Showing posts with label Marple. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marple. 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.

16 January 2012

Little Worlds

by Janice Law

Although most mystery writers would give their eye teeth for a great plot and although the big selling novels of the genre are all heavily plot driven, the story lines of mysteries are not destined to linger in memory. With certain sterling exceptions- the orangutan did it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Roger Ackroyd was done in by the sly narrator- we simply do not remember plots.

Indeed, memory seems to decrease in inverse proportion to the intricacy and ingenuity of the story. Thus it is easy to recall that the King killed Hamlet's father and that Oedipus was seized with road rage on the way into Thebes but very difficult to remember even one of Miss Marple's ventures or exactly what Robicheaux was up to in James Lee Burke's latest novel.

And yet, fans continue to ask for their favorites whether Kate Atkinson or Donna Leon or Lee Child, suggesting that while plot is necessary for the mystery, it is not in some ways the essential ingredient. Certainly what is remembered tends to be character first, with fans developing a taste for Inspector Wallender or Marshall Guarnaccia or V.I. Warshawski, detectives whose adventures are followed with pleasure, even if, in retrospect, the details of their cases remain hazy.

He or she who can create a great character rarely wants for readers. But there is another aspect of the mystery that I think is equally important, namely the setting, including not just the physical setting which may be familiar or exotic, but what might be called the tone or atmosphere of the whole. In this as in so many other aspects, the template has to be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. True, he has a great character in Holmes and a very good one in Watson, but without that particular gaslight London mis-en-scene, I doubt the series of stories would have had their enormous appeal. Which continues: A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement dealt with no less that six new books about Holmes and/or Doyle, plus the newest Sherlock Holmes film.

The Holmes stories were made for cold, rainy nights, because they depend so heavily on the contrast between the warm, smoky, Victorian chambers of the two friends and the raw, damp weather in the streets and out on the windswept moors. Repetition in the form of the original stories, which Doyle stuck with despite wearying of his creation, and what seems like an unending series of Holmes pastiches, have made Baker Street and the Victorian world and underworld just familiar enough. We travel there imaginatively, knowing that we will get thrills and satisfactions of a particular quality.

Not every writer has the patience to create such a little world. I, personally, disliked adding back stories for the later novels in my mystery series, and I preferred to keep Anna Peters on the move. Clearly the creation of a little world and a stock company of characters was not on my Muse's agenda.

Other writers find creating either a little world or a consistent atmosphere very satisfying. Agatha Christie dealt St. Mary Mead more than its share of corpses - and cozy writers have been mining the territory of garden fetes and parish politics and bad behavior among the gentry ever since.

Thanks chiefly to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Southern California of the 1940's and 50's enjoys a similar posthumous life. Where would we be without those alcoholic gumshoes, tuxedoed gamblers, ambitious starlets, and gat-packing thugs? Not to mention the secluded bungalows and crumbling apartments, both so convenient for stashing a corpse or two, the roadhouses with sinister reputations, and the seedy digs of the leading P.I.

More recently, Ian Rankin has focused on the east of Scotland with a few forays to Glasgow, but the non-touristy side of Edinburgh is his novels' real heart. And it's a bleak, guilt ridden, hard-drinking heart at that. Further south in the UK, there is an equally distinctive feel to P.D. James's novels, particularly her earlier ones and those set up on the coast and in the fenland of England. Even when Inspector Dalgliesh plays a minor role, the novels have a reflective melancholy that owes a lot to their often bleak and desolate settings.

Alexander McCall Smith's Gaborone is lovingly recreated in each of his novels, along with Precious Ramotswe and the rest of what is now a lively stock company. James Lee Burke has done the same for New Orleans, capturing its baroque corruption and vitality. Equally distinctive is Fred Vargas's Paris, with its layers of history, its whimsy, and its toleration for the rampant eccentricity of Inspector Adamsberg's squad.

With all, the plots are clever but forgettable. What lingers in the mind are the characters and atmosphere, which Adamsberg would probably, and sensibly, define as je n'sais quoi.