08/01/2008

Plot and Theme: Susan Glaspell

I said earlier that I don't see the need for detective stories to have a theme, as brilliant plotting to me is an artistic achievement on itself. Some, however, do indeed have a theme which is essential to the plot even though it may not be obvious at first sight - Martin Edwards rightly pointed And Then They Were None as an example of this; one might also add John Dickson Carr's The Emperor's Snuff-Box which is basically about false appearances and not judging books on their covers. But the most perfect union of plot and theme in my view is to be found in Susan Glaspell's classic short-story A Jury of Her Peers.
 
I can see some of my readers cringe as this is not a detective story in the orthodox meaning of the term, and it's likely Glaspell didn't think of her work as such. Yet the two midwives indeed act as detectives, working the truth out of the clues, and the final (mis-)carriage of justice is one Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have frowned upon. So I think it qualifies, and so did the many editors who included the story in their anthologies.
 
A Jury of Her Peers is about the various degrees of female oppression, from mere condescension to downright abuse, but Gaspell - thanks heavens! - is no Sara Paretsky or Carolyn Heillbrun. She doesn't shove her message down the reader's throat or have her characters experiencing sudden and wordy "awakenings". She just let facts speak for themselves, and they do loud. Their shared experience of how it is to be a woman and a wife in that time and place allow Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to understand what happened, who killed John Wright and most importantly, why - a truth that will forever escape their husbands and the D.A. for all their alleged superior minds. And their decision not to bring the murderer to justice is the logical outcome of that, even though it sounds more like temporary rebellion motivated by empathy than actual revolution. That is all: not a single useless word, no preach, no over-explanation and still the point is made. This is how all detective and mystery stories should be done - alas, all too often they're not.
 
Further reading:
 
 
 

07/01/2008

L'Arsène

One of the most spectacular changes of minds I have experienced of late is about my fellow-compatriot Maurice Leblanc and his hero Arsène Lupin. For years I had nothing but contempt for them and their enduring popularity here in France left me puzzled: how in the world could grown-up people read and enjoy such infantile fluff? I had read, and immensely hated, The Hollow Needle and The Crystal Stopper when I was fifteen-sixteen. A strongly classic-minded reader with youthful enthusiasm and corrolary intolerance, I was not in the right mood to appreciate those wild, definetely non-holmesian stories and stuck to my initial reject for the next decade and a half.

Then, two years ago, I found at a yard sale a Lupin I didn't know, La Barre-Y-Va, which attracted my attention: it was about an impossible crime, one of my péchés mignons. I had to read it, no matter Leblanc and Lupin and even though I didn't expect anything carrian in terms of cleverness and innovation. The solution to the problem was unsurprisingly a let-down, though it may be have groundbreaking back then, but then it didn't really matter, for the book was loads of fun. I went on to read another Lupin, La Demeure Mystérieuse, and enjoyed it even more. I had to confront the awful truth: I was hooked. A Lupinian I had become.

Slowly, very slowly so as not to run out of books too soon, I made my way through the Geste of the unique son of Théophraste Lupin and Henriette d'Andrézy and the more I progressed the more I realized what a dogmatic fool I had been. Since then I feel a little - but only a little - more understanding for the late Julian Symons. I had been wrong on all counts and for no reason other than my adolescent refusal and condemnation of anything not in the Christie/Doyle/Carr tradition.

The stories are no infantile fluff. They are fresh, youthful, and fun, which doesn't preclude some gravity on occasion. Above all, they're extremely varied in tone and style. While most focus on Lupin's schemes, many of them have puzzles and the gentleman-thief often acts as a detective. Leblanc's plotting, though definetely not orthodox and some crude
at times, is usually very good and sometimes even brilliant (Victor de la Brigade Mondaine in particular is a masterpiece of bamboozlement)

Lupin is not the arrogant schmuck I remembered, but one of the few characters in mystery fiction that can genuinely be called a hero - someone you can root for and whose every appearance (or non-appearance, since he is most often in disguise, unknown to everyone but the reader) is an event in itself. He is also a real three-dimensional character with a distinctive presence and "voice", both magnificent and vulnerable, genius and fallible, outlandish and sentimental. Most of the time he wins, but sometimes he loses. Hard.

813 is his greatest recorded fiasco, his own Scandal in Bohemia - and Leblanc's probable masterpiece as well as one of the few undisputable summits of the genre. Apparently bored with "just" being a thief, Lupin dabbles into geopolitics, which gets him into serious trouble. To give a full summary of this long, apparently rambling yet fully controled book would take as many pages as it takes Leblanc to tell his story. Let us just say that Lupin meets one of his most dangerous enemies, finds love once again, gets charged for a murder he didn't commit and goes to jail, owing his final release only to the personal intervention of the Kaiser, and loses everything in the end. Quite modern for a book written in 1910 - but then, as I said in a previous post, our favorite genre has changed very little ever since.

I still have some Lupins left on my shelves, including the weirdest of them all, L'Ile aux Trente Cercueils, and when done with them I'll re-read Needle and Stopper. As the old French proverb has it, only the fools never change their minds.

06/01/2008

What Makes a Good Detective Story Good?

Nicholas Fuller, in a typically thoughtful post, outlines his own definition of a good detective story:

For me, a good detective story is also a good story in its own right. Story-telling, atmosphere, characterisation, and theme are as important as, if not more important than, the problem. The problem is crucial, but ideally, it should be the result of the theme and the characterisation.


I agree - to an extent.

As a firm believer in art for its own sake, I don't see the need for detective stories or any other kind of fiction to be "about" something. The masterful plotting of And Then They Were None and the haunting atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles are sufficient justifications for the existence of the books. So "theme" to me is an irrelevant notion.

Also, while I value story-telling, atmosphere and characterization as much as anyone else, I don't think they should be given as much importance as the problem when it comes to assess the quality of a detective story, for the problem is the core, the identity of the genre. Vivid characters, convincing atmosphere and good story-telling are very rare things indeed but can be found in other genres, while the puzzle plot is a trademark of detective fiction and real mystery fiction. Call me a genre nationalist, but I think it's worth preserving and defending.

Now, as I said above, I basically agree with Nick that a detective story with not only a brilliant plot but also good story-telling, atmosphere and characterization is certainly better than one which is abysmal on all counts but the problem - and is much more frequent than critics of the genre would have us to believe. That's indeed why I like R.A. Freeman better than, say, S.S. Van Dine. But I also believe a loosely-plotted detective story cannot be quite redeemed by fine writing or sense of character. It may be good as general fiction, but as mystery fiction it's just bad.