I had a wonderful time last week visiting the Pequannock library. Rose Garwood, the librarian, and her staff, had decorated the room for Halloween – a perfect setting for my talk: How to Commit Murder - A Mystery Writer Offers Some Clues. There was a terrific turnout, delicious refreshments, and a lively discussion.
Knowing the vagaries of the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour, I arrived at the library about an hour early. It gave me time to wander throught the mystery section. I squealed with delight, earning astonished looks from other patrons, when I discovered a copy of Rest You Merry, the first book by Charlotte MacLeod, in her delightful Peter Shandy series. I think this was the first mystery that I ever read that included humor as part of the storyline. Dame Agatha and Arthur Conan Doyle always presented a first-rate whodunnit, but as might be expected, humor was not their strong suit.
In contrast, I was laughing hysterically when I finished the first chapter of Rest You Merry, perfectly envisioning the scene she’d drawn. There was the sweet curmudgeon, Professor Peter Shandy, exacting delightful revenge against his neighbors who insisted he decorate his home for the holidays. So before stealing away in the middle of the night, he pays for an over-the-top Christmas decoration extravaganza, including flashing lights and a taped recording of I Don’t Care Who You Are Fatty, Get Those Reindeer Off My Roof. Too bad – or maybe too good for us readers – but when poor Professor Shandy slinks home, he discovers a dead body in his over-decorated house.
I enjoyed skimming the mystery, but found myself intrigued by the introduction that Charlotte MacLeod had penned for this edition, published by the legendary Otto Penzler fifteen years after the book’s original debut. She described how she originally created the first chapter as a short story which she submitted to Yankee magazine “and waited for my check. What I got was my story, by return post, with a stiffish rejection. Yankee was not amused.”
I had one of those aha moments. Charlotte MacLeod, who at the time of her death had published 30 novels and won countless awards, understood exactly what happens when you send off what you think is prose that would make Willy Shakespeare weep – and get back a rejection that hints that you might instead consider a job in the great outdoors, herding sheep or something.
Ms. Macleod, who died in 2005, is described, in the Wikepedia entry, “as a ‘true lady’and often seen with hat and white gloves.” She had her own rituals for the creative process: She “began writing at 6 a.m., continued through the morning, then used the afternoon for rewrites. She only started new books on Sundays and during writing would stay dressed in a bathrobe to avoid the temptation of leaving the house for an errand.” I too often stay dressed in my bathrobe, but alas, mine is a result of slovenly habits.
In any case, ten years after that original rejection, Ms. MacLeod decided that the short story would make a wonderful first chapter…and Rest You Merry was born.
It made me think that it was time to go through the virtual drawers of my computer and pull out some of those early rejects. I’m not sure I’ll find gold like Ms. MacLeod, but who knows?