Thus far in planning Where The Light Gets In, I’ve had a good grasp on the friendship between Bernard Flynn
and Jace Brock
— the backbone of the novel. My primary concern has always been, most broadly, the matter of the salvation of Jace’s soul. When he goes missing at the outset, this places him in a metaphorical purgatory while Bernard unearths the sins that led to the disappearance. The deepest questions I’m hoping to explore are ones such as: How do people become strangers to themselves as they age? What leads them to stray from the path of goodness? If you’ve lost the most important parts of your own self, how do you maintain relationships? Which kinds of secrets, held tight in the fist of the heart, seep into our blood like poison and corrupt? How do you continue to love somebody who has done unforgivable things — or cease to love them?
I’m good on that stuff. But the fact is that this is a mystery and, even if it’s not a traditional one, I still need the basic scaffolding of mystery plot elements to lend this thing shape. Otherwise it’s just a long, meandering story about two repressed college guys trying subtly to figure out whether they want to bang or not.
I know where I want to end up. Whodunnit, so to speak. I have the motive. I’ve identified groups of people close to Jace who are hiding things: his sisters, his ailing mother, people he’s slept with, a coworker, his frat bros. I’ve intimately explored the backstory of his friendship with Bernard, the slow dissolution of that bond, and how the history of their relationship actually holds vital clues to the circumstances of his disappearance, and subsequent murder. What I’m missing is the connective tissue. In my first draft the parts that are dismally, dismayingly bad are the actual “sleuthing” bits. Bernard just sorta wanders around until someone tells him something useful, instead of following compelling clues and leading readers purposefully, inevitably towards the denouement.
Boning up on the genre the past two months has led me to identify the main problem here: there’s no milieu in early versions of the story. There are people Jace knows, and people Bernard knows, but they are not connected to one another, which makes it difficult for the plot to have any cohesion. The best mysteries in the tradition I’m emulating have a deep sense of place, culture, history, secrets, and a web of relationships and interconnected motives that the detective-figure must unravel in order to identify the secrets relevant to the case. It’s also important that, even while misdirecting the audience, a red herring will lend something vital to the plot: relevant information in disguise, character shading, atmosphere, etc. Preferably it will accomplish several of these goals at once, even while leading the reader down the garden path.
Anyway, my problem’s been that there’s no easy way to connect these people, or create a sense of a closed community amongst whom it would be natural for Bernard to begin making inquiries. Jace’s sisters are much older than him, and therefore not likely to be friendly with his frat. It’s also necessary that they, his sisters, not have been in close contact with Jace for years (at least not to Bernard’s knowledge). Two other important characters live on the other side of the country, and whatever knowledge either of these women have of him, or how they’d have acquired such knowledge, is left in shadow for 75% of the novel.
What’s become obvious is that I need to move the frat to the foreground much earlier than I did originally, but to do so in a way that doesn’t arouse reader’s suspicion that Jace was a major part of any shady dealings Bernard suspects some brothers to have had a hand in. This could prove difficult… I feel anybody reading with awareness of mystery tropes will be on the lookout for clues that Jace was up to no good himself. I’m relying on Bernard’s tender affection for Jace to overpower readers’ good sense. Their relationship is often adorable; they’re funny; they look out for one another through difficult times. If I play my cards right, nobody will think that Jace could have done something too bad– that, at worst, he was a good kid who got in over his head by making a couple of stupid mistakes. I think the fact that the book’s more litfic than mystery will help me here. The manner in which Bernard relays the story will, hopefully, put people off guard and therefore not realize the type of story they’re reading until the ‘final revelation’.
But yes. The frat.
I like the idea of making these guys more central to the entire novel, because the frat itself is the type of inherently interesting, deeply historied, incestuously close community within which one should construct a delectably dense mystery. It’s associated with some of the larger concerns of the novel: toxic masculinity, gender and sexuality, homophobia, male friendships, old money and privilege, Southern culture, family, religion, community, closely-guarded secrets, growing up. And so on. The one thing my characters have in common is their ties to the university, so placing the frat so it’s woven into the college town’s culture is a good start in figuring out how Jace’s family and coworkers would be connected to these guys.
One of Jace’s sisters — Avery Brock, whom I’m hoping to cast in a suspicious light early into the proceedings —
has a history of drug abuse, and of dealing, so it’s easy to imagine how she might have come to know a few of the brothers. Also, while the Brocks are a large, poor family (Jace has seven sisters), I’ve always imagined that they come from old money and have lived in the town for generations. If the fraternity mostly consists of good ole boy types, and Jace is welcomed because of the Brock name, despite being a total nerd as a teen, I could establish some old ties between their families. Maybe some are the Brocks’ close neighbors. They see each other at church, at restaurants, community functions, football games. Many alums stick around after graduating and have children who go to the university, graduate, and do the same. It’s the kind of small town atmosphere that’s hard to escape from, even if you’ve gotten your degree and have the freedom to go anywhere.
If many of these guys are still around it also fits my portrait of a generation of young people who have stagnated, and in some way are stuck in time: unable to move on from their old, tired obsessions; the beloved objects of their childhoods.
This is also a good, subtle way to create an early schism between Bernard and Jace. Because even though Bernard is the more apparently privileged of the pair (his parents are wealthy and attentive, he’s a bright sociable child, he makes better grades, he’s always having to help Jace avoid bullies and navigate the rungs of high school hierarchy), he is an outsider. His parents are Yanks (NYU alums both) and work in academia. His dad’s Irish, from a lower-middle class family in NYC; his mom’s black, family from the affluent suburbs of NJ. Bernard’s at a twin disadvantage: because of his race, and because he reeks of being “not from around here” despite living in SC since he was 5 years old, because his family lacks that deep Southern rootedness. The fact that the Flynns are Catholic doesn’t help matters.
Bernard’s never quite able to get some of what drives Jace, because he’s not invited to be a part of the culture that shapes him. He never is subject to the pressure to conform (and, really, the desire for conformity at all costs is Jace’s fatal flaw) because, however subtly, Bernard gets the message his whole life “You’ll never be one of us, so don’t even try.” At an early age, he comes to peace with the fact that people will always regard him as a bit of a weirdo, and stops caring. If anything, he leans into his natural eccentricity as he ages. Jace, on the other hand, craves normalcy and acceptance after years of being bullied by the kids at his school, and by his own family.
It’s fitting, then, that choosing to join the frat should be the action that leads Jace down the path which ends in him becoming — ahem — a huge asshole. It’s something that literally only happens because of his privileges as a Southern white boy. Bernard never was given the choice. And that’s where their paths begin to diverge.
More to come. Off to do additional research on frats. God preserve my soul.