'This is one I made earlier' always reminds me of 'Blue Peter' (that's a British children's programme BTW, not a Dutch porn film). But I thought this was worth repeating. I did it originally for Penguin's 'Most Wanted' column (and you'll guess from the reference to Dan Brown's court case more or less its date) -- but I think a lot of the points made about an old (re-worked) plot or new still hold true today.
Old theme or new? Whether to push the boundaries or not?
Many a crime and thriller writer approaching their next novel – unless they’re writing in a set theme and mould, such as in a series, where marked change might well be counter-productive – will have asked themselves variations on the above question. To grab reader and market attention – to be the next ‘The Firm’, ‘The Lovely Bones’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code’ – the overriding temptation might be to try and break the boundaries, boldly go where no other crime or thriller writer has gone before.
Easier said than done. New and startlingly original ideas don’t just hover in the air waiting to be plucked out, and if that weren’t daunting enough for the writer, now at their wits’ end after months of musing on park benches or soaking in baths with still no ‘Eureka’ in sight – there’s that old adage that every single plot has already been done in one form or another. All that’s left to do is re-work that stock of old, worn plots and ideas in new and exciting ways; with different characters and locales, and fresh angles, twists and turns. Which is indeed what ends up happening 99% of the time.
With writing ‘Past Imperfect’, I was fortunate; the core of the plot was simply there one day, in a flash. The problem was that it was so extreme– involving past life regressions and parapsychology – that I became worried it would then verge into science fiction or even Stephen King/horror realms. So it needed reining in, for two reasons: first, to fit more comfortably under a crime umbrella, but secondly, and most importantly, to be grounded and believable to that same crime/thriller audience. The first bit of grounding came through seeing that core plot through the eyes of the doubters – detectives and prosecutors battle-hardened to extreme or ethereal evidence (and this indeed is a device that any writer could employ for an extreme plot); readers inclined to be more doubting could then view the proceedings by riding along comfortably from that perspective.
The second bit of grounding came from using an old and familiar plot – a detective pursuing one suspect dauntlessly throughout a lifetime. This was in fact the core plot of ‘Les Miserables’, and while conducting my research I discovered that it was probably the most re-used crime plot line of all time. ‘The Fugitive’, one of the longest-running TV series of the 60s (more recently made into a film with Harrison Ford) had this same plot as its foundation. So, in Past Imperfect, I had a cutting-edge plot combined with one of the oldest plot stalwarts. An unlikely mix, a true ying and yang, but it worked.
A year later ‘The Sixth Sense’ hit the movie screens, and two years after that Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ was published; the dead having an influence on living events was no longer original, was starting on its way to becoming a Les-Miserables-style old-faithful.
Around the same time as ‘Past Imperfect’, Michael Cordy came out with a book called ‘The Miracle Strain’ – a cutting-edge thriller involving the genes of Jesus (extracted from the shroud of Turin) being used for miracle cures today. I thought the author was going to do a human Jurassic Park and create a Jesus clone; but, thankfully, the DNA was used to save a child with an incurable disease (though I’m sure that the Jesus-clone plot will turn up at some stage by someone jumping on the Da Vinci bandwagon, if it hasn’t already done so).
Yet that is where our perception of old or new plot suddenly becomes warped; it only becomes a worn theme if we’ve been personally exposed to it before. Twenty million readers into ‘The Da Vinci Code’, they’re all suddenly enlightened – most prominently by a high-profile law-suit – that what they originally thought was an excitingly new take on Jesus and the history of the Catholic church, was in fact little more than a re-hash in thriller-form of a book originally written twenty years ago, ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’.
So, now that what was originally billed as the biggest cutting-edge blockbuster of the past twenty years has been debunked, is nothing sacred? I’m sure clergy and devout Christians were asking themselves exactly the same question when Dan Brown’s book first hit bestseller lists, albeit for different reasons. But it does bring us full circle again to the core adage that practically every plot has been done before in one form or other; and so, in the main, all that’s left to do is re-work them in new and exciting ways: different locales, characters, texture and speech patterns – all of this pulls the core plot away from its anchor and makes it less recognizable as ground we’ve trodden before.
Where that territory has become embarrassingly saturated, very often the reviews start with an excuse: ‘This treads the same old serial-killer ground we know so well, but the author does so with the freshest set of characters in years, with a one-legged hit man with a mother complex, and his pink-haired and pink-cat-suited side-kick with a passion for Harleys who is never without an Uzi in her tote bag…’ Sub-text: yes, this is the same tired old plot you’ve read a hundred times before, but the author has spiced things up with a new and quirky set of characters. The only problem with this cycle is that in order to keep that ‘freshness’, the characters tend to become more extreme each time. Some would no doubt argue that these characters merely reflect modern life, but Agatha Christie would nevertheless turn in her grave at the collection of limb-challenged hit-men, gun-toting lesbians, transvestite wrestlers and tattooed midgets that have invaded her tea-sipping, crime-scene drawing rooms – local vicar, butler and all-suspects-present – of seventy years ago.
But at the other end of the scale to those trying desperately to distance themselves from past plots, themes and characters, some books in fact revel in the fact that they’re re-works of old favourites. A recent Grisham-style legal thriller, ‘The Colour of Law’ re-hashes the hot-bed racial theme first visited in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ forty years ago – though now, updated to the modern age, money is more at the heart of the issue than race. ‘The Mercy of Thin Air’ is a 1920’s New Orleans’ re-take on ‘The Lovely Bones’; ‘The Alienist’ of a few years ago has Theodore Roosevelt as police Commissioner (before he became President) in a turn-of the-century New York mystery, and ‘The Arcanum’ – treading similar territory and period – manages to combine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and H.P Lovecraft all in the one novel. There’s even a recent American mystery titled ‘Holmes on the Range’, a tongue-in-cheek take on Sherlock Holmes in an unlikely Wild West setting - though I’m reliably informed by those partial to Jamaican Blue Velvet that it actually works. Then the countless re-workings of Jack-the-Ripper, Crippen, Rasputin and Sweeney Todd.
Sometimes, when shifting an old theme to the modern age, that change and freshness will automatically be there without having to resort to obscuring through oddball characters. Shift a classic love story from medieval Venice to present-day Verona Beach in upstate New York – the foundation for a modern film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet – and practically everything else changes at the same time. When re-working the ‘Les Miserables’ part of ‘Past Imperfect’, I found much the same. In the original novel, at heart a condemnation of post-Revolution France and its justice system, a man is pursued throughout his life for simple parole violation after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family; the police Inspector relentlessly hunting him down, Javert, becomes the baddie. I felt that transposed to the modern age, the boot would be on the other foot: a clever villain could get away with a heinous crime (in this case, the sexual assault and murder of a young boy) for practically a lifetime, and the detective pursuing him would become the wounded, reader-empathetic character. In that respect it was almost a complete reversal of ‘Les Miserables’.
Old plot or new? A re-vamp of a timeless stalwart that, simply by shifting to current-day, will inject the necessary freshness? Or serious repeat-offender territory where sharp new angles and fresh, quirky characters will be required? Still undecided? Perhaps the most fitting closing quote comes from no other than Dan Brown speaking recently in London’s High Court. While admitting that he had in part sourced from ‘The Holy Blood and Holy Grail’ (along with several other books, and not until a year into his research), he then deftly commented that he thought he’d brought to the table by far the most valuable element by repackaging all of that in readable, novel form. ‘The ideas are the easy part; ideas are everywhere. The hard part is getting the ideas to work as a novel.’
So, there you have it. It’s official. Straight from the mouth of the world’s current bestselling author: not only can a re-hashed old plot seem fresh and original, but if done right it can actually have far more impact than its core predecessor. That is, assuming Mr Brown wins the current court case; if he doesn’t, it will be run-for-the-hills time and no author in his right mind will touch another’s plot idea with a ten-foot barge pole.