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How to tell a Granny from a Big Bad Wolf.

Lately, I’ve been reading some fabulous books from Rosie’s Book Review Team and other sources, and thinking about them in terms of Christopher Booker’s metaplot theory. In the early seventies, Booker started working on a book. Thirty years later, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories was released. It claimed that all plots—from the Bible to a catfood commercial—fall into one (or more) of seven elemental plotlines. But he went on to simplify it further, observing that all plotlines fit into one overall meta plot. Using Little Red Riding Hood as a metaplot here, I first considered what Red’s story might look like as a YA dystopian. But now I’d like to consider how it applies to thrillers as a genre. 

META PLOTPOINT 1: The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come.

    • Fairytale. Once upon a time, a little girl is given a wonderful basket full of goodies. We’re talking the really good stuff—macarons fresh from Paris, artisan goat cheeses, and a box of special edition Swiss Chocolate Truffles—all done up in a fussy wicker basket from Fortnum & Mason. Then they tell her she has to give it away.
    • Thriller. IF Plotpoint 1 happens too fast for Red to keep up with clues but there’s granny blood everywhere and probably several explosions and chase scenes, it’s a trope-perfect THRILLER.

[Genre Note #1: If it turns out that Granny actually died in her sleep years ago but Red’s Mom and the Woodsman have been gaslighting her by sending her to visit ‘Granny’ when Red keeps having flashbacks to the funeral, all so Mom can get her hands on Red’s inheritance, it’s a Psychological Thriller, and Wolf has to wean Red off the psychedelic drugs they’ve been slipping into the goodie basket Red has sampled so much she doesn’t even realize that wolves don’t actually talk.]

META PLOTPOINT 2: This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility

    • Fairytale. “Take these goodies to Granny,” Little Red’s mother tells her. “She lives in a cottage with wooded acreage, 3.2 bathrooms, four bedrooms, plus a spa room with a jacuzzi and home theater. It’s a long hike through the dark forest, though. And along the way you’ll have to watch out for wolves, real estate agents, and Joe the Woodsman who’s been sucking up to Granny lately. Granny’s old and ill, and she’s going to leave that cottage to someone. So you should definitely get your goodies in her door before Joe. They don’t call him the Woodsman for nothing! But whatever you do, look out for the wolf. Wolves are big and bad and spend a lot of time licking their private parts.”

“Gross,” says Little Red. She promises her mother to stick to the straight and narrow path.

    • Thriller.  Red tells the Big Bad Wolf, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over very many walks to Granny’s house, skills that make me a nightmare for wolves like you.”

[Genre Note #2: If the Woodsman and the Wolf knew (and loathed) each other back at Eton as “Chopper” and “Toothy” and if they are both pursuing a brilliant young data analyst code-named “Red” who has uncovered details of a massive conspiracy involving the highest levels of Government and Big Business, and if Red must smuggle the evidence clear across the corridors and avenues of Whitehall to “Granny”, the head of MI-5, this is a British Conspiracy Thriller and will be made into a BBC mini-series in which Granny is played by Judi Dench and Red is Fola Evans-Akingbola, who will totally ROCK that red hood.]

META PLOTPOINT 3: However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero has his first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost.

    • Fairytale. Red skips along the sunny path, surreptitiously munching on the odd macaron (which she’s sure Granny will never notice because she has to peer at everything through those teeny little Granny glasses). Red hasn’t gotten very far when her iPhone pings with a new friend request from ImaWulf. She checks as her mother taught her, and notices that Ima is already Facebook friends with some of her online BFFs including Goldilocks and all three Little Pigs. So she accepts the friend request and gets a private message.

“Thanks for friending! Watcha doin Red? XOXO”
“Goody run to Granny. You?”

“Um…I’m doing a Meals-on-Wheels pickup myself. KetchUp later!”

    • Thriller. Red is still worried about Granny, so she’s concerned when she comes across the friendly (too friendly?) Joe Woodsman, especially when she wonders if that’s his big axe or he’s just happy to see her.

[Genre note #3: If the axe turns out to actually be teeth, and the teeth turn out to belong to Red’s boyfriend Wolf during the full moon, while Granny is technically dead and slightly transparent, it’s a paranormal chick lit thriller.]

Depends on your POV (Image credit: quickmeme)/

[Genre note #4: If Red’s goodies are cupcakes from her own little red bakery, and her special posse includes Joe (her gay bestie who picks out all her clothes including her signature hooded cape), boyfriend Wolf (hunkalicious Chief of Police who keeps telling Red not to get involved even as he obligingly runs background checks on all her suspects), and Granny (who is, technically, dead. Lots.) it’s a cozy paranormal thriller. Although of course any actual sex, swearing, blood and/or gore will occur offstage, there will be the occasional knitting, probably cupcakes, and almost definitely cats.] 

META PLOTPOINT 4: This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost.

    • Fairytale. Sadly, what Red doesn’t know is that her new FB friend is none other than the Big Bad Wolf of song, legend, and several Public Service Announcements (which Red actually kind of enjoys because each one stars some sexy fairytale guy, usually with some seriously great background rap).Despite the fact that several of the PSAs had specifically warned about Granny-grabbing, Red skips along happily unaware that BBW has raced ahead and…there’s no other way to say this…eaten Granny. And not in the good way.
    • Thriller. Little Red arrives at Granny’s house at last. She spends a few minutes taking some outside measurements and mentally restocking the garden. Still, she has to admit there’s a lot of curb appeal in the old place. She’s a little sorry about eating so many of the macarons, but knocks anyway.

Inside Granny’s house, it’s surprisingly dark, and Red wonders if she’ll have to redo all the lighting and replace some windows. She can barely make out Granny, but politely mentions the size and amount of Granny’s teeth, hair, etc. Then she pulls out her Glock—it’s easy access under her cape, thanks to her concealed carry permit—and plugs Granny between the eyes because even in bad light she can tell the difference between a little old lady and a big bad wolf.

[Genre note #5: If Red’s family are a sleeper cell of spies sending coded messages via goodie basket and the wolf is actually an innocent bystander who stumbles into their scheme while simply looking for a little granny-snackage, it’s a conspiracy thriller. Wolf will eventually prove his innocence although not before Red is killed in the tragic crossfire of a final shootout between Granny and the Woodsman.]

META PLOTPOINT 5: Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds.

    • Fairytale: Just then, Joe the Woodsman comes in as he does every afternoon to show Granny his wood. Red points to the bulge in the Wolf’s tummy, and before she can stop him, Joe cuts open the wolf. So yeah, that’s pretty gross. Like Granny could survive being eaten by a wolf! To their surprise, however, that tummy bulge is actually a baby wolf. Joe the Woodsman delivers the baby wolf and decides to devote the rest of his life to reintroducing wolves into natural habitats such as local zoos and Disney films where they won’t be killed at the end of each fairytale.
    • Thriller. Little Red slaps a coat of paint over Granny’s cottage and flips it for a healthy profit, allowing her to move to Paris and set herself up with her own shop, Macarons du Petite Rouge, where she lives happily ever after.

[Genre Note #6: If Red is a child prodigy recruited by the CIA who slowly uncovers undercover conspirators at every level of her life, from the Woodsman who is spying on her to her boyfriend Wolf who has dark secrets of his own, but we gradually realize that she’s actually in a residential facility because she’s totally lost contact with reality—or is it paranoia if she’s actually right?—it’s a paranoid thriller and Red might just have a beautiful mind and win the Nobel Prize.]

For a couple of fantastic examples of thrillers, please see my review below of the latest book in the Madam Tulip series and come back tomorrow for my next reviews of remarkable thrillers by Alex Craigie, Thorne Moore, and Tom Trott. 

Madam Tulip and the Rainbow’s End: (A Madam Tulip mystery – Book 5) by David Ahern

On the private island of a rich banker, a young and talented stone-mason falls from a cliff. A tragic accident? Or murder?

After the collapse of their theatrical tour, actress Derry O’Donnell and sidekick Bruce must work to pay their way in a West of Ireland village. As Madam Tulip, Derry tells fortunes for a local charity only to be drawn into a maze of mystery and intrigue.

The dead man’s sister obsessed with justice and who will stop at nothing. A daughter bequeathed an island mansion beyond her means. A glamorous French widow and her heart-throb son certain they have been cheated of their legacy. Add an enigmatic letter hinting at a hidden fortune, and the reader is in for a gripping and humourous mystery adventure.

Madam Tulip and the Rainbow’s End is the fifth in the series of mystery-adventures in which out-of-luck actress Derry O’Donnell finds the End of the Rainbow may not be what it seems.

My Review: 5 stars out of 5

The cast of the Madam Tulip series includes some of my absolute favorite book friends, starting with the young actress, Derry O’Donnell—permanently broke and scratching for the next job in the Dublin theater scene, consistently dating the wrong flavor-of-the-week, while waiting for The Big Break—and her alter ego Madam Tulip*, celebrity psychic and fortune-teller. (*That’s Madam without an “e”, because she’s not married to Monsieur Tulip.)

As always, Derry’s supporting cast includes her parents, long-divorced but tied by bonds far deeper than mere matrimony—Vanessa is agent to internationally-famed painter Jacko, and their epic battles and schemes constantly threaten Derry’s finances and, with alarming frequency, her life.

In fact, experts have established that the murder of artists by their agents and vice versa exceeds even the shocking homicide rate between couples in television dance competitions, although well below that between partners in bridge.

This episode opens with Derry being roused from a well-earned rest in a hotel in the North West coast of Ireland where she and her fellow actors had celebrated their brilliant performance the night before. There is a mysterious text from her friend Bella, the show’s co-producer. Then Derry’s friend Bruce (gay ex-Navy Seal, actor, computer expert, and total eye-candy) breaks the bad news. The main producer has disappeared with the box office takings which were supposed to have been disbursed that day. The rest of the troop discretely decamps in the night as well, leaving Derry and Bruce with massive hotel bills they couldn’t hope to pay. Derry is considering a quick exit via fire-escape, but her best friend Bruce—not only an officer and a gentleman, but also an American and thus subject to unfortunate fits of integrity—insists on facing the music. Derry realizes that can mean only one thing: Madam Tulip must come out of retirement.

With a back-story involving recovery of Jacko’s early (and thus valuable) paintings, Derry agrees to allow Madam Tulip to tell fortunes for a local fundraiser, partly to repay the hotel owner, and partly to get her parents off her case.

Madam Tulip, a character created by Derry with the help of her theatrical friends, was a fortune-teller of elegant dress and mature years. She had an uncanny ability, whether with Tarot, cards or crystal, to help her clients answer those questions asked by people of all ages, genders and orientations since the beginning of human history. ‘Does he or she love me?’ ‘Will I be happy?’ ‘Will I be rich?’ What’s more, Madam Tulip was no kind of fraud. As the daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son, Derry O’Donnell had inherited modest abilities some would call psychic, although she had once described her gift as being about as useful as a lipstick in the shower.

But now that Derry has grudgingly accepted the accuracy of Madam Tulip’s fortune-telling, she begins to see the darker side of the people she meets, including a recently bereaved family who own several of the paintings her parents want to recover, and a devastated sister seeking answers in her brother’s death.

Madam Tulip’s adventures are full of humorous takes on the people Derry and Bruce meet, and The Rainbow’s End is no exception. But Derry’s growing belief in her alter-ego Madam Tulip’s predictions make her suspect almost everyone of sinister motives, a darker outlook that worries the naturally-optimistic Derry. “She wondered what was wrong with her. Had she always been so mistrustful of everyone? Of herself? Her innocence seemed to have ebbed away unnoticed while she had been doing other things.”

I reviewed Madam Tulip and the Rainbow’s End by David Ahern for Rosie’s Book Review Team

Madam Tulip and the Rainbow’s End is faithful to the tropes of the (slightly paranormal) cozy thriller. Like trope-definer Nancy Drew, Derry is captured, tied up, and rescued. But this adventure goes darker, their adversaries more chillingly amoral, Derry’s dark moment truly terrifying. Interestingly, Madam Tulip takes on a more three-dimensional reality even as the hunt intensifies for the missing code to accessing the physical unreality of a bitcoin fortune. When Derry dons her disguise, it’s Madam Tulip who speaks her own truths. “More than once she felt the shiver of recognition as that vista shyly revealed itself. And in those moments, Tulip felt the peace of knowing that the future could be befriended but never tamed.”

As I’ve said about earlier books in this wonderful series, for anyone who enjoys plenty of wisecracking banter, a cast of offbeat characters willing to risk their lives for each other, and a rollercoaster thriller plot, I really can’t recommend this series enough.