Showing posts with label MACBETH. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MACBETH. Show all posts

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.

Oedipus
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.

24 June 2015

The Past Is Prologue

David Edgerley Gates


My pal Michael Davidson, who's a thriller writer - and, as it happens, a 30-year career CIA vet - said one of the things he likes about my Cold War stories is that they take him back to another place and time.  Berlin, and the Wall.

It got me thinking about why we like historicals, and why I like writing them.

I'm not talking so much about Mary Renault, say, and the Peloponnesian War, or Bernard Cornwell and Waterloo, as much as I like those writers and their books, but more recent history. In my case, the Placido Geist bounty hunter stories take place in the years just before America's entry into the First World War, and the Mickey Counihan stories just after WWII, the late 1940's. These are turning points. It's not in dispute that the Great War changed both the world and our worldview. Everything that comes after, in the 20th century, is foreshadowed by it. Total mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, targeting civilian populations. Mass trauma, in other words. And the late 1940's see the atom bomb, jazz, Jackie Robinson in the Dodgers' dug-out, television, the Red Scare.

First off, we have the lure of historical irony. Major league baseball has been integrated for sixty years, the Soviet empire collapsed (sort of, anyway), and nobody smokes Chesterfields anymore. Back then, all of this was just around the corner. But the future, as John Crowley says, is at right angles to the present. In the moment, or at the time, none of it was even a glow on the horizon. 

Secondly, and related to the first, if you can immerse yourself in an era, not just the period detail, but a state of mind or a habit of thinking - because the past, in many ways, is a different country - it's liberating. This might seem counter-intuitive, since you can't avoid historical incident (the Titanic does, in fact, sink), but it actually gives you a lot of latitude. You have to work your way into it, you have to inhabit the landscape. It's like learning a foreign language. Once you've got the grammar down, you begin to pick up the idiom. And when it becomes familiar enough, you can think in that language, instead of stumbling through an awkward mental translation.

Third, and this comes back to Davidson's original remark, when I revisit Berlin, in that time, the landscape is entirely vivid, in my mind's eye. More importantly, I transport myself into an era - not simply a physical place, but a place with a specific density. Berlin, in the here and now, is only a template. I'm walking the streets of memory. But that place is so complete that I can stop worrying about the landmarks. I don't need to look at a map. It's all there in my peripheral vision, and the imagined city is more immediate to me than anywhere in the present day. You could call it my comfort zone. I'm not saying it was a simpler time, or that the world was any less dangerous, but it's almost like a parallel life, one I did in fact experience, only now I'm just a visitor.

We see the past through a lens, from the perspective of this day and age, and we think of it as a distant reflection of our own time, as if Beowulf, or Genghis Khan, had the same mindset we do, and accepted out agreed reality. Which is backwards. We're the reflection. We mirror the past, not the other way around. Beowulf is about as far removed from Shakespeare as he is from us, but the Elizabethan playwrights are still accessible to us, while Old English might as well be written in runes. (It more or less is, as I remember.) BEOWULF is still a rousing yarn, and so is
MACBETH. However. You can make out a shape, a continuity, in the literature, BEOWULF to Chaucer to Shakespeare, and it's a window into an older age of man. Of course, we see it with our own eyes. How not? The witches in MACBETH, for example, might in the modern reading be imagined as a projection of Macbeth's own ambition, preaching to the converted, but to an Elizabethan audience, they were simply evil spirits, manipulating a weak man, and they were real. Grendel's mom, to our mind, might be some earth-mother, the female principle made flesh, a threat to the male warrior mentality, just emerging into the Iron Age. But to a bunch of people in bearskins, sitting in a smoky room inside a stone barricade, somewhere up by Hadrian's Wall, she was a cannibal monster. The meta-drama doesn't play. The subtext is hindsight. These people understood a different reality. They were beset by genuine monsters, predators, Viking raiders, early death in childbirth, disease. To reduce their struggle, against a hostile environment, is to betray their trust, and our legacy.

History is just one damn thing after another. I forget who said that. Might have been Homer, for all I know.


http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/