As the title suggests, this post is sort of a sequel. If you haven’t read Part One and think you might like to, it’s right down there.
When I ran out of steam last time, I was getting into two of the things I blame for the low esteem with which some people regard mysteries and thrillers. One was the universal human need to find someone or something to look down on The other is the term “whodunnit” and what it implies.
The problem, on a platter
“Whodunnit,” when you think about it, isn’t a very complicated question. It can usually be answered with a single character’s name, unless you’re reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which case the answer is, “everybody.” (Sorry about the spoiler.)
And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think “Murder on the Orient Express” is a perfect book of its kind, and that I don’t actually like books of its kind. And by that, I mean books in which “whodunnit” is actually the most important thing in the story. Books in which a puzzle, rather than people, is what matters.
The usual suspects
A murder, an act of violence, needs to be taken seriously. These deed affect people – obviously not just the victim, but those who loved the victim, who hated the victim, who envied the victim, who had his or her hopes pinned on the victim. Ultimately, since such acts have a ripple effect, people who never heard of the victim.
An act of violence is an interruption of everything we planned for, all the assumptions we depended on. It’s a disruption on the world. It makes it apparent that our hopes are predicated on expectations that may not be fulfilled, on rules that some people don’t follow, on an instinctive belief in a prevailing underlying justice that may not actually exist. An act of violence, a murder, creates a crisis. And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.
I would argue that the revelation of character, of holding a human being up to the light to see how he or she works – where character is strong or weak or admirable or loathsome or flexible or rigid or holy or profane – is the primary function of fiction.
What’s most interesting to me about all this is that murder and violence – physical or emotional violence – have been used to reveal character and propel events forward in literature all over the world, from the very beginning. What’s Homer writing about? War and survival. The Book of Genesis takes us straight to a murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, and its repercussions. The greatest of Sophocles’ plays, “Oedipus Rex,” is a detective story with a twist, which is that the central character turns out to be the murderer. When Agatha Christie did precisely that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, it caused a minor sensation even though Sophocles had already pulled it off almost 2400 years earlier. To look at the Middle Ages, Beowulf is a straight-ahead thriller, a portrait of a society suspended, being held for ransom by violence until someone—some hero—will step forward and take action.
A classic example of serious literature using murder as the microscope for character is “Hamlet.”
You can’t have . . .
. . . “Hamlets” . . .
. . . without hams.
“Hamlet” presents a classic setup: a man has been killed and the job of finding the murderer and punishing him falls to the victim’s son. In fact, this situation has been used so often that it’s become a trope, one modern definition of which is “a story concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”
But in Shakespeare’s hands, the murder investigation leads us into all sorts of issues: the primacy of kings, the relationship between mother and son, the betrayal of friendship, the immeasurable value of honest friendship, the fragility of young love, the soul-sickness of the murderer, the eternal question of what sometimes keeps us from doing what we need to do even when the path is clear.
At two points, Claudius’s failed prayer and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it takes us into regions like the silence of God, the relationship between God and the human soul, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Big stuff. And all of it arises naturally from fascinating, deeply felt characters who are responding to the old-testament blunt weapon of murder.
And after Shakespeare has put us inside these characters’ hearts and souls for hours–so that Elsinore Castle stands in for the whole universe–at the end, when everyone is dead or dying, he brings in someone new, Fortinbras, to survey the dead, frown at the disorderly throne room, assert a shaky claim to authority, and order that the word of these terrible events be spread far and wide, and now let’s get to work. We’ve got a country to run.
Fortinbras rolls up his sleeves and dusts off his crown.
At that precise moment the bodies on the stage – Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the others – who have been our world for hours, are just litter to be cleared away to make room for the new order.
We’re witnessing the restoration of order, which was Shakespeare’s great theme, whether the play is a comedy, tragedy, history, or one of the very complex late works that scholars, for lack of a better term, call “problem plays.” Whatever genre (there’s that word again) the play represents, in the first act we learn what’s wrong with the world it depicts, and the end of the fifth act, order has been restored
And that is absolutely what happens in a crime novel, whether it’s a thriller or a mystery. The reader enters a world that’s about to be broken or has just been broken. It’s out of kilter. It’s stopped working the way we believe our world should work. The characters of the people on the page have been stretched thin enough to be transparent; motives and enmities and love are suddenly made visible. The primary course of action of a mystery or a thriller is repairing that broken world and exploring those exposed characters, restoring both to some kind of acceptable balance. It may be retribution, it may be the revelation of the truth. The denouement may be thrilling or comic or tragic. Depends on the book. But at the end of the story – unless it’s noir – there will be some form of restoration.
Question mark or fish hook?
The reason that kind of exploration and illumination work so well in the whodunnit and the thriller is that each of them plants a question mark at the very beginning – in “Hamlet,” the opening words are “Who’s there?” called out by a terrified guard who’s asking the question that’s really being asked throughout the play. Who’s behind that mask? Who’s beneath that crown? Who’s wearing that smile? Who is that man who was pretending to love me?
The whodunnit and the thriller take that question mark and plant it right there in the first act. It may or may not be a coincidence that a question mark looks like a fish hook, because what the question mark does is hook the reader and pull him or her across 100,000 words or so to see what the answer is, and—more important—what happens as we get closer to it.
And that fish hook has to drag the reader upstream because as he or she sits there, nose to the type, the real world is flowing by. People take a break from their lives to read, and writers should never forget that. A reader with the book open is like a rock in a stream: life is flowing past, carrying with it lots of things that compete for the reader’s attention, and some of them will only go by once. I think we owe the reader something in our book that makes that commitment of time and energy and attention worthwhile.
So that means the books have to be about something that goes beyond whodunnit. On a purely personal note and from a writer’s perspective, I can testify that there’s probably not a theme in the world that can’t be explored in a thriller or a whodunit, not a society, not a culture, not a business.
These are essentially investigative forms – there’s almost always a character whose primary function is to ask questions, and there’s pretty much nothing you can’t open up and put a microscope to. To suggest one personal example, in my Bangkok series, I’ve looked closely at Thai culture and American culture and where they overlap and clash. I’ve looked at the dynamic of putting together a family that’s made up of people whose world views and expectations and belief systems are completely different. That’s complex material, and I haven’t even mentioned emotional damage.
In a modest way, when I attempt to hold up to view that kind of material I feel that I’m following in the tracks of a lot of talented writers who have sat down day after day to write the best book they possibly could – to make the reading experience worthwhile for the people who open the book – in both literary fiction and genre fiction. Detective fiction and thrillers have deepened and broadened to include characters who are deeper than the page, predicaments that are more than puzzles, revelations that reflect our own lives. I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”
Far as I’m concerned, those are real books.