The second trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express was released a few days ago. People are probably furious or something. Me, I’ve already said everything I intend to about the movie until I actually see it and shall not be discussing it here beyond a few brief mentions, but it got me thinking some about character and plot and so this is a sort of Part Three to follow up on parts One and Two on this topic before.
For full context, I must also provide the additional pre-reading: my recent review of Max Afford’s Sinners in Paradise (1946), where some conversation was had in the comments regarding the use of character to contribute to plot, and this recent post at Composed Almost Entirely of Books talking about the expected constructs within the artificial microcosm of the detective novel, specifically the following paragraph:
By this, I don’t mean stilted dialogue or irritatingly fake stereotypes — these are certainly present in a good many detective novels, but not as many as detractors would suggest: nor are they confined to this genre. What I’m intending to convey is that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.
The last introduction needed is this: in the comments of a review of Henry Wade’s novel Mist on the Saltings (1935) at CAEoB, we had a brief discussion based around Wade seeming to be one of only a very few GAD authors who actually confronted any aspect of the First World War having a impact on the contemporary lives of the characters being written about in its aftermath. I mentioned Dermot Kinross in John Dickson Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942), and of course Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey was afflicted by what we’d now call PTSD, but that aside — and especially interestingly, given the experiences the authors involved would have had in the Great War — mentions of anything specific and any impact upon life thereafter are few and far between.
8 thoughts on “#292: Character v Plot 3 – Purpose and Artificiality”
Thanks for the pingback, JJ! Now on to your post…
Well, there is a lot to chew on here, so I’ll just take a few bits to start with.
“of course Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey was afflicted by what we’d now call PTSD”
A good example and I can’t believe I didn’t bring this up in our discussion about not mentioning the war, as this is one of the things, in my opinion, which rescues Wimsey from being either too ‘silly-ass’ (as in early Sayers) or too-damn-perfect-at everything (see especially ‘Murder Must Advertise, though I still love the book, largely for the humour).
“there is very little in daily life from the era under discussion that is not well-chronicled in the pages of detective fiction”
Agreed, and that is a particular joy of the genre as far as I’m concerned.
“the single most devastating experience in human memory to that point in history is barely so much as hinted at”
“You’d almost presume this is a sort of collective blank spot as an attempt at inoculation against the horrors”
Yes, either a sort of Voldemort effect, especially as the second world war drew nearer (too much talking of the devil and lo!, there he is) or a reluctance or inability to deal with that intensity of grief, akin to what often happens when you lose someone and you flinch when you so much as hear their name or something that reminds you of them. Such triggering of raw emotions is probably not much wanted within the context of a, usually lighthearted, mystery novel.
“we’ll all agree that a depth of complexity in character is something better established in this genre by “types” than by 200 pages of conversation while you wait for your plot to kick in.”
Now, starting a sentence with ‘we’ll all agree’, is something like throwing down a gauntlet, surely. 🙂
But, certainly, agreed that 200 pages of conversation is not the way to go. I’m currently reading ‘the philosopher’s pupil’ by Iris Murdoch – which is large enough to gulp down about three GAD novels whole and still have room for a wafer thin mint – and, while I’m enjoying it, this is absolutely not the way to go in detective fiction. My only question would be – how much depth of complexity can you get out of a ‘type’? ‘Types’ are possibly necessary as extras, and certainly useful to subvert expectations (as I believe was discussed in one of the posts you linked to) and the fact is that they certainly are used, even for detectives, but I don’t think that you get any very complex or truly enjoyable characters that way, unless you add at least a little something extra (which may be what you mean – types with icing on top?) and preferably, for your main characters, a lot more.
But, absolutely, brevity in description, small telling gestures and scenes, hints at past experience are a better way to go here than a full biography and psychiatrist’s reports. And though, if I were to pick characters over plot, I’d lean more on the side of characters this is very much a personal preference – and there is an excellent range of GAD fiction across the spectrum.
And that’ll probably do for now. Why do you get me all thinking when I should be off doing more useful things?
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I think detective fiction works best when it lulls you into an assunmption that you don’t realise you’re making only to then completely reverse that and making you realise what a numpty you’ve been. Character types work well because they enable this in all manner of ways: we assume that the uptight landlady kicks out the lodger’s girlfirned because the Older Generation doesn’t approve of loose morals, but actually she’s hiding her own illegitimate grandchild, or something similar. Such reversals are what the genre is built on.
It works even more so in the face of the perceived intolerance of “those olden times” even more, partly because we half expect someone to come out with something xenophobic or mysoginistic at any moment anyway — that’s just what it was likeback then, we think to ourselves and sigh. Then it turns out that the casual dismissla of the foreign visitors is so that the detective doesn;t pay too close attention and notice that they show up whenever the landlord’s wife is absent and so clearly some Shenanigans are afoot. In a way, it’s almost as if the writers of these books knew the attitudes they expressed would be out of date in 50 years and are playing an exceptionally long con on the rest of us. Obviously that would be impossible, but just being able to entertain that notion does make it rather clear at how easily we, now, are lead astray by such simple assumptions…
Just to address the idea of the War being ignored – there’s more than one mention of it in Rhode’s work, for example a policeman who, when an explosion goes off nearby, flashes back to his time in the war, in, I think, Death Sits On The Board. While writing during 1939-45, he actively uses the War as a background to his tales – Priestley makes a point of not evacuating, the retired Superintendent Hanslet is recalled to duty while his successor joins military intelligence and some events, such as an air-raid in The Fourth Bomb and They Watched By Night, the Home Guard in Dead Of The Night are active parts of the story. Similarly with his Miles Burton hat on, Merrion is drafted into military intelligence, hence Inspector Arnold having to solve a case on his own in Death Leaves No Card. But this is what you might expect from Rhode, who always looked at what was going on in the community around him to give a picture of life at the time, rather than ignore it.
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I thought Merrion had ‘flu in Death Leaves No Card. Ooooh, or was that a euphemism…?
Anyway, while I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming the First World War was ignored completely, it’s interesting to reflect that Rhode was so consistent in using it as a background on more than a few occasions. Others will crop up, I’m sure, but I do find it fascinating how it seems to have just not fallen all that squarely into the remit of the GAD crowd. Wade can be understood in addressing it — and in such negative terms, too — on account of his military service, but I’m pretty sure Berkeley, Crofts, and others were drafted in one form or another.
This might bear more researching, it’s something I’m becoming more and more interested in pursuing the more I think about it. Even if it wasn’t, y’know, quite what I intended to write when I sat down to type this post… 🙂
Yup, misremembered that one. Getting it confused with Murder MD where Merrion is a bit distracted by his wartime commitments.
In fairness, you’ve read a heck of a lotta these. DLNC was my very first Rhode/Burton, and I was eager to get a look at this Desmond Merrion I’d heard so much about…so his non-appearance stuck in my memory somewhat!
An excellent article and thanks for the link to my attempt to be funny about the common elements of GAD …
Re your aside: I live in British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada. There are land claims by various groups of First Nations (you might understand this as Indian “bands” or “tribes” but the terms must be mutually agreed upon here and we don’t use “Indian”) totalling about 117% of the land area of the province. Bands apparently overlap in their traditional territories. Anyway, it’s a problem that’s closer to home than Arthur Upfield; I live in a city that abuts directly upon a large reserve and the local band claims the entire city within its traditional territory. This almost certainly doesn’t mean that they will be moving into our houses any time soon but rather that we will have to do a financial and legal settlement of some kind. Canadians’ history of interaction with First Nations has been abysmal and we need to do better now and in the future. End of my aside to your aside LOL.
As I was reading your article, the thought that came to me was that many GAD novels are based upon the events of WWI in a way; inheritance and property and titles. The oldest son was killed in the war and the title descended to the cadet branch. A formerly vast estate is not what once it was after paying three sets of death duties within a few years and the heir badly needs cash. Upstarts inherit hereditary titles. Also upstarts made a lot of money supplying the army with XYZ and build vast vulgar country houses and give murderous house parties. These things don’t often form the direct material of GAD plots, but they are frequently lurking in the background. And I think there is a lot of observation in GAD about how things CHANGED because of the Great War. Social distinctions are blurred; it’s harder to find good forelock-tugging servants now that that class runs its own service stations and grocery stores and doesn’t take crap from the aristos any more. I once wrote about an E.C.R. Lorac novel that digs into these issues (https://noah-stewart.com/2015/08/03/death-at-dykes-corner-by-e-c-r-lorac-1940/). And the aristos long for the good old days when the Lower Classes Knew Their Place. It might not be historically accurate, but it explains the motives of a lot of lower-class murder suspects.
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This is a very good point, and something else that occurred to me on this theme is the number of times the suspicious servant can’t possibly be the one who murdered the Squire because he was the latter’s batman during the war. I can’t say such a servant has never turned out to be the killer, but I can’t think of one at present.
Also, I love that GAD drinking game. As soon as I start drinking again, I intend to play it with an episode of Suchet’s Poirot, which may well be the only way I’ll make it through an entire episode…