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Happy Endings

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So, yes, I know.  I’ve been less than diligent about the blog.  But the Gregor is going fine, and is likely to actually be handled in when promised, and I’m happy.

Right now, I want to address a question:

When reading mysteries–all kinds of mysteries, where you don’t know who the perpetrator is from off–does it matter to you if you figure out who the perpetrator is before the detective/protagonist/whoever does?

I want to discuss this with regard to a particular example, so I want to tell you right up front that what follows will be about Isaac Asimov’s Murder at the ABA, and that I will be giving away the ending.

Murder at the ABA was published in 1975.  I don’t know if it’s in print, and I don’t know if anybody reading this blog has read it or wants to read it.

But here’s the

                            SPOILER ALERT

Everything after this point will have specific information about this book, including the solution.

The ABA, for those of you who don’t know, is the American Booksellers Association, and this book is one of those things Asimov used to do from time to time as a kind of tour de force.  Asimov himself is in it, and the fourth wall breaks down every few pages.   The main character was almost certainly meant to resemble the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and since Asimov and Ellison were friends, my guess is that Ellison didn’t mind.

In spite of all that, however–the various footnotes meant to be from the supposed narrator and Asimov himself, the in jokes and the references that very few of the readers would have understood, or even been able to tell were happening, the book is a fairly standard and reasonably well constructed fair play mystery.

And it’s because that’s what this is that I was brought up short.

Because I knew who the killer was within maybe five pages of the body being discovered, and it probably didn’t take that long.

Here is the set up.

The victim is a writer names Giles Devore, who has had one big best seller and whose new book is just about to drop.  He has arrived at the ABA convention to schmooze booksellers and to make connections, because he is determined to drop his small publishers and go with a big house for his next book.

On the night before he is to do his Big Signing, he has a commitment that makes him worried he will not be back in time to get a package from the cloakroom that has been left for him by his wife.

He therefore gives the ticket for this package to Our Protagonist, and Our Protagonist promises to retrieve this package and leave it in Giles’s room.

Our Protagonist gets distracted, and doesn’t remember about the package until well into the next day.  He finds out that Giles has attempted to retrieve it himself, and not having the ticket has been refused.  Giles then had a fit and, in his autograph signing, had even more fits.

Our Protagonist finally retrieves the package and rushes up to Giles room to hand it over.

When he gets there, he finds Giles dead in the bathtub and clothes strewn all over the room, and a little pile of white powder that he is able to identify as heroin on the top of the bureau.

He immediately calls security, and a security guard named Michael Strong shows up. 

Our Protagonist points out that the clothes flung all over the room mean that this must be murder, and not an accident, because Giles was notoriously neurotic about folding his clothes neatly and putting them away.  He would never fling them about.

Michael Strong allows as how this isn’t much to go on, and that Giles may have had some reason for not following his usual routine.  Then he calls the head of security.

When the head of security shows up, Our Protagonist explains about the clothes and gets the same kind of so-what reaction.  Then he goes, “and on top of that, there’s heroin in this room!”

They look at the bureau as he points, and there is no sign of heroin there.  The top of the bureau is shiny and clean.

And at that point, of course, I knew that Michael Strong was the murderer.

I did not stop reading the book there, of course.  I read lots of books where I know who the murderer is.

But maybe because I didn’t know the murderer before I started reading, because I figured it out on the page, the rest of the book read very oddly to me.

For one thing, I could not get over the distinct feeling that, given the fact that Michael Strong was the murderer, a lot of the rest of the plot was simply superfluous.

It all felt beside the point–the exposition of Giles’s rancorous relationship with his small publishers, the various women Giles had tried to get to accommodate his very peculiar sexual habits, the highly uncordial relationship between Giles and the ABA and hotel staffs.

Part of it, I think, was that a lot of the subsidiary motives were not very believable to me.  There’s a famous story about some science fiction writer–it might have been Harlan Ellison, come to think of it–throwing a piece of office furniture through the window of Lester del Ray”s Manhattan office, and I never heard anybody say that del Ray had been ready to kill him.

Publishing people do not, in general, resort to physical violence agaisnt each other.  Some of them do other very nasty things, but the physical is just not part of the repertoire.

And although I think rape could lead a woman to murder, I’m not sure that I believe that a woman would kill a man for suggesting sex she found disgusting.  I’d believe it might cause her to slap him, or to knee him, or to run away in disgust, but why kill a man who isn’t trying to force you? 

I find myself, in the meantime, a little uncomfortable with this whole thing.

The people who walk up to you and go, “I figured it out before the end!” as if “figuring it out” is the gold standard of value for the fair play mystery, or any mystery, drive me crazy.

There ought to be more to a book–including a fair play mystery–than just “figuring it out.”  If that was all it was, nobody would ever reread mysteries, and plenty of people do.

So there’s a question–do you read mysteries to “figure them out”?  Is “figuring them out” the whole point, or the main one?  Is a mystery you can’t figure out until the writer tells you at the end better, and a more satisfying book, than one where you do?

I thought I had the answer to this, for me, a long time ago.

With this one book, though, my usual answer didn’t hold true.

I was less happy with this book because I figured it out that early.

Written by janeh

March 25th, 2012 at 9:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Happy Endings'

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  1. I don’t try to guess the ending because I like to go with the “flow” of the story. Given that I happily reread Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers etc., knowing the ending would not spoil the story for me.


    25 Mar 12 at 9:56 pm

  2. You mentioned “breaking the fourth wall” in the Asimov story. It’s been years since I read that, so I’m fuzzy on details, but in thinking about it, when I do figure out (or think I’ve figured out) the culprit, it permanently breaks that wall for me.

    From that point on, what I’m doing isn’t participating in the story so much as watching the author to see how they work things out, reveal the whole magillah to the denser readers, etc. It becomes less about suspense and more about technique, so while I sometimes feel a momentary sensation of triumph, often I end up wishing I hadn’t seen it coming.

    I’m currently reading a book (and wondering why I’m finishing it) where I not only figured out who dunnit, but who the dead body was going to be, and where the murder was going to take place, about 15 pages before the crime. :/ I know, it was a free Kindle download, so why not. Will not be pursuing other books by the same author, they’re pretty damn ham-handed and the editing on the book either non-existent or just as lame as the writing.

    I think that writers who seem to reveal the culprit, but at the end reveal that it’s someone else you never expected, and who did it for a really logical reason that was fairly hinted at earlier, are the real artists of this technique. Those kinds of writers are pretty thin on the ground.


    26 Mar 12 at 1:04 am

  3. I don’t need to figure them out myself. I like a suprise ending as long as I can see where the author got it from, thinking back over the book. I don’t always mind figuring it out early. I think it depends on how much I’m enjoying the book as a whole – I can think ‘Oh, I bet the butler did it’ and still enjoy reading how the characters in the book figure it out. However, if, ten pages into it, I think ‘Oh, no, this is another one in which the butler did it’ I feel cheated of a good read. I have to be well into the book and enjoying it in order for guessing the culprit to not bother me.

    I’m now going through some of R Austin Freeman’s works, and in some of the stories, you know up front who did the dirty deed. The interest is in how the hero works it out.

    On a side note, I was reminded of Jane’s students who just don’t get the fact that people in the past had different ideas about sexual morality and marriage than they do, and so miss motivations in older stories. One of Freeman’s stories features a young woman who gets herself involved with a villanous Jewish family (I’m not sure why it’s important that they’re Jewish, but it is), and goes through enormous moral agonies about whether her father, who has odd ideas, might commit suicide before she can sell herself to the person she sees as the principal villain (he’s also a victim) – but nevertheless considers herself bound legally to a man she won’t live with. The whole idea of marriage as a legal contract which couldn’t be broken sounds so alien today – and although she does, eventually, decide to form an illegitamite alliance with a much younger and nicer man, the author arranges things so she doesn’t actually have to do that.


    26 Mar 12 at 9:12 pm

  4. I’m not in a contest to figure it out before the protagonist, and usually don’t, and if there are Big Clues lying around that the protagonist misses but even I catch, I get Really Annoyed.

    I do need it to make sense to me once it’s revealed, but other than that it’s the people not the puzzle for me.


    26 Mar 12 at 10:54 pm

  5. Yep, that’s it for me too. I’m never in any hurry to try to figure out whodunnit. I read for people and places as much or more than anything else.


    27 Mar 12 at 3:10 am

  6. Depends. In the perfect mystery, I don’t know the who how and why until the author makes the Big Reveal, and then it’s head-slappingly obvious, but I have read and enjoyed many books which were not perfect.

    If the mystery is pretty much the whole point of the thing, than I can be seriously annoyed by either an obvious mystery or portion of the mystery–just how stupid does the author think I am?–or by the arbitrary ending, in which X is arrested or pleads guilty, but from all I can see Y and Z might just as easily have been the murderers. (I wrapped a mystery last week which still had, I think, four viable suspects when the police made the arrest. Our narrator appeared to have been cleared earlier on no evidence whatever.)

    But if the place or people are the important bit and the mystery just there to hang them together, the failure of the mystery is less critical.

    Mind you, one or the other HAS to work. If I’m not interested in the setting and I know 100 pages out who did the murder, why exactly should I continue?


    28 Mar 12 at 12:39 pm

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