Of Interesting Premises and Their Pitfalls

I am, as everyone here must know by now, a sucker for over-the-top mysteries; one of the many complaints I have about modern crime fiction is indeed that there are too few of them being written nowadays. I love the grotesque, the bizarre, the outré – not for nothing am I a devoted Fredric Brown and John Dickson Carr fan.

That along with praise from people whose judgement I trust is what drew me to Herbert Brean’s Edgar-nominated The Traces of Brillhart. The premise sure was right up my alley: a dead man that keeps visiting his friends, writing music and sending letters! Would the book live up to its pitch? Well, it did and didn’t. It did because the explanation was very clever, but it ultimately didn’t because Brean chose to reveal it too soon and then embark into what turned out a much more straightforward and thus much less interesting mystery. Had the book been cut in half, it would’ve been a masterpiece.

This kind of disappointment is almost always par for the course with such high-concept mysteries. The reader, John Dickson Carr frequently noted, always expects something as big as the puzzle he is offered and so ends out disappointed when the explanation, however clever, finally comes. « So it was only that? You cheated me! » I remember having felt the same way about Mark Lovell‘s excellent Hand Over Mind – the puzzle (did a dead woman use her sister as a vehicle to tell people about her murderer?) was so spectacular that the solution, while satisfying from a logical point of view, felt like a letdown. Part of me, I realize now, wanted the supernatural explanation to be true like the book’s main female protagonist, so perhaps no explanation would have done. This is another point made by Carr in, if memory serves, The Three Coffins: People always want magic to be true – and turn against the magician when they explain the tricks they used.

There is however another reason to be disappointed with the solution to a high-concept mystery – when it just isn’t good. Any locked-room fan feels cheated and having lost precious time reading fluff when the solution turns out to rely on either a secret passage or some mechanic device. Conversely, the use of twins to solve a bilocation problem is particularly frustrating. The Knox and Van Dine rules aimed in part to discredit and ban such easy cop outs – to no avail. Secret passages and twins kept popping up in mysteries afterwards and still do now and then.

It must be said in defence of crime writers trying and failing their hands at the genre that it is extremely easy to think of an high-concept situation – the real challenge is to come up with an original and striking solution. It was frequent back in the heyday of the traditional mystery that authors challenge each other to find a solution to a problem they had invented. Perhaps the most famous instance involves John Dickson Carr (again) and his friend and colleague Clayton Rawson. The latter thought of a novel way to escape from a hermetically sealed room and challenged Carr to find a solution of his own – which he did, and the result was He Wouldn’t Kill Patience which for my money is one of its author’s most clever and thoroughly satisfying books. Rawson issued his own riff on the theme as a short story, From Another World, which is very good too.

Alas, not everyone is John Dickson Carr or Clayton Rawson.

The moral of this story might appear to be « Don’t write high-concept mysteries and stick to plain whodunits ». Some critics past and present actually said as much – Howard Haycraft for instance warned newcomers against impossible crimes, saying that they were extremely hard to write and also that virtually all solutions had been thought of already. Their advice was regretably heeded as impossible crimes and other high-concept puzzles became increasingly rarer, and the fewer ones remaining usually being a lot more coy than their predecessors. It is very unlikely by the look of things that another Red Right Hand or Deadly Percheron appear anytime soon.

This is unfortunate, to put it mildly. What the mystery genre needs now is more imagination, not less, and if a high rate of failure is the price to pay then be it. I’ll add that a good mystery can survive a disappointing solution if the writer knows his craft well – only badly written books falter when their tricks do. So keep the bizarre coming, folks. I for one will never be tired of it.

3 commentaires sur “Of Interesting Premises and Their Pitfalls

  1. Xavier, I hear you — hence my delight at the continued translations of M. Paul Halter, the new meta-narratives that Anthony Horowitz is playing around with (a sequel to Magpie Murder is, somehow, on the way), and the burgeoning career of James Scott Byrnside, who has made a beautiful start to bringing the classically-themed crazy setup back into existence.

    I’m reading at this very moment a modern locked room novel that could actually be seen as an extension of Carr and Rawson’s challenge, since the impossibility seems to stem from very similar grounds. Whether it turns out to be any good or not remains to be seen, but I’ll probably review it on Saturday if you’re interested.

    Also, sorry that Brillhart didn’t work out. On the basis of the two books I’ve read, Brean wasn’t a classicist in any shape or form — if anything, he seems to be more in the neo-mystery style that’s straddling the gap between a classic GAD novel and the more modern thriller, leaning more heavily into the latter. For thriller fans looking for something more mysterious he’s great, but for those of us hoping for a more GADish time…not so much.

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