by the junta; and Nesha, who survived the Holocaust as a child while most of his family were murdered.

Marathon Man is a chase, while To Die in Spring is a puzzle. The Scylla chapters move frenetically and once he’s killed, the pace ramps up for Babe. The Nazi can’t understand that Scylla, the double agent, struggled so hard to reach Babe in his final moments not to tell him the secret about the diamonds stored in the safe deposit box, but to die in his brother’s arms. The dentist tortures Babe by drilling into a nerve (tapping into our worst nightmares about dentists) but he’s a marathoner and manages to escape. I don’t enjoy reading or writing torture scenes, but Goldie’s past in Argentina required it. It was a similarity between our books that I hadn’t planned.

Putting together a puzzle is much harder than it looks. The pieces must all appear at odds but then must fall into place. It took me years of writing and rewriting to build the puzzle of the novel into a satisfying whole. It was an evolution from my “literary” past. What sets the genre story apart from the literary one is plot and structure. A literary book is forgiven for meandering if the writing is stellar. A mystery novel, not so much. Some people feel that genre stories are formulaic, but there is so much room to maneuver that they can be taken almost anywhere. The lines are often blurred and stories by literary authors like Margaret Atwood get awards for crime writing.

In homage to Goldman’s running theme, I had Rebecca take up speed walking. She is in mourning after the death of her young husband from complications of diabetes. As a doctor, she should have recognized the signs earlier and carries around guilt. To feel better, she buys new running shoes and speed walks through Kensington Market, a landmark as iconic to Toronto as Central Park is to New York. The settings in both books are focus points for much of the action. While both novels have Nazi villains, the dentist in Marathon Man is clearly defined as evil, while the officer in To Die in Spring, once identified, is more nuanced, almost bureaucratic, thereby more frightening.

In a weird coincidence, I wrote the Nesha character, with his soulful eyes and dark curly hair, with Dustin Hoffman in mind. The same actor who played Babe in the Marathon Man movie. After it was published, To Die in Spring was nominated for a Crime Writers of Canada award for best first novel. If not for Marathon Man, the book might never have been written.

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2 Responses to Running With Marathon Man, or How I Stopped Worrying About Genre and Learned to Write Mystery (by Sylvia Maultash Warsh)

  1. Donna Carrick says:

    Great article, Sylvia!

  2. Abe Margel says:

    A penetratingly and delightful article. Thank you.

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