I’m on holiday and not doing a huge amount of reading as a result, and so may not have thought this out properly, but here’s an idea I just had.
The other week, Ho-Ling published this excellent piece on closed circle mysteries, examining the appeal of such a setup in the context of the detective or crime novel (while, as Ho-Ling is wont to do, also taunting us with some wonderful-sounding novels and stories not yet available in English). I have no desire to restate what has already been put so well, but the essential point I’d take from it would be this:
The reader is presented a specific setting with a certain number of identified characters, and no extra characters can enter this location, nor can anyone leave (alive that is). This helps the intellectual game of detective fiction, as the reader doesn’t have to worry about secret assassins coming from the outside world to commit the murder and leave, or evidence being shipped away to Duckburg.
The key phrase here is “the intellectual game of detective fiction” — the type of puzzle posed as a challenge between the reader and the author, hopefully with as much declaration of the clues as possible to render the solution attainable to the majority of attentive and intelligent readers (man, now I see why the two word phrase “fair play” is so popular…). The primary concern of the detective fiction is to allow the reader to play detective, and typically this was done in a closed circle setting: come the unmasking of Sir Driffield McMiffield — with 20 pages remaining to explain how he managed to kill his sister with the antique okapi head whilst simultaneously in the front row of the church for the christening of young Josephine McMosephine — it has most impact if we’ve been alongside him at least some of the way and encouraged to exclude him from consideration.
Early on in my reading of the crime genre, I encountered Postmortem (1990), the debut novel by Patricia Cornwell, in which — spoilers for Postmortem (1990) by Patricia Cornwell — the killer is some rando introduced for the first time when the police kick his door down and arrest him with eight pages remaining. Even back then, I was appalled. This would not do at all. If the killer can be anyone from outside the book to that point, there was nothing to prevent the preceding 380 pages from being simply a series of lazy feints before sudden convenient inspiration hit upon the correct place in which to look and, hey-presto, suddenly none of the foregoing mattered. The producers of House (2004-2012) may disagree, having wrung 177 variations out of this exact theme, but I hoped for a little more from my mysteries.
“I am so very, very rich.”
Crime fiction was what detective fiction turned into sometime around, er, the 1950s — the notion of an intellectual game ‘twixt wrangler and reader being passed over in favour of a more socially conscious milieu where the reader gets involved not just in the crime itself but in its wider context. And so the wider context, having largely been disregarded because it had no bearing on the mystery, drew more focus as crime fiction evolved. A simple example of this can be seen in that now detectives had wives who didn’t just crop up in Book 1 and warrant a quick mention in Book 5, but instead actually became recurring characters with internal lives of their own, complete with agency and jobs and friends; and those friends had agency and jobs of their own, and they ended up bring more life in with them, as the focus of the genre moved on from a laser-sighted single-mindedness concerned only with a crime and its immediate surroundings to consider wider communities (if not necessarily the impact that might be had there).
This was not all bad. For one thing, it encouraged the typically class-obsessed GAD to consider murder and theft from the perspectives outside the apocryphal Venetian vase and alley both, giving cultural space that birthed the like of Tony Hillerman’s books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (1970-2006), or the on-going work of Minette Walters, which uses a variety of societal considerations in showing the true breadth and depth of violence and charlatanism as the purview of not merely the upper and lower classes. In many regards, the crime novel forced a relevance upon the detective novel that the detective novel could not attain: starting with the psychological suspense movement perhaps erroneously attributed to a handful of female writers in the 1950s and 60s — it seems to me we always mention Margaret Millar or Helen McCloy or similar here, and I wonder if we’re Suspense Queen-ing the movement disingenuously as we’ve Crime Queen-ed GAD — and evolving into the full-blown social moment novels of today that sustain the ever-growing series put out, to my understanding, by the likes of Elizabeth George and Louise Penny (again with the female authors…!).
On the back of reading A Killing Kindness (1980) by Reginald Hill recently, it struck me that crime fiction hasn’t necessarily made the closed circle any larger or more complex. Indeed, it’s almost had the opposite effect, not least because of the false verisimilitude the crime novel brings to proceedings and the desire that still seeks to see the criminal as something Other. The concept of Othering fascinates me beyond all reasonable bounds — in real life as well as in fiction…do ask me about it sometime if we meet face-to-face and you have an hour or three to kill — and it’s perhaps at its most pure in the puzzle-dense detective story: the crime is committed, the perpetrator identified and removed, and we’re all surprised and delighted at the one bad apple has been removed from the barrel. Cue a gap of a year while we wait for our wrangler to repeat the feat in a slightly different setting, the detective always leaving behind a community or group that has been purged of the wrong ‘un at its heart, the murderer or thief who is easily identified as something not a part of that village or that amateur dramatic society…the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Other who hid behind a facade amongst those who belonged.
“Seriously, I don’t need to work again. Ever.”
Crime fiction is equally as concerned with Othering as was detective fiction, and often makes its job harder as a result. Because plucking out the Other from a bunch of equally-likely sorts as part of an intellectual exercise is one thing entirely, but doing so when your novel is being used as a vehicle to cast light upon something little-observed — cultural heritage, knife crime, the plight of the homeless, transgender rights — can be fraught with complication. Witness, for one thing, the crazed religiously-motivated killer in Dan Brown’s seldom discussed indie work The Da Vinci Code (2003). The fact of his religious extremism is sufficient to cast him out as the Other on its own, but the fact that he’s also albino — and, in fairness, Brown does a semi-reasonable job of justifying this choice — resulted in the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) raising concerns about the portrayal of someone with albinism in a piece of popular entertainment. There’s an element here of almost dual Othering — of making someone the killer because they’re outside the norm is some other, easily appreciable, respect — which leads to a sort of comedy of errors. “Hey,” say NOAH, “you can’t depict an albino man as a killer!” — er, well surely people with albinism are just as capable of murder as people without it, right? So is it as bad to exclude him from consideration as, say, a murder suspect on account of his albinism as it is to make him a killer because of it?
And from there, well, it gets only more complicated.
To take a step back and examine A Killing Kindness, there’s a section of the book given over to the heritage of Romany people and their diminished role in a modern society that seeks to benefit from aspects of that heritage while not really acknowledging the benefit its taking. And so, when a murder is committed on the fairground where these diminished, disregarded Romanys (Romanies?) are based, they inevitably come under consideration and, we know, are inevitably going to be cleared of all suspicion and complicity in the crime. The book itself is not set up to examine the complexities of such a debate by hanging a murder (or even a series of murders) around the neck of one such character. Can’t Romany people (Romens?) also be killers? Sure, sure they can, but in that book they’re already depicted as Other enough — and as suffering enough as a result — for Hill to want to Double Other them. We, the readers of detective fiction, know that crime fiction lacks the stones to do this — and we feel smug about it, because detective fiction did this kind of thing all the time (cf. The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr) and frequently got away with it.
Please, now, let’s be clear: this is not another excursion into the land of A Middle Class White Man Complains About Political Correctness Gone Mad; far from it. I take these example because they’re nearest the top of my head and the easiest to call on. To move away from potentially contentious representations of minorities, consider the verisimilitude of the community depicted in your long-running series. There’s simply no way that someone who’s run a flower shop for fourteen books is going to turn out to be the killer in Book 15 — the grief and shock that would send through any real community would paralyse it beyond measure, and make Book 16 a bloody difficult prospect. Sure, someone doubtless did it at some point, but I’m willing to bet it didn’t work out very well for them. And so modern crime fiction places itself in the tricky position of not really being able to use anyone too Outside nor anyone too Inside as its patsy; what you end up with, then, is the staff at the engineering plant where the shift manager has been stabbed to death when the CCTV cameras were on the blink being the only viable suspects: that carefully isolated pool, never to be referred to again in any future investigation. Make them nice and normal and safe, and then Other one of them and move on. What you have, is a work of detective fiction, filled out by a lot of either core familiarity or fringe interest, and with consequently half the ideas needed to fill twice the number of pages.
“Why are you still using this photo?”
My point? To be honest, I’m not really sure — but it does feel good to get this out of my head. As awareness of a variety of fringe groups is raised by their being used in fiction — and in popular fiction, too, that people are actually going to read — it’s to be hoped that a degree of acceptance of the importance of story will supersede any over-cautious objections that the alarmists among us may raise. It’s to be hoped that no-one read The Da Vinci Code and came away with the impression that all people with albinism are violent, self-flagellating killers, in the same way that transgender rights have survived the now hideously dated portrayals in the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) or the almost entirely immaterial revelation of a transgender killer in a book from 1995. The impact such portrayals have is, arguably, limited, but at the same time one can understand the need to advise caution where the contentious comes into contact with those who seek contention.
Me? I just want a baffling mystery with a surprising revelation at the end…