Sunday, March 25, 2007

How do you feel about cheating?

An excellent crime novel that I read recently contained what some mystery purists might call a cheat. A detective who has throughout the book shared his thoughts with the reader on clues, suspects and the progress of the investigation breaks that pattern late in the novel: He receives a critical document, decides that it identifies the culprit, but does not share the information with the reader. Instead, the author creates a cliffhanger, a "now he knew who had done it" moment, but he withholds from the reader what the detective knows. Did the author cheat by having the detective reverse course late in the game?

A novel I read a few years ago edges closer to a cheat. A victim is trapped with her kidnapper, who we later find out is a character known to the novel's protagonist and introduced earlier. The trouble is that the character has a highly distinctive physical trait that anyone would notice immediately -- as, indeed, the protagonist does when he encounters him earlier in the book, to the point where he dwells at some length on the trait. The author, it seems to me, cheats by deliberately not having the victim comment on this characteristic. If she did, of course, the reader would instantly recognize the kidnapper. Instead, the author withholds the information in what struck me, once the identity was revealed, as an unfair effort to create suspense.

These two instances may violate the first of S.S. Van Dine's Twenty rules for writing detective stories . (Of course, rules 3 and 9, to name just two, have been violated countless times in countless good and even great detective novels, and Ed McBain, not to mention Fergus Hume, would probably have had something to say about number 9. )

S.S. Van Dine may be a relic, but do you have your own rules that a crime author must not break? What makes you feel cheated in your crime reading?

6 Comments:

Anonymous Carlos said...

You remain in denial. There is no such thing as crime writing, ergo there can be no rules. Examine your mind, hands at your sides. Do you like violence? Dead people? Gruesome descriptions of death? Do you care about neat solutions? Do you care about solutions at all?

March 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I deny that I am in denial. My flaw, whether of temperament or of strategy, lay in failing to realize that a certain wryness of intent may not be recognized as such. The various sets of "rules" for crime fiction were somewhat tongue in cheek.

No one subscribes to such rules today, but there are conventions to crime writing (or call crime writing itself nothing but a set of conventions), and part of the pleasure for a reader of such writing lies in seeing what changes the writer rings on the conventions.

A writer who deliberately ignores the conventions (Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Jean-Patrick Manchette come to mind) cannot be
held to account for breaking them. Not so for a writer who chooses to remain within the conventions of genre, as did HÃ¥kan Nesser and Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza.

In fact, I think Nesser's choice to violate generic expectations could be justified, but not Garcia-Roza's. His choice reads too much to me like a lapse, perhaps a result of panic about how to end his story.

March 26, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Ah, before writing this comment I was going to say that I guessed you were writing about Nesser, and from the reply above, I see that you are.
I did not find this "cheat" a problem, and I think it is because the fact of the knowledge, if not the knowledge itself, was shared with the reader. This book relied very much on characterisation for its charm and appeal, rather than the solution to the mystery. My beloved Lisa Marklund is like this also, one gets so absorbed in the main character and her situation both personal and professional (as a journalist usually struggling to keep a job) that the solution to the crime is almost irrelevant.

I do, however, find "cheats" very annoying when the detective finds the classic "untraceable poison" type of solution. That makes me seethe.

One "cheat" I did not like was the Laura Lippman novel "Every secret thing" where the solution/plot hung on a conversation between two characters, a mother and a daughter, that we were not told took place, even though we were told of other events in the lives of these two, and indeed of other characters. Although the book was well-written (if slow) I could not forgive it for that, I felt it was an unfair cheat on the reader. The Nesser approach there would be to have told the reader about the conversation but not what was in it.

I've posted about van D's rules before, and I do think that on the whole they are quite appropriate for the "mystery" genre: it takes a truly excellent author to transcend them via some form of smoke and mirrors, and also leave the reader satisfied.

I don't follow the first commenter to this post at all, by the way--seems to be a non-sequitur.

March 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, I felt a bit sheepish mentioning Nesser simply because the "cheat" was nothing more than a blip that in no significant way interfered with my enjoyment of the book. That's for the reason you mentioned, of course: the novel depends much more on character (and humor) than on mystery. Perhaps it was less a cheat than a tactic, Nesser's way of saying: OK, the mystery begins here. It was a bit too overt for my taste. In any case, I brought him up mainly because he reminded me of the other book -- and I hesitated to provide details of that book lest I ruin the story for any prospective readers.

I posted the rules as a lark, of course. My observation about Nesser and my complaint about the other book would have applied regardless of whether I knew of any such rules. In fact, I don't think I had heard of the Van Dine rules when I read the first book.

In fact, I rarely notice "cheats" because I rarely read "mysteries."

In re rules, do you know Josef Skvorecky's Sins for Father Knox?

March 26, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

Many loved Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island but I felt cheated with the denouement. I can't say more as it would be a spoiler for anyone reading this who has not read the novel.

March 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

It's tough to carry on a discussion when one must refrain from stating the particulars of the case. I do like Maxine's comment about excellent authors' transcending the rules with smoke and mirrors. In fact, I'd love to give you an example of that from a story I just read, but doing so would give the ending away.

The smoke and mirrors are compelling settings, characters and situations. And there, laid bare, for all, is the secret of successful crime writing!

March 27, 2007  

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