Every so often, a novel is adopted by more mainstream fiction when it is in fact pure genre. Typically the result of this is that those of use who read the good stuff in our own genre have to put up with a ripple of brouhaha while we’re lectured by the broadsheet darlings as they fall over themselves to recommend something as inventive or ingenious when in fact we’ve read three books more inventive or ingenious in the last month alone (or, worse, phone someone in to explain incorrectly to others who don’t know any better). In SF, say, we’ve recently been subjected to Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy which is…well, every single cliché you can name and about as awful as you’d expect, but it especially seems to be happening more and more in crime fiction.
The most recent example — well, recent-but-one — that I tried was Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2012, trans. 2014), which has 300 pages of dull small town life at the start (non-genre!) and then becomes a Harlan Coben novel halfway through (genre!). Just read the second half; it’s a far faster and better book that way. Mark Green has recently posted this amazing deconstruction of media darling Gone Girl, which is as accurate and savage a take as anyone will probably ever achieve, and will hopefully discourage anyone from venturing unprepared into these waters ever again. And then in the last day or so I read the first of Keigo Higashino’s Detective Galileo novels to be translated into English, The Devotion of Suspect X (2005, trans. 2012), and I am again struck by how little the genre of detective fiction is understood by those who seek to appropriate it.
Yes, this inverted tale — that is, we’re told who committed the crime early on, and then watch the detectives try to catch them — definitely qualifies as a crime novel, but it is not a novel of detection. Putting two mathematicians in your story because mathematicians are trained in logic and so you’ll get a thrilling battle of logic between hunter and hunted only works if you actually, y’know, use the idea of logical deduction to forward your plot. Having your amateur detective go after the guilty party because he sort of has a vague feeling about something — and genuinely bases a huge part of his reasoning on what he perceives to be an expression of vanity from a man he has had no contact with for over 20 years — is in fact the antithesis of a detective novel. The sheer absence of detection in this book is honestly hard to believe, and the art of logical deduction should be formally apologised to on account of how much of a liberty is taken with this concept.
And don’t give me any nonsense about the realist school, either; the realist school doesn’t have genius amateurs who are consulted because they’re a friend of the detective, or said amateur determining the direction of the investigation because they have an intuition that they’re unable to put a name to. It does have a clear sense of plot development and the utilisation of clues to underline the conclusions reached, however, and since none of that happens in this book we can again lay any such claims to rest once and for all. Detective Galileo does not detect, and for a man consulted for his supposedly ironclad logical reasoning he allows a fallacy of astounding proportions past him early on which, yup, turns out to be the key to the whole thing.
It doesn’t really spoil anything if I say that the essential surprise at the heart of the novel was used by Agatha Christie, since there’s very little she didn’t do when it came to murder and obfuscation (in fiction, I mean…). If I say that the exact same device was used by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories…well, you’ve got 60 in all to choose from, and then you need to cross-reference those with Dame Agatha’s 67 novels and 13 short story collections, so we’re not yet in spoiler territory for the majority of you. Christie and Doyle are probably the two most widely-read crime fiction authors in the entire world — let that sink in for a moment, because it’s the kind of assertion which is usually thrown out so lightly that no-one really stops to consider its significance — and a vast number of people will have reused their ideas at various points in their writing careers. In fact, the exact nature of an original idea in the genre is still somewhat up for grabs, as discussed previously here.
I reckon that I could, with very little difficulty indeed, list twenty other authors who have used this exact same device to supply a mystery plot. It probably won’t narrow it down for too many of you to say that Peter Robinson definitely has, and Ellery Queen has, and I’m pretty sure Michael Connelly has. This establishes a fine and long-standing history of this idea within the crime and detective fiction firmament, and fixes the story that Higashino tells firmly and unarguably within this genre. But crucially, that idea has a long-standing history, which means whenever you show me A then I am immediately going to think B, and when this is the only aspect of your plot the relies on logical deduction, well, you need to do a lot more to protect it. A teacher mulling over the contents of the exam papers he gives his students (non-genre!) is not sufficient to hide a manoeuvre so old and creaky (genre!) that it’s been given its own sobriquet.
This is not ingenious. Predictability, spotting a plot development in advance, obviously varies hugely from reader to reader, but when the sole piece of reasoning in the entire book that actually has any rigour put into it is around a century old, you’re not trying hard enough. And I’m not saying Higashino is to blame — hell, I don’t know who coined the whole “We’ll sell this as detective fiction” thing — but I do know that if you look for the review of this book on virtually any well-respected publication’s website they’ll mention its brilliant construction or amazing layering or any one of the demonstrably false ideas that apparently provides some sort of insight when comparing this to a genre that has produced far better and therefore set far higher standards for itself. The next Higashino translation, Salvation of a Saint (2008, trans. 2012), is a wonderful piece of detection and contains some equally old ideas, but crucially twists them together to disguise and utilise their various elements to different ends. That novel runs out of steam at the half-way point, but at least it gets going; this one is a complete non-starter.
Man, I just want to read a rigorous, intelligent, well-structured piece of detection that has an interesting plot, well-developed ideas, plenty of threads on the go, some first-class surprises, and actually puts in the effort to contribute to the genre it seeks a oplace within. Is that really so much to ask…?