Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Whodunit? Suddenly Nobody Cared

Every novel creates a universe, a place where certain kinds of things happen, certain rules apply. There are no drive-by shootings in the academic New York mysteries of Amanda Cross. The streetwise N.Y.P.D. detectives in Ed Dee's procedurals never call their mothers.

But in the collision of worlds that was Sept. 11, 2001, the little universes of New York mystery writers took a punch to the gut. Plots in progress were sent reeling; characters, many of them police officers, had to change. Wedded to the city, local mystery writers had to deal with the day's events professionally no less than personally.

As Mr. Dee put it, "Nine-eleven was the 800-pound emotional gorilla for a writer."

With weekly deadlines, writers of New York-themed television shows like "Law and Order" were forced to start dealing with Sept. 11 long ago. But because of the slow pace of publishing, the first New York mysteries written (or revised) post-attack are just starting to appear, among them "The Bone Vault," the fifth in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series; "Small Town," by Lawrence Block, author of the Matthew Scudder series; and Evan Hunter's latest 87th Precinct novel, "Fat Ollie's Book," written under the pen name Ed McBain.

Along with others due in the next few months, these books present a weird, historic snapshot of the imagination, a study in how writers deal with adjusted visions of New York.

The results vary enormously. Some authors put Sept. 11 at the center of their mysteries; others reflect it only in the details of daily life. Many hurried to tell readers where their characters were that day. Others are still wondering themselves.

In early September 2001, S. J. Rozan, who normally writes about the private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, had just started writing her first stand-alone novel, a book about dirty real estate dealings in Harlem. (That September, a number of established writers of mystery series were lucky enough to be working on stand-alones, books with nonseries characters whose tones can differ substantially from their series. Stand-alones gave these authors unusual latitude to change timelines, characters and locales, plus an extra year or so to puzzle out how Sept. 11 would fit into their continuing characters' worlds.)

The Harlem book disappeared completely.

"After Sept. 11, it was for two reasons completely unwritable," Ms. Rozan said. "One was emotional: Whoever that woman was who dreamt up that book, she was gone."

The second was practical.

"The land grab in Harlem that I had in mind was not the issue," she said. "At that point, it was possible the entire real estate market would collapse."

The book Ms. Rozan wound up writing instead, called "Absent Friends," confronts Sept. 11 head on, telling four intertwined stories related to the death of a firefighter in the north tower of the trade center. Still unfinished, it focuses not on real estate but on what the author describes as "the nature and uses of truth, and the nature and uses of heroism."

Mr. Block, too, was at work on a stand-alone in the summer of 2001. "Small Town" was to be a big, multiple-viewpoint tale of New York. In part because of the attacks, he stopped writing for nine months. "The hundred pages I'd written reflected a pre-9/11 city, which was utterly changed," he said. "My immediate reaction was that I was just done with the book altogether."

But when he felt ready to write again, he found that the characters still interested him.

As with Ms. Rozan, his decision to put 9/11 at the center of his plot - it is too much a part of the mystery to say more - exposes him to the charge of exploitation, a charge most authors are eager to avoid. But, Mr. Block asked, "How can one write books that don't reflect the universe as it keeps revealing itself to us?"

For Donald Westlake, the answer is: You can't and you can. Mr. Westlake's comic criminal mastermind, the perennially luckless New York burglar John Dortmunder, is one of the fortunate few who will never know the planes hit.

"I think it's better for series characters if they live in a timeless cocoon," Mr. Westlake said, explaining why Sept. 11 will never figure into his Dortmunder series. "If Bertie Wooster and Jeeves were all of a sudden in an air raid, they're not the same people."

Nevertheless, Mr. Westlake found to his own surprise that "Money for Nothing," the comic non-Dortmunder novel he has been working on for the past year, has deep creative roots in the attacks. "It's a book without tall buildings or airplanes or terrorists," he said. Yet in its own way, "it's about the World Trade Center. It's a comic novel with dread."

Because New York is never named as such in Mr. Hunter's 87th Precinct series - the books take place in a nameless city suspiciously like New York - his challenge was somewhat different. "I have to walk a very careful line," he said. "If I say, 'The twin towers in New York,' the reader will say: 'What are you talking about? This is New York.' "

In "Fat Ollie's Book," the trade center attacks are mentioned only briefly, as a factor keeping the whole nation on edge. But there are many mentions of anthrax, long lines at airports, and people suddenly dressing in patriotic red, white and blue.

For writers tied to series overtly set in New York, timelines of new books suddenly demanded careful thought. In November 2001, Irene Marcuse sat down to plot the fourth book in her Anita Servi series, about a Manhattan social worker turned sleuth. "But projecting into the spring of 2002," she asked herself, "who knew what the world would look like?"

SHE wound up restricting "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge" to the New York of October 2001, complete with garbage trucks used as barricades and surreally polite New Yorkers. The book will be published this fall.

Jim Fusilli had already finished his second Terry Orr book, "A Well-Known Secret," in August, 2001, and given it to the publisher. But his story was supposed to take place in April of 2002, and his protagonists live just blocks from ground zero. After Sept. 11, Mr. Fusilli took back the manuscript to sketch in flashbacks to 9/11 and streetscapes of a decimated neighborhood. The book was finally published in November 2002.

Other authors had still other responses. With the fourth in his series just gone to press, Keith Snyder posted an additional chapter on his Web site. Jonathan Harrington, stunned after witnessing the destruction of the towers, turned back to an earlier form, poetry. And at least one book that just wasn't working before Sept 11 suddenly found its direction.

Peter Blauner was a year into his fifth thriller, set in the New York suburbs. But the tale wasn't coming together. "There was this feeling of dread hovering in the background that didn't seem justified," he said.

Yet even without rewriting, after Sept. 11, the book read differently.

"There was a scene in which one of the characters thinks back on how he got the job he's about to lose, and he remembers meeting his potential employer at Windows on the World," said Mr. Blauner, whose book will be published in May. "That's just a throwaway line on September 10th. It means something very different on Sept. 12."

The title of the book? "The Last Good Day."

Ellen Pall is the author of the New York-based Nine Muses Mysteries series. The second, "Slightly Abridged," will be published in April by St. Martin's Minotaur.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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