I know what you’re thinking. How hard can it be to assemble a human skeleton? The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the… And so on. But that oh so helpful mnemonic only works with real skeletons. (Plus you’d need over 200 verses to make sure you include all the bones.) The skeleton whose assembly I’m writing about is the kind that walks and talks, and that requires just a bit more thought.
You see, in A Skeleton in the Family, the first in my Family Skeleton series, Georgia Thackery moves back home with her teenaged daughter and has to face the family skeleton. Which is a skeleton. Named Sid. Sid walks, he talks, he makes bad jokes. And he won’t go back into the closet until Georgia helps him solve his own murder.
So the lyrics of ‘Dem Bones just wasn’t cutting it. Though I didn’t have to physically assemble Sid, my fictional ambulatory skeleton, I did have to lay out the rules by which he operates. And in devising those rules, I had two works to inspire me: the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the book The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton. Hey, they may be unusual choices for a mystery writer, but both are technically mysteries.
In one scene of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, detective Eddie Valiant accidentally gets handcuffed to Roger, and since they don’t have a key to the cuffs, they go through all kinds of problems to get the thing off. When Eddie finally gets a saw and starts hacking at the cuffs, Roger slips out of them to give him a better angle to work. Enraged, Eddie says, “You mean you could’ve taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” And Roger replied, “No, not at any time, only when it was funny.”
That lead to my first decision. Sid can do a lot of things, even if they don’t make a lot of sense, as long as they’re funny. Well funny to Sid, anyway–he has a low sense of humor. (Since I write his jokes, I should probably cop to the fact that I also have a low sense of humor.)
So Sid can pop his skull off of his shoulders and put it on somebody else’s, and still keep talking. In fact, he can let all his bones fall apart, and then pull them back together again. He give somebody a hand–literally. Moreover He can sigh dramatically without the benefit of lungs and make Bambi-eyes without eyeballs. Whether you chalk this up to Georgia being delusional or his being a atypical skeleton or a combination of the two is up to the reader.
Jokes aside, there has to be a reasonable limit to Sid’s “powers,” or else you get a detective who solves mysteries so quickly it’s no fun. That why Batman is the Great Detective, and Superman just isn’t. For a great example of setting limits in a paranormal setting, I looked to The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton.
The book, written by Larry Niven, is actually a trio of science fiction stories about Gil Hamilton, a police officer who lost his arm but realized he had psi powers by which he could manipulate a kind of imaginary arm. It’s weaker than a regular arm, but on the plus side, can reach through walls. But here’s the kicker–the imaginary arm is no longer than his real one had been. Even though he knows logically he should be able to reach as far as he wants, he can’t get pas that mental block. I gave Sid a similar mental block. He can’t do anything he can’t believe he can do.
So in the first book, Sid falls apart to fit inside a suitcase and uses his arm even though it’s not attached to the rest of him, because he’s in the same room. But in the second book–still in progress with the working title The Skeleton Takes A Bow–Sid is nearly helpless when his skull is in a different building than the rest of his body. He can talk, and presumably bite if somebody came close enough, but that’s about it. His body doesn’t wander around aimlessly like a chicken–or a skeleton–with its head cut off.
Here’s hoping that connecting the humor to the limits will help me hold Sid’s bones together.