Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

“It is the fate of all authors and chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.” Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Dickens created approximately 650 imaginary friends over the course of his fifteen novels. They are some of the best known and most often quoted fictional characters in the world. The Artful Dodger, Wilkins Micawber, Ebenezer Scrooge, Madame Defarge, David Copperfield, Miss Havisham, Uriah Heep, and Sarah Gamp – who created her own imaginary friend to remind her how wonderful she was. Nasty villains, redeemed sinners, irrepressible optimists – each of these characters was mesmerizing in his and her own way. But however saddened Dickens may have been to leave them behind, he said goodbye on the last page and never looked back. None appeared in a subsequent book.

With a head so crowded with fascinating characters, Dickens probably didn’t become overly attached to any one of them. He furnished an account of their doings and moved on. There was always a fresh cast cropping up in the next novel. But for the writer of a series that features the same protagonist over and over again, book after book, saying goodbye entails a more poignant parting and an inevitable sense of nostalgia.

Mysteries tend to be written with a recurring main character, a detective who solves a different murder in each new book. My detective is a wannabe cultural anthropologist and amateur sleuth named Dinah Pelerin. Over the span of five books, she has taken on a life of her own. I know how she thinks and speaks and dresses, the ways in which her special knowledge helps, and the ways in which her flaws and eccentricities hinder. I know her deepest secrets and desires, her disappointments and her conflicts. Even as I invent her life and direct its course, I participate in all that she sees and experiences through the interactive play of imagination.

The author-protagonist relationship can feel intensely real, possibly signaling a psychological disorder. Freud took a dim view of imaginary playmates, believing they compensated for a disturbed childhood. Psychologists today associate the phenomenon more with creativity and normal cognitive development, but the diagnosis might be more problematic for an adult who continues to carry on conversations with her fictional friends and spends her life committing vicarious murders.

Killing walk-on characters is catnip to a mystery writer. We create particular characters for the sole purpose of turning them into corpses, and regardless how charming the villain, no one sheds a tear if, in the end, he dies in a hail of bullets or his head explodes after eating an air pellet. But killing off one’s principal character is a scary prospect.

Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock and plunged him three hundred feet off Reichenbach Falls to a certain death on the rocks below. Good riddance, thought Doyle. No more tedious ratiocination. No more flame-like intuitions and enigmatic remarks. Time to kick back and write that serious historical novel he’d always wanted to write. But Doyle couldn’t let go of Sherlock. He went on to write historical romances, horror stories, psychological suspense, science fiction, and stage plays, but he and his readers missed the sagacious Sherlock. After an eight-year hiatus, Doyle raised Sherlock from the dead and set him to work observing and deducing again. In fiction, death is strictly notional. Resurrection is always an option.

I’m too emotionally connected to my detective creation and too sentimental to push her off a cliff as Doyle did Sherlock. In Where the Bones Are Buried, I leave Dinah alive and kicking in Berlin, but I’ve decided to suspend the series for the time being. It’s not easy. She has been my imaginary friend for the last seven years. I’ll miss her Where the Bones are Buriedirreverent attitude, her unsparing wit, and her penchant for landing herself in dangerous predicaments in foreign climes. But like Doyle, I feel there’s a historical mystery percolating inside of me and I won’t be satisfied until it’s written.

I’ve conjured a new and very different protagonist, but I frequently slip and call her Dinah. I have a superabundance of engrossing historical detail to weave into my new Civil War era book. But when I hear of a mythical boiling river hidden deep in the Amazon, or I read about a man found sailing his ghost ship seven years after his death – I can’t help but think what a feast Dinah could make of such happenings.

Suppose she were to take a cruise on, say, the Arafura Sea. Her ship pulls alongside a drifting yacht and the crew discovers a mummified, salt-encrusted corpse at the helm. They go aboard, look inside the mummy’s wallet, and find a card that identifies him as Dinah’s — OMG! Stop! The Civil War, remember?

As that great philosopher Neil Sedaka said, “Breaking up is hard to do.”