Friday, September 23, 2011

[Fill in the blank] is a really bad detective

When your research project involves reading a representative sample of popular murder/detective novels written in (or translated into) English and published in the first half of the last century--well you aren't surprised to find yourself reading books that vary greatly in the quality of writing, the soundness of the plotting, the believability of the characterizations, the verisimilitude of the science and police procedures and the amount of overt, covert, passive and active misogyny, racism and classism.

As I have mentioned before in reviews published here and elsewhere, it is not uncommon for the protagonist/detective to (apparently) outwit the plodding, stodgy (and usually working class) policemen by the clever ruse of actually removing clues from the scene of the crime. When the protagonist/detective finally reveals his actions to the baffled police officers they never never respond by arresting him on the spot for obstructing justice. For example:
They were tightly, watchfully quiet, as if each had a deep personal stake in the least word being uttered by Mr. Queen. He glanced at his watch again.

"I must now confess," he went on with a faint smile, "to have engineered an unquestionably illegal suppression of important evidence. How important I leave you to judge. But I did suppress it when Mr. Rummell and I found it beneath the radiator of Room 1726 only a short time after the murderer of Ann Bloomer fled from it. In short, it was a companion-piece of the fountain-pen—an automatic pencil of the same hard black rubber composition, with similar gold trimming."

Inspector Queen glared at District Attorney Sampson, who glared back, then both glared at Mr. Queen.

The Inspector rose and roared: "You found what?"

"I'll take my punishment later, please," said Mr. Queen."
[1] (227)
But there was no punishment then or ever. Queen, Vance and their like are never punished for actions like this. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) rationale for their behaviour (and for their not being punished for this behaviour) is that the police would not be able to appreciate the full meaning of the clue or perhaps simply hat the police would get in the way of the detective investigating the crime as they wished. The behaviour of the detective/protagonist is not merely portrayed as justifiable it is often given a meritorious patina. On that basis they are justified in their minds, the minds of the authors and, presumably, the minds of most readers, for actively interfering with the police investigation.

No wonder the police are then unable to solve the crime.

Something else strikes me as I reread these books and that is how lacking in the basics of logic, deduction and common sense are many of these detective/protagonists. They are wont to expatiate at such length that the weary readers finds their eyes blurring as they skim over the words until they reach the end of the "proof" such as it. They aren't really presented well sourced arguments grounded in logic and accurate observations of places and people. They are just throwing loosing related pieces of information and random pieces of data in the eyes of the readers.

The only way these books work as "mysteries" and "puzzles" is that at least some (and all too often most) of the core participants do something stupid or overlook something obvious. So reader beware, don't focus on the inordinately complex set-ups of the crimes and don't get distracted by lengthy side-trips down avenues of knowledge that the author may find fascinating but which do not really move the story forward (for a good example of this read The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. "Ah," one imagines the author thinks his readers will exclaim, "anyone who knows so much about the breeding of that type of dog must indeed have the type of superior intellect that will allow him to solve arcane murder cases.")

There are quite a few books in which the reader can figure out what is really going on from the very beginning if only they set aside their presumptions that the detective knows best and instead reads the story as if everyone involved was no different than their family members, their co-workers or members of their local community group. Using the same deductive skills and knowledge as they use in everyday life most readers will suspect the true perpetrators of the crime long before the protagonist/detective has done so.

Thus, in The Virgin Heiresses by page 6 this reader was "onto" part of the plot that it would take the "brilliant protagonist" several hundred more pages of uncover (and not because of the rather rusty anvil which the author drops on the reader about bumping into door jambs.) Reading the rest of the book became nothing more than an exercise in boredom, frustration and annoyance as the reader is given page after page of evidence that contact with Hollywood did not improve the writing skills of the authors and that watching too many hard-boiled crime films did not improve their handling of dialogue. Rather than being what they had been—tolerably competent writers of the American let's-pretend-it-isn't-a-cozy-by-setting-it-in-a-big-city cozy with a protagonist who will only sound well-educated and upper-class to an audience that strives for both of those things but has achieved neither—they wrote several books that read as weak attempts at sounding like Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain.

The trouble with setting up your protagonist as a brilliant thinker is similar to the problem of setting up your protagonist as a brilliant reporter. Fred Clark addresses this frequently in his deconstruction of Left Behind. If the writer describes a character as a talented singer the reader can play along because the reader will never hear that person's voice. If the writer describes a character as a great dancer the reader can play along because the reader will never see that person dance. However when the writer describes a character as a brilliant thinker capable of unraveling the most deviously intricate of mysteries then the reader needs to both read of brilliant thoughts and dazzingly complex mysteries. Far too often writers demonstrate the characters brilliance by having them unravel a complex mystery which is only complex because the character is actually not that good a detective.

Tomorrow.....not so great moments in the lives of fictional detectives or "they did WHAT?"

[1] Queen, Ellery (1954:1939). The Virgin Heiresses, New York, NY: Pocket Books Inc.


  1. I've recently read most of Freeman's Thorndyke stories; there's a little of this happening there, but it's not quite as overt. He'll take a surreptitious cast of a footprint that he finds interesting, but he'll share it with the police eventually - and usually it's something that the police themselves have already dismissed as unimportant. (And his Watson usually comments negatively when information is being kept from the police.)

    The problem I've had recently is that I fall into reading on a metalevel - I look at the cast and see who is being portrayed as the person with no possible motive, means or opportunity, and start working out how they could have dunnit. All too often that's the murderer.

    It's very hard to write a character who is cleverer than the author. The only way I've seen it done convincingly is to have the character come up very quickly with conclusions that took the writer some time to arrive at.

  2. I agree that writing a truly clever character is something that makes it so entirely difficult to write a good mystery and it's something that many mystery authors just totally miss.

    Not a mystery, but a book I just read that involved very well-done puzzles was Ready Player One. The convenient thing with that for the author was that solving the puzzle did rely on knowing extremely arcane trivia, but that element was built right into the plot. So when the character solved it with said arcane knowledge, it wasn't surprising at all. Unfortunately, that doesn't work as well when mysteriously every mystery can be solved through botany or a similar subject matter area.

  3. Back when mysteries & detective stories were a big thing, lots of them were published. Sturgeon's Ratio applies. Personally, I always found Ellery Queen dull, not worth a second read.

    My two favorite authors of classic detective series are (1) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, and (2) Erle Stanley Gardner with Perry Mason. Both of them based their detectives on people they knew (Doyle's medical school professor, Gardner on himself) and grounded their characters and their actions firmly within the social and legal contexts of the time and place. As a result, the characters and their worlds feel "real" to me, and are interesting and engaging. I read Perry Mason stories for the character interactions, not the mystery. The Sherlock Holmes stories have some damn good story-telling, and are an engaging view into Victorian society. (i.e., doesn't put me to sleep as fast as a Jane Austen novel).

    I read many, many mysteries when I was young and more or less enjoyed them (i.e., devoured them like popcorn). I then married someone who is a genius-level person like Sherlock Holmes, and really got familiar with the quirks of a person who is significantly smarter than everyone around him. (And finally noticed that I also had the same mental quirks, because I am also in genius or near-genius territory).

    How is this relevant? Well, I no longer enjoyed many old detective stories because the "brilliant detective" didn't ring true. Rex Stout, for example, didn't have a clue about why geniuses have the quirks they do, and gave his Nero Wolfe a bunch of random eccentricities to show that he was a genius--only his behavior just didn't fit. I no longer read Nero Wolfe mysteries. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes continues to ring true--he is a very believable genius-level intelligence person surrounded by the merely average and above average.

    I wonder how the trope of "the cops are an active impediment to solving the mystery, so the detective must hide evidence from them" got started? I'd blame it on a misreading of Sherlock Holmes, who started so many detective story tropes. Yes, Holmes solved cases the Metro police couldn't handle--he got called in either (a) for purely private issues that weren't initially police matters, or (b) by the police themselves when they'd exhausted their own investigations. Yes, Holmes considered the police limited in their deductive abilities--but he thought very little of most people's ability to think, and he considered the police entirely adequate to handling 99% of crimes, most of which were obvious and mundane. He also always called them in when there was an actual crime that someone needed arresting for.

    (Misread Sherlock Holmes stories seemed to have started a great many tropes... Dumb Watson being one of them. Watson wasn't dumb.)

  4. dragoness-e -- I think you are onto something there. I don't read detective fiction for the detection--they are my site of study for popular attitudes of the day (racism, sexism, classism.)

    However, for much of my life I have been around people who are genuinely brilliant at something and, you are right, most/many of them don't act in any way like the genius detectives.

    As for Sherlock Holmes, I suspect that many of the people who have been influenced by him are far more familiar with the films than the books -- or at least saw the films before reading the books -- and therefore their readings of the books are coloured by the distortions of the movies.

  5. It's interesting to read some of the commentary on detective stories by their writers - "the Watson" was a standard term, and seems at first to have been assumed as a necessity (e.g. Christie with Poirot and Hastings). I agree that misinterpreted Holmes (particularly cinematically) has sometimes been slavishly followed - and I rather suspect that this, combined with Sturgeon's Law, is the main reason it has tended to be critically ignored.

    "Write what you know". If you are not a genius, befriend one. :-)

  6. Addendum--though after you read Thorndyke's dissection of Holme's methodology its cracks and flaws become ever harder to ignore.

  7. Well, yes - I quite enjoy Holmes, but I always feel that Doyle cheats (by later standards) in that he doesn't tell you everything that Holmes observes, so even if you know everything you can't work out the solution...

  8. Firedrake - Doyle doesn't cheat, *Holmes* does. He frequently witholds clues from Watson just so he can be more mysterious about what he's doing and impress the audience at the big reveal. Somewhere he even admitted that he takes a childish delight in showing off that way.

    Also, Doyle wrote long before the notion of the Ellery Queen-style reader participation puzzle-mystery came into vogue--Sir Arthur was telling a crime/adventure story, not worrying about setting up a "fair" puzzle for readers to

  9. dragoness-e, it's Doyle who wrote the stories. I quite agree, and meant to imply, that he didn't deliberately break a set of rules that after all hadn't yet been codified, but those rules evolved because they led to more satisfying stories - and I do find the Holmes stories slightly unsatisfying because of their noncompliance.


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