Noah Stewart, one of the most knowledgable people currently blogging on the subject of GAD, once said that Romance and Detection are the two genres wherein the ending is never in doubt before you’ve even read the first page (I’m paraphrasing, of course — Noah would never put anything that pompously).
I can’t vouch for Romance — though, yeah, if there’s a book or series wherein the central couple don’t get it together by the end then, wow, knock me down with a feather — but with GAD it struck me at the time as a somewhat self-evident truth which I had singularly failed to appreciate. The reader expects that, come the end of their detective story, the guilty party will be identified (and usually captured), the commission of the crime explained, and any and all questions arising from the foregoing narrative — who left the footprints in the bushes despite the shoes clearly being too small to fit everyone in the circle of suspects, the reason Wilkes the butler turns green and starts to choke whenever anyone mentions Venezuela, and how the lighthouse beacon ended up turning widdershins for 20 minutes on the fatal night despite no-one being able to reach it because the bridge was smashed and the waves too violent to cross — placed appropriately in the explanation and duly answered.
In my other life I read a fair amount of classic SF, and there’s no such expectation of narrative closure in that genre. One of the single most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had — yes, ever — was Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke, the genre’s ne plus ultra, and that book ends with so little actually explained that three sequels had to be written by someone else and they are generally considered terrible for how they try to force so many pegs into holes no-ne really wanted in the first place. Equally The Stars My Destination (1957) by Alfred Bester contains easily some of the most colourful and imaginative scene-setting that I’ve ever encountered: hell, in the first paragraph of most chapters you’ve been dropped so completely into the milieu that the rest flows perfectly from there, a talent most authors would give their right eye for. But it also ends on a point of total abstraction, the complete opposite if closure, leaving so much open to interpretation and review that I’m surprised no-one has tried to ruin that as well.
Sure, each genre has its trappings — that’s, like, the definition of genre — and while I feel Xavier oversimplified it a little recently, it’s fair to say that no-one picks up a book with a crime at its core only to get to the end and find that unresolved. That would be like reaching the end of an Epic Fantasy series only for the humble shepherd boy not to have discovered he’s a mage of great power and, after much internal politicking, not to have mastered his anger/fear/guilt/flaw and then not to have gone on to redeem himself by vanquishing the powerful individual who was responsible for his father’s/mother’s/lover’s/homestead’s destruction. Gleeps, Jupe, what were you thinking?
“I’m sure you have a point in mind, but I don’t know what it is yet…”
But, more than simply narrative closure, we require our answers to be somehow intrinsically a part of the plot. If the Widdershins Lighthouse Mystery is simply due to an electrical fault and, well, these things happen sometimes whatcha gunna do, eh? we’d be rightly livid. The notion of connectedness — even if it’s some unrelated element being the prism through which the truth is seen — lies superjacent to the detective novel, and each action and event must be its own linchpin in the thread containing it. That’s not even de rigueur; it’s just…done. The clues are the path we walk down, and any missing flagstones make the place look untidy and feel incomplete — sure, we can all name a detective novel that withheld something crucial until the reveal (I’ll pluck One, Two Buckle My Shoe (1940) by Agatha Christie out of the bag) because it does happen…but we can remember them because it shouldn’t happen and we’re at least a little upset when it does.
Conventionally this notion has become known as ‘fair play’, although some — hello, Scott, hope you’re keeping well — rail against that terminology. Essentially it’s an extension of Noah’s point above, since crime and/or detective fiction only promises to provide the answers, not necessarily the justification for those answers, but I will assume the readership of my blog (hello, Mum!) is sufficiently interested in the breadcrumb trail of clues that an answer provided without that is perhaps even less satisfying than no answer at all (where at least we could shrug and put it down to genre experimentation, or more likely store it into some lean-to on the edge of the genre that hopes to be mistaken for literary fiction). In essence, detective fiction is a magic trick where we want to be deceived by sleight-of-hand rather than secret tunnels under the stage (oh, ye god, please don’t let it be a hidden tunnel…), or, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s akin to the telling of a good joke, where everything is placed on display as the story as the story progresses and yet the punchline still manages to side-swipe you completely.
Nevertheless, we readers of this subset of books (I’m veering ever-further from the notion of a genre per se, following Xavier’s remarks above) will freely admit that sometimes a novel of detection does not adhere to the rules. Sometimes the killer simply turns up with 14 pages left and delivers a 13-page monologue that links everything together without the need for any detection (and, hey, while this can be a little frustrating, I’ve also seen it work quite well inside of an already unusual structure). Sometimes the author frankly and deliberately hides clarifying actions from you in order to preserve the possibility of surprise, and in these cases I’m going to suggest that an overwhelming majority of readers will not respond so much in the “Wow, I’m so delighted that was kept as a surprise for me to encounter at the end of the book!” idiom as the “What the actual fuck is going on here?” one. However, the joy of being shanghai’d, and the frustration at having simply been lied to, must be measured against the author’s intentions, and the intention of detective fiction is arguably to surprise you, and so we simply have to shrug off the resulting Weltschmerz, roll our eyes, hope everyone learns something from the experience, and move on to another book.
Except, well, this happens a lot with detective fiction. And I’m fascinated by the concept of my continuing to persevere with a genre in which I experience so much anticlimax as a result of authors’ inability to see their promise through.
The very best detective fiction is richly-imagined, contains a great idea for a crime, is well-developed, and manages to slide a surprise or two right past you on the way to explaining the Widdershins Lighthouse Mystery and all other esoterica therein. When we find a book that does this — personal tastes inevitably prevail, but I’d put forward The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley, The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) by John Dickson Carr, Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand, and The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts among many others — we hug the books close to ourselves and hopefully find someone interested to tell about it (or, if not, find someone disinterested purely for the telling…) because it feels like the blessed relief after potentially months of being underwhelmed by secret passages, withheld evidence, recycled misdirection, and other promising potentials bursting like damp squibs about our ears. It’s an overwhelming relief have confirmed that want to want to find actually exists, which I think is at least in part the reason for persevering in the face of repeated disappointments, and is surely enough to justify any brouhaha we stir up in the wake of such an encounter.
Because, well, it’s not like this genre — unlike the assumptions I’m making about Romance — can get away with too much recycling. Sure, you’ll spot a Love Story at the first appearance of the heteronormative ying to the protagonist’s yang — it’s equally likely to turn to mutual desire if they dislike each other at first encounter — and there’s a fair amount of archetypal reuse within GAD to help us categorise it as such — Genius Amateur, Family Gathering with a New Will Implied, Love Triange…whatever. I have no problem with this type of thing, because it helps at least clarify the type of book you’re getting, but the innovations inside of that are what we remember the books for, and these only really hold for a small number of ideas, each with its own circle of influence.
For instance, imagine a mystery in which every single member of the closed circle of suspects had some involvement in the crime, as I posited last week…
“Mon dieu, I tell you — it cannot be done…!”
…how many other mysteries would be able to apply that same trick before it started to get hoary, and you as the seasoned reader pick up more and more of the same solutions, only to eventually find yourself thinking at the first contradicted alibi “Oh, crikey, I hope it’s not another Everyone’s In On It…”? How much repetition does one genre support and allow? And, as a direct result of that, how many different legitimate surprises can it keep throwing out at us, the more seasoned we become in reading within it?
Some authors were, of course, happy to pinch water from their own well — an early Agatha Christie novel contains a trick for hiding the murderer that she would later revisit in another book — and while we can look at that and call it homage how many times would someone else be allowed to use the same trick before we started calling it lazy? My disillusionment with more contemporary crime fiction began sometime in 2002 or 2003 when in the space of a few months I read three books all published within a year of each other where the guilty party was revealed because they knew where an item was to be found (the key to a door, say) at a location where, if their in-story story was to be believed, they would not know to find it. In conversation with someone recently — I apologise, readers, it was one of you and I forget who — it was raised by the other person that the brilliant solution to the impossibility in The White Priory Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson was reused for an Ellery Queen short story, and I’m sure there will be countless other cases wherein a clue or an interpretation from another source is reused (whether consciously or otherwise) and so due to a volume of reading in the genre the whole thing suddenly tumbles out because, yup, we’ve read this before.
I read impossible crime novels and short stories because I am thoroughly in love with the creativity that can be applied in those settings, but I will freely admit that my own delight at the revelation of certain schemes has inevitably been dulled by so much repetition over the years. Thankfully these stories also contain other elements I find fascinating — social mores, political references, asides on one World War or another — but I could get that from a lot of other stuff as well, and even that will presumably become less engaging as the same anti-Government rhetoric is rolled out again, or the same reference to ‘lighting-up time’ fails to make me pause and consider gas lamps in the darkening streets with quite the same degree of fascination as the first 15 occasions. Sure, the high expectations I have of this genre mean that I tend to cut a book some slack when it doesn’t meet all my requirements, but am I simply wading ever further into disappointing waters? Will I eventually have seen it all, and respond to each devastating twist of the narrative knife with a disinterested rebuffing of “Seen it”? Is this the risk we run in this genre? Because it sort of feels like it is.
“Wow, you’re in a positive mood today.”
And yet, I’ve put in my time in a spread of genres, and GAD is the one that keeps calling me back time and again. There’s a savage enjoyment to be found in really hating something — not least because I’m able to write that frustration down and put it in a place where almost everyone in the world can read about it — and while I feel like I react with a thoroughly non-commital three stars to quite a few books (I’m on a run at the moment, which is in part what has inspired this post), I feel like I’m able to dig out something I enjoy from almost everything I fail to get too enthused about. Conversely, I had my fill of Epic Fantasy, and while I could take you through a lot of what I found good in many books which fill that niche — the system of magic in The Black Prism (2010) by Brent Weeks is brilliant, but everything else feels very familiar (and, ugh, he destroys a very promising plot strand in the second book…), and The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) by Scott Lynch has a beautifully full world but oh my god man get on with it — there’s nothing overall in the genre to bring me back to it. It’s not merely creativity that I crave, then, but equally I see the limits of creativity within any genre and I wonder how interest is maintained as we experience the same things again and again.
I have, you will be unsurprised to learn, strayed somewhat from my intended point.
I remain hopeful because of the emergence of someone like Paul Halter, whose creativity and appreciation of what has gone before brings a new perspective to the impossible crime, or because of my burgeoning love for Freeman Wills Crofts’ innovation in supplying a surfeit of detailed consideration in the unpicking of his criminal schemes that the genre had not seen before (it is fair to say that 6 or 7 years ago Crofts would not have appealed to me, and I’m delighted to have discovered him when I did). But I wonder just how difficult we make it for ourselves to be legitimately surprised and engaged by the ideas in GAD — hell, in any genre — when we read huge quantities of it, and how long it takes for the sheen to wear off, the flaws to become irritations, and the books to become chores rather than pleasures.
I just hope I get through the majority of my TBR before that happens because, dude, I have invested in a lot of book these last few years…