Thursday, April 09, 2009
Out of the past, plus more recent Swedes and bloggers
Published in 1935, The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man), a mystery novel by the prolific John Dickson Carr ( master of the locked room mystery) includes a somewhat meta-fictional discourse by Dr. Gdeon Fell, one of Carr’s running characters, on mystery fiction. Fell begins by proposing that the characters in the case he’s working on are fictional characters in a mystery novel, which of course they are): ““Because … we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.” Fell also says to the group surrounding him that if anyone doesn’t want to listen to his discourse on the locked room mystery, he “can skip this chapter.” Carr’s analysis is structural, investigating all possible locked room situations and all possible solutions to the puzzle—and his graph of the form does account for one of the best (and least clichéd) of the locked room mysteries that will appeal even to readers (like myself) who are not really enamored of puzzle mysteries: The Locked Room, by Sjöwall and Wahlöö—as well as being a challenge to all current and future writers to find some means of murder and escape that Carr does not anticipate (that will be difficult—he’s very thorough). One of the interesting points that Fell makes in his lecture is about the criticism of crime fiction: Fell says that when you complain about a story or the solution to its mystery, “If you do not like it, you are howlingly right to say so. But when you twist this matter of taste into a rule for judging the merit or even the probability of the story, you are merely saying, ‘This series of events couldn’t happen, because I shouldn’t enjoy it if it did,’” proposing a rule that in fact protects the novel in which the sentence is printed (which includes a lot of improbability) from attack. But Fell goes on to explain what he means at length, but basically he’s saying the same things that a number of bloggers have been saying: don’t condemn a crime novel simply by attributing it to a sub-genre or even complaining that it performs some of the clichés we associate with a particular form (e.g. the locked room, the cozy, etc.).
Rules for reviewing crime fiction have recently been proposed by Maxine at Petrona and by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise (probably among many others), and I’ve mentioned a couple of times that any opinions I give regarding genre or sub-genre, etc., are only meant to suggest whether a reader might like or not like a particular book based on whether he or she likes that particular kind of mystery novel, etc. But Carr has anticipated us by 60-odd years, and in a careful and lively manner. His character, Fell, also gives more credit to Anna Katherine Green, one of the pioneers of the field, than any other writer/critic (real or fictional) that I’ve seen (she was active 50 years before Carr), among other recommendations to his listerners (or readers). All that said, The Three Coffins is a bit too much of a puzzle mystery for me, though it’s a “cracking good yarn,” to use a phrase that might have already been obsolete when Carr was writing. The novel is about a group of men interested in ghosts and illusions; when one is murdered (in a locked room) and the chief suspect is also murdered (in plain view and leaving no tracks) a great deal of discussion ensues among the murdered man’s circle of friends (including Dr. Fell) and the estimable Inspector Hadley. Many scenarios for the crimes are suggested and shot down by forensics as well as speculation, often by surprising new revelations of fact and character, as well as a dramatic story that gradually unfolds regarding someone rising from a grave (a device that recently popped up in (Warning! Spoiler Alert—sort of) a very popular Swedish novel just published in the U.K. and not yet out in the U.S.
The warning by Fell (or Carr) not to judge the probability of a plot device like that applies to the Swedish novel (and to me): I found it pretty preposterous, though I neither mentioned the device in my review (as a spoiler) nor judged the novel badly because of it (and I’m happy to have my opinion reinforced by so auspicious a historical and critical source as the famous Mr. Carr/Dr. Fell. None of the above, of course, means that we can’t be critical about crime novels: just that we should be careful to differentiate between our own taste and a universal judgment; a distinction that will still allow us to talk about writing that is more effective (or less), and novels that achieve more (or less) within the structures of the crime novel or fiction writing or story telling (along the lines suggested by Maxine and Kerrie, perhaps). Carr’s novel is frequently comic, turning as it does on not only the conventions of crime fiction but also on a transitional phase (at the time) between Victorian and modern fiction-writing styles. While Hammet & company were looking forward (and are thus seem more modern) Carr looks back (and seems more traditional/Victorian), but he’s well aware of his position, and he’s having fun with the genre (not only in Fell’s speech but also in similar ways throughout the book) and with his audience.