THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF IDENTITY
DIGGING GOLDEN AGE MYSTERIES,
LAYER BY LAYER
My life is like a chocolate layer cake—or a messy archaeological dig. Not so strange, since my “day” job is working as an archaeological scientist at the University of Illinois . My other job—the one I do during late afternoons, evenings, and on weekends—is writing archaeological mysteries. My personal layers, past and present, include being a mom, a crazy cat lady, a former museum curator, wife to a pathologist, and a very bad potter.
I grew up in a household of readers and bookshelves stuffed with mysteries by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout, Michael Innes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of my favorite books is Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. So I was thrilled when the organizers of “Magna cum Murder” announced that the 2008 conference theme book was another favorite of mine: Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar . Why? Because it is a many-layered story, just like an archaeological dig.
Archaeologists love layers because layers, or strata, help them understand chronology: the top layer is the most recent and the deepest layer is the oldest. Near the top is the visible, obvious stuff—potsherds or arrowheads—while the hidden goodies—floors, foundations, and lost heirlooms—are underneath.
Readers love well-constructed mysteries because it's so much fun to dig down and uncover clues to crime and layers of identity, plot, and subplot.
In Tey's masterpiece, the top layer is about a young man named Brat Farrar deciding to impersonate a lost heir. We the readers don't even know if we like him, if he can possibly be the hero of the story. As we delve into the book—the deeper layers—we learn about Brat's background as an orphan and his growing sympathy with Patrick Ashby, the dead boy he is trying to supplant. We also learn about Timber, the charming conceited horse who likes to get rid of riders by crushing them under hanging branches or mashing them against fences—and Simon Ashby, who is somehow like Timber.
The deepest layer in a mystery dig is reserved for the chief villain who has his own layers that are not immediately visible to the reader. At this lowest stratum, the murderer worries the corpses of past wrongs and plots revenge. At crucial points in the plot, he surfaces suddenly, like a ruin revealed by a bulldozer. In Brat Farrar , the darker side of Simon Ashby is revealed in sudden glimpses, as when he tampers with Brat's saddle in the horse race.
On an archaeological excavation, the layers are hardly ever neat and horizontal. Instead, they are slanted and crisscrossed, thrust up and down by the movements of the earth, changes in water flow, animal burrows, tree roots, and man-made trenches, walls, and garbage pits.
In a good mystery, the layers are similarly complex, with obstacles, subplots, minor characters, and red herrings cluttering up the surface and obscuring the depths. One of the things that messes up Brat Farrar's role as an imposter is how much he likes some members of the Ashby family—something he never expected to do. Simon throws up another obstacle when he encourages Brat to ride Timber without a proper warning about the horse's murderous little tricks.
Subplots, like tunneling tree roots, interrupt the main story and distract both the hero and the reader. Some creep along the surface; others tunnel in unexpected directions, causing havoc lower down. These “roots” can be personality conflicts or a love interest—like Brat's growing fondness for Eleanor—that suck up the hero's energy and prevent him from solving the mystery that's right under his nose.
Let's return to the garbage pit, my favorite part of this analogy. In an archaeological dig, a garbage pit is dug by a later civilization down through the debris of an earlier one, thus disrupting the layers. In a mystery, the garbage pit contains family emotional baggage. In Brat Farrar , one garbage pit is the unfinished business of Pat Ashby's disappearance: Bea and Eleanor never understood why Pat left in the first place, and why he never wrote to his grieving family. Simon's garbage is his frustration and rage, first at losing his inheritance, secondly at failing to kill Pat the first time. And Simon's colossal conceit, Tey's defining characteristic of the true villain, is the trait that makes him resemble Timber.
Our favorite characters are layered ones, such as the hero with a psychological handicap of some kind. Tey's Inspector Alan Grant is a man who loves puzzles and is good at his job; he is also vulnerable, as in The Singing Sands when he develops claustrophobia because of overwork.
Another kind of vulnerability is seen in Margery Allingham's Albert Campion in Traitor's Purse —a classic story about a hero losing his memory. Albert is normally so competent that he's a bit insufferable, but he's totally at sea when he gets a cosh on his head and forgets who he is in the middle of his most difficult and hair-raising case. We actually like him better than usual when he sees himself in a mirror and realizes he is middle-aged instead of young, and that he might actually lose his fiancée, Amanda Fitton, through sheer clumsiness.
When I reread Brat Farrar recently, I was struck by the parallels to Mary Stewart's wonderful romantic suspense novel, The Ivy Tree . Here identity is layered in a masterful way that completely dupes the reader. Heroine Mary Grey starts off like Brat, living in lonely furnished room, approached by stranger offering a chance to win an inheritance by impersonating another. The reader has no idea Mary really IS the missing heiress, Annabelle Winslow. And because there's an unmanageable horse that plays a significant role, I think Mary Stewart must have read Brat Farrar before she published her novel in 1961.
Another layered character is the villain who is sympathetic even while planning murder and mayhem, such as the mysterious Leslie Searle in Tey's To Love and be Wise . Leslie, a woman disguised as a man, is plotting a murder, but her role-playing backfires and causes all kinds of emotional havoc. Her motive for murder disappears when she discovers that her beloved dead cousin was not the person she appeared to be.
Then there's the despicable villain, like Betty Kane in Tey's The Franchise Affair . Betty is especially hateful because she deceives everyone by her appearance—she seems like such a well brought-up young girl. No one can believe that such a demure, composed-looking creature (“butter wouldn't melt in her little mouth”) could be vile enough to accuse two perfectly innocent ladies of kidnapping her and turning her into a household slave.
And finally we have the most layered villain of all—the villain who appears to be despicable but is in fact innocent: Richard III, the English king who was supposed to have murdered his nephews. Josephine Tey's exquisite novel, The Daughter of Time, is like an excavation in psychology. A hospitalized Alan Grant strips off layers of false testimony and slipshod history as he delves into textbooks and sources about Richard's reign and character. The reader, sympathizing with Grant, rises through emotional layers from apathy to passionate advocacy as the real villains—historians who don't check their facts—are unmasked.
How about the archaeology of red herrings? In a dig, red herrings are intrusive or out-of-place artifacts, while in a mystery they are stray clues that make the reader suspect the wrong person. A Roman coin carried deeper by a tunneling vole can confuse the archaeologist's understanding of stratigraphy and dating, just as a historian omitting vital evidence can trick a reader into thinking a king is a criminal.
If reading a good mystery novel is like digging an archaeological site from the top down, then writing a compelling mystery is like building a whole civilization—from the bottom up. The author lays foundations, digs wells, plans defenses, erects houses, and creates customs and history for people who will last through time. In other words, she creates complex, layered characters and a rich setting for future stories.