The Case of the Unfinished Whodunits

I have written previously that early on I discovered that I had very little talent for plotting or developing characters, but that didn’t stop me from getting ideas for novels or plays or screenplays; it just meant that I never actually got around to fleshing them out and committing them to paper or word processor. Most of the time these were ideas for whodunits, where the characters were very loosely based on the people I knew and inspired by the situations I found myself in.

For example, in the late 70s when I had a weekly show on a classical music radio station in Harrisburg, PA, I actually plotted out a whodunit in pretty great detail where the amateur detective was, ahem, a fellow who had a classical music program on a Harrisburg radio station.

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I no longer remember most of the details about that particular plot except that early on there was supposed to be a comic scene where the protagonist accidentally presses the wrong switch while doing his show, and instead of sending the music over the airwaves he ends up broadcasting a very embarrassing personal conversation from his broadcast booth. That, of course, was foreshadowing for the denouement where he confronts the killer during another broadcast of his show, and he’s able to get the killer to confess unknowingly over the airwaves, which confession summons the police to the station just in time to prevent yet another killing. (And yes, I know that radio stations, including the one where I had my show, are designed so that accidentally broadcasting audio from the booth instead of the music could not happen; this hinged on there being a glitch in the electronics that was not repaired in time.)

Then there’s my idea for a screenplay. You’ve all seen the classic car chase scene a hundred times, often as the climax of a movie or TV show, where either the chaser or the chasee narrowly misses hitting a woman pushing her baby carriage, or they run through a fruit vendor’s stand, sending his fruits flying hither and yon, or they cause another group of cars to collide when they run a red light. Well, my idea is to start the movie with the car chase and have the camera linger on these seemingly incidental people just a little longer than usual, and then the car chase disappears from view, and the action flips back, say, to a few days earlier and we follow the stories of those seemingly incidental characters, and the movie is really about them, and the car chase becomes a climactic moment or turning point in their stories.

Back in the mid 90s I was a regular patron of the late, lamented Café Einstein, and I got to know the staff pretty well. One evening a couple came in, and one of the servers filled me in on their backstory. They had had their first date at Café Einstein the previous year, and tonight the guy was planning to pop the question. In anticipation of her replying in the affirmative, his best friend had ordered and paid for a bottle of the finest champagne to be served to their table at that most romantic moment.

Well, the atmosphere was full of anticipation, but as the evening wore on, nothing seemed to be happening until finally the guy signaled for the check, which he quickly paid, and the couple left. I never did find out what happened.

But it did give me an idea for a one act play. A comedy.

The scene would be a restaurant, and it would begin with the staff discussing the exact setup that I just described. Then the couple would arrive, and every time he was about to propose, something would interfere to stop him. A loud arguing couple at the table next to theirs. A server spilling wine on his not-yet-fiancé’s dress. You get the idea. This goes on for about 45 minutes until pandemonium breaks out in the restaurant, and the couple just slink out to escape the madness.

The problem with those last two ideas is that they are just gimmicks. No characters involved to flesh them out.

Anyway around that same time in the mid 90s, I read an article in one of the local free weekly papers by a woman who claimed quite proudly that she was a neighborhood watchdog, and whenever she saw something the least bit suspicious, she called the police. As a result, she was allegedly responsible for quite a few arrests for crimes great and small.

Hmmm, I thought. Suppose that woman went to a restaurant and loudly proclaimed that she was the writer of the article. And suppose that before she finished her meal, she collapsed and her face fell into her plate of linguini. Wouldn’t that be a nifty setup for a whodunit with lots of suspects and potential motives for murder? I’ve actually developed that idea a bit further, and who knows? Maybe I’ll even try to write it one of these days.

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