Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels

This is one of those tempting, plain, and slightly grubby tomes tucked in among its fellows, both the shiny-new and the well thumbed, on the local library's mystery shelves. Reinforced library binding, imprinted with a groovy, green-amber-brown Greek key design; pages as soft as velvet with age and use; no jacket, no blurbs, no summary. Chapter 1: "The Black Tower of Dunnoch. I saw it first at twilight ...."

I have a great respect for people who can sit down and think out a plot. As the years go on I grow more and more convinced within myself that I have no head for it. In this case, author Barbara Michaels has set herself the challenge of creating a romantic mystery in which, one, there is no murder or theft or kidnapping for anyone to solve, and two, the romantic hero plausibly and repeatedly rejects the heroine. The problem he is struggling with does prove to be, as Damaris realizes late, "so simple, and so deadly, that it took my breath away." But as mysteries go, Mr. Gavin Hamilton's problem is almost, almost intellectual and nothing more. The story is oddly bloodless, and yet coolly intriguing as a result. I read it over two nights (did I mention the large print?), and found it a very pleasant antidote to whatever dull thing was on the family TV. And by the way, there are no heavy-breathing sex scenes. This must be either because the book was written in 1966 before all that became the norm, or because Miss Michaels was an old-fashioned lady.

I say I have no head for plot construction. Perhaps I have always gone about it backwards. I envision Miss Michaels sitting at her desk in 1966, and reasoning out, first, how all the threads are going to come together and why. That must happen at some point in the creative process, but perhaps also there are other ways to compose plots, more naturally. Perhaps one can sit down "with a blank piece of paper and an idea," as the writers' manuals all advise, and simply start working, to find that in time, characters and events unfold as they will. Perhaps it is this method which enables prolific writers to write twenty and thirty novels in a lifetime. The biggest trouble I see with composing plots -- however it is done, and I am no one to speak because I've never had fiction published, no doubt for good reason -- is that they so often resemble each other. History and biography are always unique and are also real; essays, sketches, belles-lettres reflect a unique viewpoint real for that writer at that time. One fictional plot, on the other hand, seems so much like another.

The Master of Black Tower, for example, is Jane Eyre all over again, only much diluted. There are howling, cold, isolated north Britain locations. There is a dark, scarred, brooding, upper-class older man, and an eighteen-year-old, proud but orphaned governess type. There is an ominous mansion with a closed-off wing. We meet the flip and laughing local gentry woman, hard, blond, and well-dressed. We are shocked by revelations about the hero's past -- and present. We mourn the heroine's despair. There are good servants and bad servants. It is Jane Eyre even to the intervention of the supernatural towards the end, when Damaris, standing at a window and looking out at black night, seems to hear a call to go back.

All enjoyable, to be sure, but didn't Barbara Michaels as she typed busily away realize the resemblance? Would it have stifled her creativity if she had? It would stifle mine, but then perhaps I'm just a wimp when it comes to sitting down and working at fiction. I may be a wimp also when it comes to research. (This book seemed to show curiously little of that. Other authors routinely trowel in much more information on clothes and food alone, in a novel set in the mid-1800s.) I like research, but I ask myself -- if you have something valuable to say in fiction, even historical fiction, isn't endless research a kind of window dressing, pretty but in its details extraneous? Wimp, I am sure Miss Michaels would sniff.

I can heartily recommend The Master of Black Tower for a cozy winter afternoon, even as I eye Jane Eyre on my shelf and ask, what is the difference between competence -- a very noble thing -- and lush, extravagant, wildly gifted ability, not to say genius? There's a difference in vocabulary of course, in depth of character development and even in humor (" 'Am I hideous, Jane?' 'Very, sir. You always were, you know.' " ...' "Jane, leave me. Go and marry Rivers' "). There's a difference in the thickness of the book and in the size of the print. There is a difference in prolificity ...

...or so I hazarded a guess. My library copy of Black Tower lists Barbara Michaels as having written only one other book, called Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. This was her first novel, then, and I was free to imagine her either sinking back into obscurity in 1966, or going on to become some sort of queen of romance. Indeed, she did the latter. The internet is wonderful. I typed her name in the search box. There she is, auburn haired at eighty, with her own website complete with FAQs, and sixty-six novels to her credit written under two other names at least, plus non-fiction.

God bless her. Charlotte Bronte wrote one. Probably not much researched. God bless the pair of them.

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