02 November 2018

The Complexity • Plausibility Intersection

by Janice Law

How about that title? In another life I spent time in academia and learned that a fancy title is better than an intelligible essay. However, pretension aside, the tension between complexity and plausibility remains one of the troubling features of our favorite genre.

It does seem unfortunate that the red herrings, misdirections, and deceptions of one sort or another so dear to the hearts of mystery writers and readers are usually the least plausible story features. Indeed, the more ingenious the puzzles the less realistic the plot. I may have been the only reader disenchanted with The DaVinci Code but I’ll bet I was not the only one who had to jettison all expectation of reality.

Worse, the more intricate the plot – and as someone who has always struggled with plotting I have the greatest admiration for the well-wrought narrative – the less memorable the story. Think about it: the great crime and punishment plots are the simple ones, in some cases, with the denoument foretold. In contrast, how many of us can remember more than the briefest impression of even the best crime novels? The reason, of course, is that in the service of mystification and suspense, the story inevitably loses simplicity in twists and surprises.
Don't listen to witches

This makes a good mystery fun to read but hard to remember, compared to say, Macbeth, which can be summarized in a phrase: witches’ prophesy drives noble Scot to regicide, tyranny and disaster. Try to summarize the life trajectory of the characters in Gone Girl, as compared to the biography of the ill fated Oedipus Rex: Abandoned king’s son returns to unknowingly kill father, marry mother; plague ensues. Simpler yet is the tale of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: Student kills pawnbroker and has regrets.

There is no suspense in any of these, except the uneasy anticipation of the worst, and red herrings and clever plot are superfluous. The narrative line goes straight to the jugular, and once the action gets underway, the narrative is not just plausible but inevitable.

Few modern mystery writers will be so fortunate as to construct a plot as simple, powerful, and memorable as the classic crime tragedies, although John Steinbeck contributed a great novella of crime and sorrow with Of Mice and Men. Instead, rather surprisingly in a genre so reliant on action and plotting, the lasting memories of our favorites really rely on atmosphere and character.

With the possible exception of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, the clever twists of Agatha Christie plots are lost to oblivion. Fortunately she created two iconic detectives in Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. They are what one remembers along with those toxic country houses, vengeful small towns, and dangerous resorts.

Ditto for Raymond Chandler whose plots were never very watertight but whose Philip Marlowe, stylized diction, and lush California settings remain indelible. Dorothy Sayers, like Agatha Christie, was fortunate to create two great protagonists with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Their plots are forgotten but not her characters, nor her snobbish delight in top nation venues and the heyday of the class system.

More recently, we have had detectives like Kurt Wallander, Bernie Gunther, Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Commissaire Adamsberg, and Adam Dalgleish, all enjoyable to read with delightfully complex – but ultimately forgettable plots. Instead, we remember Gunther’s ghastly WW2 East front setting, Adamsberg’s dreamy eccentricities, Wallander’s decline into dementia, Lynley’s romantic tragedy, Havers’ dogged persistence, Dalgleish’s poetry.

Clever devices and complex narratives propel novels to the best seller list. But what lingers in the reader’s mind are character and atmosphere. And what gives writers long careers are memorable protagonists. The plots can be – and maybe must be, given market trends – exaggerated, the characters must still be plausible if the work is to linger in the mind.

Getting the balance right is difficult. I suspect that the tension between exciting (and surprising) action and the plausibly human is the reason why, despite excellent, sometimes brilliant, writing even the best crime fiction is set a step below contemporary or literary novels.


  1. Great piece, Janice. And I think you hit a lot points perfectly. I especially like when you say, "But what lingers in the reader’s mind are character and atmosphere. And what gives writers long careers are memorable protagonists." One of the things I find missing (often) in modern crime novels is atmosphere. One of the things we are often told is to skip the parts that readers skip and one of those is description, i.e. atmosphere. I don't think I'd want to go back to the 19th century way of doing things where you have 1,000 page book and the first 500 pages is backstory, exposition and maybe atmosphere and the plot doesn't kick in for hundreds of pages. But I could stand a little more of it. And, you're definitely right on about character, that's what we remember.

  2. Thanks, Paul.

  3. Yes, character. Nobody refers to "another murder mystery set in LA," or "another serial killer story." We say "another Harry Bosch/Will Trent/Sherlock Holmes/Carlotta Carlisle story."

    I agree on your point about implausible red herrings and too many twists, too. They generally sound weird and weaken the "clever" plotting. And, no, you weren't the only one who was underwhelmed by The Da Vinci Code, the most over-rated book of the last twenty-five years.

    Plot is tough, especially for those of us who don't have linear thought processes. Right now, I'm struggling with the next book, and both sub-plots are chugging along well, but I can't make the main plot go anywhere. I think your comments give the answer, though: I have to develop some of the characters more deeply.

    An excellent discussion, Janice. Love your dissertation title, too.

  4. I have always loved character and atmosphere in a novel far more than complex plots. I don't enjoy getting lost in the plot nearly as much as I do getting lost in the characters. The one is disorienting; the other is falling in love.
    I threw The DaVinci Code across the room - I think it's only the 3rd book that I found that obnoxious and poorly written. Him and Ayn Rand...

  5. Ah - I admit to being a plot junky. In my own books, the plot can be distilled down to one line. I learned that trick from Grisham. "If you can't use one line to describe your plot, you don't know what it is."

    I am with you on this, Janice. Fresh plots are hard to come up with, and I feel a lot of writers overwrite - they make things too complex. I do remember some of Christie's plots - and that is because they were actually quite simple. Motivation is key, and I find that many of today's writers don't give enough attention to perpetrator motivation. (I feel another blog coming on - grin)

  6. I echo everyone else. What I remember from books are character and setting. But I'll also remember if an author has good or bad plotting. I won't recall the plot, but I'll recall if I ended a book satisfied. If a plot leaves a lot to be desired, be it unbelievability or plot holes, I'll be less inclined to read the author again.

  7. Exactly! When I was working as a ghost tour guide in the '90s, the bosses told us not to worry too much whether we had the stories straight or not, because what the customers would remember was the personality of the guide.

  8. I'm truly torn. On the one hand, I admire memorable characters. On the other, like Melodie, I love a brilliant plot, and Gone Girl is tops in my book, Presumed Innocent another. But I have noticed when an author pulls off an ingenious plot, they seldom come up with a worthy followup.

    You title reminds me of one of an international thriller, maybe the 3rd in a series that began with The Complexity • Plausibility Sanction and followed with The Complexity • Plausibility Conspiracy. Now if I could think up a plot…

  9. Thanks for your many good comments. Am on the road so did not get to respond promptly

  10. I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more. Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. There must be reasons for this. And while I personally think her skill at characterization is underrated, I doubt many people would consider her the best in this area among mystery novelists, let alone all other types of novelists. So then, what accounts for her unmatched popularity? I would say that there are two primary factors: pure ease of readability (her straightforward, unadorned style), and her plotting ingenuity— an area in which she IS widely considered to be among the very best.

    It isn’t simply the plot twist of Roger Ackroyd that is well remembered. Far from it. How about Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Crooked House, And Then There Were None...? All well-remembered. Even the more complex, less “high concept” solutions such as Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs, and After the Funeral, are quite well-remembered by millions of readers and oft-copied. After all, if it were just because of Poirot and Marple that Christie was remembered, why is it that neither the world’s best-selling mystery novel nor the world’s longest running play— both of which Christie wrote— include either of those characters?

  11. I want to put a "like" on Melodie's and monescu's comments.


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