Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The dangerous attractions of mystery novels: forensics, redemption and the F word

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The dangerous attractions of mystery novels: forensics, redemption and the F word

Some views of mysteries, or ‘whodunnit’s stay in my mind. Somewhere between smoking and doing the crossword. Edmund Wilson’s take is often quoted: “ the reading of detective novels is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”

Another is George Orwell’s. He was of the opinion that private-eye whodunits are hymns to brutal heroes. To Orwell, said brutal heroes are mini-fascists: they ignore rules and laws that don’t suit them, and they use violence at will. That said, Orwell did take detective stories seriously. He saw them as derived from Poe, and to Poe’s writings he ascribed genuine literary value because of their characterization and atmosphere. Still, he felt that this was achieved by digressions and superfluous detail, and that even at their best detective stories ended up calling on crossword-puzzle ingenuity rather than real literary values.

Northrop Frye’s musings on ‘whodunnits’ are less damning. A fan, he saw in them contemporary versions of old mythologies and mediaeval cycle plays. For Frye, the atmospherics of a whodunit were far more satisfying than any plot solution. He believed that whodunnits reflected deep human needs for redemption and justice, to win one back from death so to speak.

He was right on the money in both observations, I think. We have a deep need for redress and for resetting things for ‘the way they are supposed to be.’ I reckon this is a primal need to hold back both the fear and possible pleasures of disorder and dissolution – something that Dr Freud’s gimlet eye spotted many years ago . But we really feel we know Chandler’s LA, its boulevards and its characters. Any Agatha Christie vicarage or drawing room is immediately familiar. The South, with its accents, foods and landscapes, unfolds for us from the very start in James Lee Burke’s stories.

It’s all trickery of course, but we will it, and it works. We’re primed for mystery novels: they scratch an itch that is always there. There were things about growing up Ireland that were particularly conducive to mysteries. The place was bursting with them. The technocratic steamroller of explication hadn’t flattened the magic there into the picturesque, the folkloric.

Religion supplied more than enough mystery, from the Immaculate Conception, to the Ten Joyful Mysteries. Mortal Sin was a mystery, as was the power or prayer; statues, holy pictures, the whispers of prayers. Long sweeping robes of priests and nuns left a faint sound in the air as they passed.

The ordinary world was mysterious enough anyway. I picked up quite early that you’re born into a garrulous bunch, many larger-than-life figures passionately in the world. But at the same time, you also sense how very private and isolated, how so very time-out-of-mind, those same people can be.

Catholic and pagan, sensuous and ascetic, solemn and hilarious, mythic and crass, loving and savage – they were there more than anywhere else I have lived. Family here cannot yet get over how strange a place it is in Ireland yet, with so many accents and variety, all within a monoculture until very recently, and how different Dublin could be from, say Mayo.

I often say to people who are planning a vist there to eye the road signs in the centre of Dublin: ‘The West,’ ‘The North’ – no mileage, no towns, just a general, enigmatic destination is indicated ... sort of. It’s not mischief or playing up stereotypes of merry/ malicious peasant wiles. It’s a signal, I tell them, to keep your eyes open. There is always something else going on, something you might not notice, unless you ease off the purposive, goal-driven, rationalistic mind set that contemporary life saddles us with.

All very well this, but what does it say about mystery novels, or writing.
I’ve learned much, actually.

1. The ordinary is strange enough, mysterious enough. The best stories are where the ordinary discloses what is going on ‘in there’ that we did not attend to.

2. For me, place predominates, for good or bad: mood and setting do it for me. I’ll go with Pico Iyer on this: ‘Travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away.’ Yep, the setting and the characters tend to throttle any plots I come up with.

3. The plot, and plot resolution, is a mill-stone. The reader wants ‘a finish,’ and expects ingenuity and pleasure in spotting hints of it earlier. Me, I want to write a continuing story that need not be punctuated by the ‘finishes’ that the book form demands. It’s true – a book is never finished, just abandoned. Just as I wanted to go to Joyce’s Dublin or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, I wasn’t expecting to be presented with ‘plot’ there.

4. The F word haunts the whole mystery writing endeavour – formulaic. It’s very easy to parody mystery novels, and to pare them back to their basic elements: something wrong, McGuffin, clues, heroic actions/insights, ‘twist,’ denouement. How many books in the mystery section end unresolved? (Nervous grins from the publisher any time I tell her that some day I want to write a chapter that runs thus: Nothing happened on this day.)

5. There is and always will be wicked tension between the rational and the irrational in crime novels. That tension is there in any story yes, but it is particularly acute in writing crime novels. Readers are looking for the plausible, the reasonable, in getting to the answer in a mystery. So, if I write cack-handedly about a character’s insight, sudden or otherwise, a reader will get that poisonous deus ex machina reaction. That is especially true today, with obsessions about forensic science, electronic data gathering, and the marvels of digital technologies.

Most of the time we assume that life sort of (sort of!) carries on with logic and predictability, and so we tend to think that people work the same way. But the fact that there is little logical in real life – as my bedtime reading reminds me (Kahneman ‘Thinking fast and slow.’) Few criminals are brainiacs, few cops are masterminds. Police science makes the news when it is successfully used, but cops still put immense stock in ‘the nose,’ aka hunches.

6. Realism is the bane of the genre. It seems readers want plenty of cruelty and torture, all described – not depicted – in lush detail. That’s the abovementioned obsessions with forensics and technology in evidence. Crime scenes are terrible, terrible places, and cops never get used to relearning how brutal people can be. The more forensic detail from a crime on the page, the less writing, is my take. Cinematic CGI effects happen on a screen, outsourced from the imagination. A book, the reader has to ‘make’ herself.

7. Dealing with intuition is the hardest part of writing a mystery novel. It has an undeservedly bad name, intuition. It’s either hokum, or it has a bogus exalted rep as genius. Intuition is just unconscious expertise. Yet making that quality in the protagonist real and compellingly believable is the biggest challenge of writing a mystery story. My way to do that is by indirection, to tell it slant, and to focus on drawing drawing the reader onside with character and setting. That sometimes means a throwaway remark, a description of how he/she orders a drink, an odd habit that seems unconnected to anything else.

That can go, and has gone, disastrously wrong. And will do so again. This is what we call ‘rewriting.’ Also ‘tearing up and burning and starting fresh.’

BUT: when one gets to see the character clearly, and to know the lie of the land, the magic happens. The formulaic is banished/slain, and the millstone of getting to ‘the solution’ has been cast off. Done right, ‘the solution’ is there long before the book is ever finished.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page