Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Endings

I have two signed books in my possession. One is Swann’s Last Song by Charles Salzberg. I met Mr. Salzberg at a NYC Pitch and Shop conference in March. He was the teacher of all things pitch-worthy/coach for our merry band of sixteen thriller/suspense/mystery writers hoping to entice an editor into reading our novels. It was a wonderful experience, and if you can afford it, it’s a lot of fun.

The Swann in Swann’s Last Song is Henry, a skiptracer. Think of a low-end P.I. tracking down folks who have skipped out on their bills. Swann is skilled, but knows his place. That’s why he’s surprised when an attractive, Upper East Side dame asks him to solve her husband’s murder. Mrs. Janus and her request are out of his league, but she’s willing to pay handsomely for his services. Swann is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one smelling so seductively of lilacs.

Off he goes, on a journey that will take him out of New York City to the emotional wasteland of L.A., the jungles of Mexico, and a dreary, postwar Berlin. His target, Mr. Janus, is no ordinary antique dealer. Swann uncovers the dead man’s convoluted history of pseudonyms and personas that vary from rock star to Mexican revolutionary to a German spy in search of the lost bones of the ‘Peking Man.’ As Swann sinks deeper into the mystery, the case becomes an obsession—something to be solved at all costs—money, safety, and sanity be damned.

With all the adventure, change of locals, and layering in this mystery, Swann reminds me of a latter day Indiana Jones. Then I discovered this book was written in the 70s. The reason it stayed shelved is a story in itself. Salzberg explains his original intention for this book in Writer’s Digest. (Feb. 2009)

“People, I imagined, would be lulled into thinking they were reading a typical mystery but would then be jolted into realizing it was something more, a literary novel of ideas disguised as something they thought they recognized: the classic, American detective novel.”

In an earlier version, Mr. Janus’s death turns out to be a random murder, unconnected with anything Swann worked so hard to discover. Publishers wouldn’t go for it. So Salzberg rewrote the final chapter.

I like the new ending better. Salzberg had a powerful idea: use a detective novel as a tool to illustrate how messy and unpredictable life can be. But he did such a bang-up job creating the tool that it overpowered his idea. Putting Swann through all that turmoil for naught is too harsh a sentence on the character and the reader. Besides, if Salzberg had kept the first ending, the wonderful opening quote from Ross McDonald wouldn’t fit. Instead he might be coerced into citing Macbeth’s oft-used “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Neither Swann nor Saltzberg are idiots. Nope, they’re too cool for school.

So check it out. Swann is a character not to be missed. Both the Writer’s Digest article and original ending are included. Let me know which ending you prefer.

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