I’ve just finished Ely Griffiths’ Edgar winner The Stranger Diaries and found it a pleasant, if not groundbreaking, read. What I liked best about it was its unpretentiousness. Diaries unlike some of its recent predecessors makes no attempt at « transcending the genre » and avoids any overt political or social agenda: It is a mystery plain and simple, a kind of book not very popular with critics and awards lately. That the MWA chose it as this year’s Best Novel is thus a glimmer of hope for those who think crime fiction is neither a soapbox or a more gruesome subdivision of literary fiction.
You may remember my previous post was about « whodunits » and my rather ambivalent feelings about this subgenre. I have kept thinking about the issue in the meantime. One thing that occurred to me was that « whodunits » and « detective stories » while often thought as being one and the same actually are not. A whodunit doesn’t require a detective (think for instance of slasher movies a la Scream) and a detective story doesn’t necessarily revolve around the « Who » question. This was my first finding but reading Diaries led me to another: most contemporary mysteries, while having a protagonist acting as an investigator, are not detective stories, and it is true even of the subgenre called « traditional mysteries » which as its name implies purports to be the continuation of the GAD-style detective novel. Sounds even more counter-intuitive and hair-splitting than usual with me? Let me explain.
What are the core components of a standard detective story? Problem, Investigation, Solution. These three core elements have been left unchanged for two centuries now and still feature in most contemporary mysteries, no matter how edgy and literary they are said to be. There is a fourth component however that while self-evident is actually more complicated than it appears at first sight. A detective story also and perhaps most of all needs a detective. Be them a professional or an amateur, a one-off or series character, the detective is the glue holding the aforementioned three elements together. Its presence however is not enough for a detective story to be worth its name and this is where vintage and modern mysteries part ways.
Hercule Poirot and Philip Marlowe may belong to different sleuthing schools and have nothing else in common but they both get to the truth by the same method – reasoning. All vintage detective stories, be them Golden Age or hardboiled, have this final chapter in which the detective explains who has done what to whom, and how they found out. Poirot favours gathering the suspects in the library whereas Marlowe prefers to confront the guilty party but the ritual is the same.
Contemporary mysteries on the other hand use the detective in a complete different fashion, and I’m not talking here about how their private lives impact the story. Most contemporary sleuths are or are meant to be « regular folks » and « regular folks » are usually not blessed with razor-sharp brains able to name the murderer only by looking at the way candlesticks are arranged on the fireplace. What they use instead is procedure, intuition and above all, luck. They sure get their (wo)man in the end but it is usually because they found a crucial clue at the last minute. They get to the truth but they don’t solve the case. Such mysteries undoubtedly are stories about detectives; they are not detective stories.