I had already written six books when I began organizing the mystery novel Murder at Eastern Columbia. I had not yet come up with the “novel within a novel” feature, but I did know my main character would be a writer who would have a fictional alter ego. Through much thinking and planning, this alter ego turned into the unnamed detective who has now co-starred in three of the James Murray Mystery novels.
The main character of the novels, writer James Murray, is a huge fan of the mystery novels of Dashiell Hammett. That mirrors my fascination with the detectives that appeared in film, books and especially radio in the mid-twentieth century: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Barrie Craig, Johnny Dollar, The Falcon, the Thin Man and countless others. That fascination was channeled into James’s alter ego -- but with one big difference: he’s not a detective and he’s not a police officer. He’s just a guy who wants to help.
And help he does.
He follows James’s lead (literally) in three adventures (so far) starting with the murder of James’s co-worker that sends James and the unnamed detective on a whirlwind tour of 1930s downtown Los Angeles as they each try to solve the murder of the girl with sorrel-colored hair. In the second book, Sabotage at RKO Studio, he goes to work at a movie studio when James gets hired as a junior script writer. They both try to find out who’s sabotaging films being made on the lot -- including the big blockbuster King Kong. In the third book, Abduction at Griffith Observatory, James’s life continues on an upswing, but he’s soon drawn into trying to find the person who was kidnapped from the grounds of the new observatory.
I love writing this unnamed detective because he’s all the things that James and I are not. He’s tough, he’s a chick magnet, he’s good with his fists when he needs to be. But, like James and I, he’s also intuitive, smart, and has a good heart.
My detective also bleeds when he’s wounded -- literally and figuratively. He’s had a tough life, but he’s trying to make it better, to rise above the hand dealt him. He survived an abusive mother and an uncaring father to mature in college. He then struck out on his own and accidentally got into the detecting business trying to help a wealthy society dame find her kidnapped pooch. One investigative job led to another, then another -- and now he’s known around Los Angeles as a man who can get the job done.
What adventures await the unnamed detective? That all depends on what happens to James in his life because, as we all know, writers take the adventures of their lives and turn them into their fiction.
There are some pretty exciting adventures in store for James, and he’ll have his ups and downs -- but so will the unnamed detective. So, is it a case of life imitating art? For the unnamed detective, it’s a case of art imitating life.