Jonathan Moore: Tragic Vibrations

Written by Jonathan Moore

JONATHAN MOORE is an attorney with the Honolulu firm of Kobayashi, Sugita & Goda. Before completing law school in New Orleans, he was an English teacher, the owner of Taiwan’s first Mexican restaurant, and an investigator for a criminal defense attorney in Washington D.C. He is the author of two previous novels, Close Reach and Redheads, which was short-listed for the Bram Stoker Award.


The writer Kenneth Millar, more widely known by his pen-name Ross Macdonald, was masterful when it came to ending novels. His endings are perfect—both inevitable and unexpected—and every time I finish one of his books, I am cast back to the beginning. It’s a pleasure to reread a Macdonald book. The second trip through is like walking a forest path in the daylight after having first passed through in the dark. You take the same route, but everything is different.

Macdonald spent a great deal of time thinking about the craft of crime writing, and he wrote a short book on the topic that I tracked down as I was revising my third novel. On Crime Writing was full great advice, but there was one insight in particular that stuck with me: “The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure.” 

When Macdonald thought about his novels, he visualized them in their entirety: each piece was part of a larger structure. His criticism of Raymond Chandler was that Chandler thought of plots as a vehicle for creating individual scenes, rather than creating individual scenes so that they worked seamlessly together in service of something larger.

In 2013, I finished writing The Poison Artist, and sent it to my agent. The book was meant to be an ambitious break from my previous novels—it’s a story about a toxicologist with a dark past, who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman while helping to investigate a series of homicides. I didn’t know what my agent would think of this book, but I only had to wait a day until my phone rang. She was excited—The characters! The mood! The language!—yet the entire time she was speaking, I could tell she was leading up to one terrible word: but.

Finally, she said it: but the ending, Jonathan. It has to change. Okay, I said. I can rewrite the ending. No problem.

I rewrote the ending once and sent it back, and we had the same call again, only this time it was slightly more dire. I couldn’t just change the ending; I had to find a way to change the ending but make it an organic outgrowth of everything that had come before it. Which meant, basically, I had to rewrite the whole book, and then fix the ending. I had a trip coming up, and I ordered a copy of On Crime Writing to bring with me. For ten days, my wife and I walked up Mount Kilimanjaro, and I thought about Macdonald’s words. What’s a tragic vibration? How do you make something run backwards through the structure of a story?

There’s a lot to be said for thin air and long walks. When I got home from Kilimanjaro, I sat down and did the rewrite. It didn’t take long, and this time, my agent loved it. The problem with my first draft was that I had a nice collection of scenes. I had done my research by watching autopsies at the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office, and I had interviewed scientists and doctors, and I had scoped out all the locations in an epic, nightlong bar crawl across San Francisco. So I had everything I needed to make the scenes work; I just had to find a way to fit them together to tell a larger story.

Of course, Chandler and Macdonald aren’t my only heroes, and weren’t the only voices in my head as I wrote (and rewrote) this book. I’ve often heard it said lately that we live in a golden age of good television. That may or may not be true, but we certainly live in a golden age of great popular fiction. The bar goes up and up. As long as there are Dennis Lehanes, Denise Minas and Michael Connellys, and Val McDermids out there; as long as Stephen King and Lee Child are putting out a book a year, and John le Carre is in good health, then we’re in good hands. The Poison Artist was my dark thank-you note to all of them, for all the nights they’ve kept me awake.

The Poison Artist

Published February 11, 2016

Orion Books Hbk £14.99



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