While we are repeatedly told by critics that crime fiction is about character and social comment, many of us readers keep ranking writers the old way, that is, by their plotting skills. There are a few great plotters, some good ones, many that are just average and a long, long succession of mediocrities – and now, I won’t give names. This is as good and legitimate a standard than any, and I use it myself along a few others that can at best mitigate but never quite make up for it. A feeble crime story, no matter how well written and psychologically or socially acute, remains a feeble crime story. As Isaac Asimov once pointed out in one of his Black Widowers stories, a story without a plot or with a bad needs something to make up for it whereas a well plotted one needs no excuse.
And yet the categorization above is somewhat incomplete, for it doesn’t include plotters that are uneven (not everyone can come up with a Roger Ackroyd at will) and a very interesting brand that is the good plotter that just doesn’t care or doesn’t care enough. The latter is often lumped together with the average or the bad but the crucial difference is that they are not there because of their skills but because of their lack of willingness to use them. Most of the time they are writers with highbrow ambitions looking down on the genre and its trappings whereas a few are just plain lazy. All of them pretend not to give a fig about plotting and some sincerely believe that, but we are allowed not to take them entirely at their word.
Let’s take Chandler for instance as he is probably the most famous and distinguished representative of that « I suck at plotting and I don’t care » school. Critics and readers often believe him on the evidence of a single book, The Big Sleep, which is so big a mess that even two movie adaptations couldn’t make sense out of it. What said critics and readers fail to see however is that The Big Sleep was his first novel and also that Chandler like Nietzsche couldn’t always be trusted to mean what he said and say what he meant. His next novel, Farewell My Lovely, boasts after all one of the biggest twists in crime fiction – hard to reconcile with the largely self-engineered image of a bad plotter. Also, what are we to make of The Lady in the Lake, which scholar extraordinaire Curtis Evans pointed out is probably the closest thing to a Golden Age mystery – and a good one at that – Chandler ever wrote? Finally I defy anyone to say that The Long Goodbye has no plot; it sure isn’t the book’s main focus but it’s still there and it works. Chandler may not have been John Dickson Carr but he more than held his own when he deigned to.
Same goes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Georges Simenon and even, in a different way, Patricia Higsmith. Doyle was a famously uneven plotter – it’s hard to believe the man who wrote The Naval Treaty also inflicted The Veiled Lodger upon us – but it was not because of a lack of ability. That the Canon is one of the few crime series primarily read for its extra-crime features and virtues doesn’t mean that it has no clever moments, for it has many. The aforementioned Naval Treat is one of them, perhaps Doyle’s most finely constructed plot and every bit worthy of his Golden Age heirs, but the much-imitated Thor Bridge or The Reigate Squires among others have to be mentioned. Doyle, like Chandler, could plot – but he didn’t, or didn’t do well, because like Chandler again he felt he was working in an inferior genre not quite worthy of his genuine literary skills, a trait even worsened by his passionate hatred for his character. Doyle didn’t think of himself as a puzzle maker and as a result he wasn’t one – but it had nothing to do to him lacking the ability.
Simenon, like I previously argued in this French-language article, was extremely dishonest about his status as a crime writer. He made most of his money and success out of his crime fiction but never wasted an occasion to belittle it and the genre, and claimed he was a serious writer with serious ambitions who wrote romans policiers for financial reasons only and without caring much. He like Chandler was passionately believed by people who wanted to believe him – the snobs on one side who wouldn’t be caught reading « trivial literature » and purists on the other who objected to his apparent discarding of orthodoxy. This however was pure balderdash. Simenon admittedly was not a plot-driven writer, but neither was he a plotless one – at least in his crime fiction. Also he was very fond of experimentation. We tend to think of the Maigret series as very formulaic but the best of them follow no formula at all – and they all have solid plots. What’s more, Simenon while openly and ostensibly skeptical of the traditional detective story, never quite overcame a fascination for it, especially in his short fiction. The Little Doctor stories for instance can be seen as parodies of the genre but they are affectionate parodies and play strictly and brilliantly by the rules. This complex relationship is seen at its most glaring and successful in the Thirteen cycle, most notably The Thirteen Mysteries with its fascinating protagonist Joseph Leborgne, a cantankerous armchair detective with strong overtones of The Old Man in the Corner and predating Nero Wolfe by a few years. These are early and youthful works but not the work of someone who can’t plot and/or has no interest in it.
I can see my readers scratching their heads at what Highsmith is doing in such company when she clearly was not a traditional mystery writer. This I don’t dispute, but there are many other approaches to plotting than the traditional one and one of them is the so-called inverted mystery, a genre in which Highsmith dabbled into more than once, always of course putting her own twist on it. The most famous and accomplished example of that segment of her work is of course The Talented Mr. Ripley which is basically a Columbo story in which Columbo never intervenes and where the murderer goes free in the end. This is probably, despite its amorality, the perfect Highsmith novel for people who can’t stand Highsmith, and one of the reasons is that it is so well plotted. Ripley commits the perfect crime and neither he or his creator leave anything to chance. It’s obviously not the work of someone making it up as she goes along, no matter what Highsmith claimed and you don’t need to like it to admire it.
That people who can plot and in some cases enjoy it still feel the need to say that they’re not interested in it says a lot about the low regard in which the P-Word is held by the Literati but it mustn’t fool us into believing and thus discarding them. Genuinely bad plotters never attempt to hide their issues for they aren’t even aware of them – and no, I still won’t give names.