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Pains in Various Parts of the Anatomy

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I’m sorry to be so incommunicado here lately.  I have this really weird allergic thing that happens to my eyes in very hot weather, and it’s been very hot weather nearly all summer now.  I get up to work on Gregor for a while, and then my eyes swell nearly shut, and I have to go put ice on them.

It makes for a very uneven work day.  And if I have to go outside at all, I’m a complete mess by the end of the day.  And, of course, I do have to go outside.  All the time.

But I have been thinking about those last comments.  And one thing that’s occured to me is that I don’t know a single writer who could pull off an excellent detective story on a consistent basis.

Good enough ones, yes–but that it’s got to be mystifying but then look inevitable when it’s explained thing actually occurs in the field on a very infrequent basis. 

Christie had a couple–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, At Bertram’s Hotel–but she, like most other detective story writers even in the Golden Age, tended to fall back on what I think of as the Really Complicated Plot.

In The ABC Murders, for instance, it all makes sense, but it assumes a murderer willing to go to Baroque lengths to carry out his scheme.   In A Pocket Full of Rye, the scheme is not only Baroque but full of  complicated confusions about nursery rhymes.

And I do tend to think that the best detective novel is the one where the issue is a really simple and straightforward murder.

And then there’s the problem posed by fair play.  If the writer is really playing fair with the reader, the chances are that at least some of the readers are going to “get it” before the solution is revealed at the end.

And sometimes time moves on, and what wouldn’t have been over obvious when the book was written gets that way.  For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcass, her readers probably found an exsanguinated body on a rock in the ocean to be totally mystifying.  I went, “Oh, Russian royality, hemophilia” and had the thing figured out before I was halfway through it.

Sometimes the only way to make the thing go at all is to have the detective look like an idiot.  In The Case of the One-Eyed Witness, the police and Perry Mason both blithely assume that a woman wearing a heavy dark veil must naturally be our suspect,  trying to fake an alibi.  The first thing I thought of was, “hmmm, dark veil, you can’t tell who that was,” and had the thing figured out long before the solution.

But dedicated mystery readers will have the crime figured out before the solution, more times than not.  If they didn’t, you’d have to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with them.  This is, after all, a form with its own conventions.  The kind of reader who likes solving puzzles in detective novels is going to have those conventions figured out by the time he’s read a dozen.

As for the detective story making demands on readers–I suppose it does, and I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked any longer when I find out that even readers don’t like to do any work.

But it’s possible to read a detective novel without trying to figure it out, and I once used to know people who did that.

I’ve got to go put ice on this eye.  It’s making me nuts.

Written by janeh

July 29th, 2010 at 5:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Pains in Various Parts of the Anatomy'

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  1. I agree. Even the greats couldn’t consistently deliver. (Bujold once observed that “genius” is, at best, a part-time activity, and I think she’s right.) And of course someone will figure it out early, while others won’t understand it even when it’s explained. But I think that “mystifying until it’s obvious” should always be the goal, and for me at least the greats often achieved it–just not always. And if it’s not that, what IS a Fair Play mystery trying to achieve?

    As for the conventions making the story predictable for the veterans, I’m not convinced. Carr and Christie, especially, seemed to take a special delight in scrupulous Fair Play mysteries which were traps for readers counting on conventions. Sayers had a touch of this too, which is why I still rank GAUDY NIGHT as one of the finest Fair Play mysteries. You keep waiting for it to settle down and be conventional until you suddenly realize that it’s over and you’ve had all the clues for some time. Stout does this now and then, too.

    I don’t honestly know whether readers are growing lazy. I mentioned it as a possibility, but it’s also true that it’s hard to find new stuff. The shelves are full of “crime fiction” only a fraction of which are mysteries, and even of that fraction, many are not Fair Play (or Detection Club Oath) mysteries. I’d have to find a likely candidate and read carefully cover to cover to be sure, while a plot summary and a glance through the pages would tell me if a book might pass as adventure fiction. Absent a good support network, the “safe” option is a known Golden Age author.

    You can–and I have, now and then–read a mystery without trying to work it out, but in that case the extra effort the author put into doing it right is wasted on me. Anything else with adequate characters, plot and settings will work equally well. “Sapper” perhaps? He’s set in the Golden Age, after all.

    Word of warning: apart from the mystery, the special burden of the Fair Play mystery is that everything else has to be right. Any mistake on the author’s part will be taken by the reader as a clue, and he’ll be rightly upset over it later. I once read a mystery which seemed to involve someone’s service in the Second World War, and which carefully described an oil painting in the character’s uniform. I observed that the uniform could not possibly be right, and geared my solutions on the character’s falsification of his military service. It turned out the author was just too lazy to find a suitable uniform guide. NOT a happy ending.

    Hope the eyes are better soon.


    29 Jul 10 at 4:07 pm

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