Mystery Books

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.