The Art of the Unstated

Edith Wharton made only one « official » foray into crime fiction, the classic « A Bottle of Perrier » but she made abundant and creative use of the tropes of the genre in her justly famous ghost stories. Most of them are constructed in the most orthodox detective story fashion, with mysterious events taking place, someone trying to work them out and some discreet clues thrown in to the reader. There are differences of course. The most glaring one is of course the supernatural character of the solution, which traditional mysteries rule out on principle – but the other one is in my view much more interesting. Very few of Wharton’s ghost stories actually spell out what or the entirety of what happened. They only give the reader hints, leaving it up to them to come to a conclusion. Anthony Boucher famously wrote that Thomas Burke’s The Hands of Mr. Ottermole gave the reader the role of the detective; he might as well and perhaps more accurately have applied it to Wharton’s work.

This approach is of course antithetical to the ethos of the traditional mystery story, which requires that everything is explained in the end in the clearest and most exhaustive way. Any failure to do so is immediately, and often rightly, denounced as a « plot hole ». Chandler’s chauffeur covfefe in The Big Sleep is perhaps the most famous example of such a thing, and is chiefly responsible for The Raymond’s execrable plotting reputation. The only example I can remember of a mystery story that suggests rather than tells the truth is Susan Glaspell’s A Jury of Her Peers and it’s telling that this story sits on the outer limits of the genre. If you know of other such items, please let me know about them in the comments section.

What makes the traditional mystery unique is the relationship between author and reader that can’t be found in any other genre. Far from being a passive figure like they often are elsewhere, the reader are given a puzzle to decipher while perfectly aware that the author is not acting in complete good faith, being the player on the other side as Ellery Queen put it. This has often led to the misconception of the mystery story as a parlour game but if it is then it’s the only one in which one of the players – the reader – feels better when they lose than when they win. Being right all along is a particularly disappointing experience to the exacting reader.

Adopting Wharton’s « Show, don’t tell » approach to the genre might be an interesting twist though probably not a very popular one as most readers would feel cheated just as they would with a mystery following my earlier proposal to do with the solution altogether. Still, it might also deepen the aforementioned « special relationship » by adding a further role for the reader, that of co-author. It would also be interesting to see how each reader’s own interpretation of the facts differs. Moral ambiguity is all the rage in the genre these days, maybe it’s time to bring in narrative ambiguity as well.

Un commentaire sur “The Art of the Unstated

  1. Xavier – « Moral ambiguity is all the rage in the genre these days; maybe it’s time to bring in narrative ambiguity as well. »

    You know, that might work on a couple of occasions due to the novelty aspect, but I’d soon start avoiding whoever was doing that kind of lazy writing. Edith Wharton could get away with it in her ghost stories (although that sort of thing wears thin fairly quickly with me), but in detective fiction? Maybe it’s my lack of imagination, but I just don’t see it.


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