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Thursday, 23 January 2014
A Protagonist is Born
Topic: Writing

In previous columns I provided not only the genesis of Deadly Lessons but also the roots of the character that would become the protagonist of the series: Winston Patrick.

As my publisher describes him: Winston Patrick, a successful lawyer but dissatisfied with his career defending the downtrodden of Vancouver's criminal world, trades in the courtroom for the high school classroom.

But he wasn’t always thus. A long time crime reader, my original plans for the genre had me creating a character that was a private detective. Certainly, my formative years in the genre had me deeply involved with the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. My introduction to the literary version, who I confess to occasionally having to ensure I am only paying homage to, not emulating, in my own writing, was originally sparked by my interest in the television series, Spenser for Hire, a show panned by most Spenser readers – and originally Parker himself. Of course, I was also a fan of Vega$ and S.W.A.T. so it’s entirely possible I was actually suffering the effects of a man-crush on Robert Urich. Creating a sleuth as my protagonist was pretty much a natural.

But I live in Canada. As much as nearly every seventh person in the state of California is a licensed private investigator, most of whom are licensed to carry a concealed weapon (of course, isn't everyone in California carrying a weapon?), I didn't know any in my circle of friends or acquaintances. Not even a distant cousin of the ex-girlfriend of a friend, kind of connection. And I had a hard time imagining what kind of private investigating they did: trying to scoop the starting line-ups of a client's opposing hockey team? What really is poutine and is it all a ploy by the cardio-thoracic industry to drive up national blood pressure rates?

Still, when I started looking for Spenser's north of the border equivalent, I found Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman series, set in fictional Grantham, Ontario, where Benny, essentially your divorce-photo snapping gumshoe found himself almost inadvertently solving more serious and deadly crimes that landed on his office doorstep, almost through no fault of his own. And in Benny, an inspiration for my west coast private eye was born: enter, Mickey Jones, Private Investigator.

Unlike so many of the hard boiled private detectives in the genre's literature in the U.S., I did not intend Mickey to be a former police officer, tired of the bureaucracy and politics of the institution, going out on his own. That would look like too much skill. In one of my earliest iterations of the character, Mickey was, in fact, an accountant who lost his licence after failing to properly account for money being laundered through a small company for whose books he was responsible. Recognizing that without accounting he had few skills on which to fall back, Mickey determines that he does have an inquisitive mind and the ability to solve puzzles - he was addicted to crosswords and could, given enough time on a Sunday afternoon, even complete the Sunday New York Times variant - key ingredients to being a successful private investigator. Plus there was the added bonus that the industry in British Columbia was entirely unregulated so his lack of any formal investigative training and expulsion from the only professional organization to which he had ever belonged, made it seem logical. That and the fact that when he looked in the Yellow Pages (that's how long ago I created the character) there was only one other in the city. It seemed the industry was ripe for the picking.

The challenge for me as a writer - and consequently for Mickey as a detective - was that I knew very little about detecting beyond what I'd read in the genre. This is what the idea of working with Mickey intriguing: I quite literally wanted him to solve mysteries more or less entirely by accident, that he would reach satisfactory conclusions despite himself. It meant that creating clue for Mickey to find to solve crime had to be the wrong clues that someone had him stumble onto the right ones.

Additionally, I didn't want Mickey to be tough. Even though many of my favourite detectives, both private and on the police pay roll, are unmistakably tough guys like the aforementioned Spenser, Elvis Cole, Hieronymus Bosch, I wanted Mickey to virtually never be able to rely on brawn to get him out of a scrape.

And of course, he was Presbyterian.


Next week: Enter Winston Patrick Part II - the evolution of Mickey to Winston

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PST
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