Monday, December 10, 2007

Hitch and Me

Keith Raffel here.

It’s a little embarrassing when I’m asked which writers inspire me. Now, I love mysteries and have been reading them since I picked up my first Hardy Boys book decades ago. Like so many crime fiction authors I count Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s Philip Marlowes, and Macdonald’s Lew Archers among my all-time favorites.

But here’s the thing. All three of that Holy Trinity write about private detectives who solve mysteries and rescue maidens as part of their job. One of Chandler’s books is even titled, Trouble is My Business. When it comes to my own scribbling, I like writing not about someone who seeks trouble, but someone whom troubles ambush. You know, a poor schmuck whose comfortable existence is shattered by an unexpected crisis. I find inspiration for that kind of story not from any particular book, but instead from movies, from Alfred Hitchcock movies, in fact.

In a prototypical Hitchcock film some unsuspecting soul (often Jimmy Stewart) gets embroiled in a crisis. (Here are five of my favorite examples: A tourist stumbles upon the key to an insidious spy ring, ("The 39 Steps"), a tennis pro strikes up a conversation with a psychopath ("Strangers on A Train"), a small town woman discovers her uncle is a serial murderer ("Shadow of a Doubt"), an invalid sees a murder across the courtyard ("Rear Window"), an advertising executive is mistaken as a secret agent ("North by Northwest").) By the end of the last reel, no matter what initial reluctance has been shown, the protagonist has discovered unexpected resourcefulness and courage in doing the right thing.

I think the power in the Hitchcock formula is that the audience can identify with the protagonist. “Hey,” we might think, “I wonder how I would react if caught up in a spy ring or if the target of a serial murderer.” I know when I submerge myself in writing, it’s this idea of testing whether the main character has what it takes that drives the story forward.

In the private detective novel, main characters don’t change much; they do their job. In the Hitchcockian crime novel, main characters may lead a boring life at the outset, but by the end they have grown and become heroes.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post and so on target, Keith! And you mentioned my all time fav Hitchcock -- Shadow of Doubt. 2nd fav - Dial M for Murder.

jbstanley said...

I too am a Hammett fan. I think the guy was brilliant. Keith, if you want to put a cool Hammett novel on your Christmas list, do a search for him on and start drooling. You can get a signed copy of my fav, The Thin Man, for a mere $8750. I hope Santa treats you right...

Great post, thanks for reminding us about the Masters.

Nina Wright said...

Keith, at the top of my Christmas Wish List is the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on DVD.

Although I can't claim that his work has directly influenced the mysteries I've written so far, several of his films--Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest--rank among my all-time favorites.

If, as I suspect, those films and others (including Psycho, The Birds, and Dial M for Murder) are engrained in our collective unconscious, then they profouncly shape our own and our readers' expectations. And that in turn shapes not only our writing but the realities of the market.

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Keith Raffel said...

Sue Ann and Nine, my favorite Hitchcock film, not the best, but the most fun, is To Catch A Thief. It sort of follows the Hitchcock paradigm of an innocent person getting stuck in the middle of a mess. I didn't mention it because the innocent is a retired jewel thief. I think the scene where Cary Grant walks Grace Kelly to her hotel room is one of the all timers. And JB, I have a cheaper way to get your fill of The Thin Man. Watch the movie! My daughter and I went to see it on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.

G.M. Malliet said...

Keith - I think you've nailed the reason why I'll always choose a Hitchcock film over a PI film. Hitchcock manages to engage...that person stuck in the middle is Everyman.

Mark Combes said...


I'm with you brother! My novels are about a guy that runs a dive shop in the Caribbean - hardly a super spy training ground.

But I wonder if we are alone in our love of the bumbling hero. Look at all the very top selling novels in the thriller/mystery genre and you'll find some pretty tough dudes and dudettes. Not sure what to make of that? Do readers want men and women of great skill in their action novels?