Monday, February 16, 2015

End of story, or what ever happened to plot? (With questions for readers)

It's no secret that plot has less cachet than character, setting, and atmosphere in harder-boiled crime writing, and probably at the cozier end of the spectrum as well.

Why is this? Why are character especially, but also atmosphere, considered more literarily prestigious than a brilliantly crafted plot?  When was the last time you read critical praise for a hard-boiled novel's plot? (I haven't read Gone Girl, but that's the only recent example that comes to mind. Well, that and anything by the brilliant Alan Glynn. But I suspect that even Glynn's thrilling chillers are likelier to find their way into book discussions for their larger themes of paranoia and government and corporate control than for the mechanisms by which Glynn tells his stories.)  Can you recall the plot of any Stieg Larsson novels? Probably not, but you sure as hell do know who and what Lisbeth Salander is.  Character is for serious writers. Plot? Why, that's something for trashy airport best sellers.

I don't mean that hard-boiled and noir novels have bad plots, but commentators (and, I'm guessing, readers and even authors) regard plot, if they think about it all, as a serviceable armature on which to hang ideas about men or women or the city or despair or economic deprivation or greed or violence or heroism or depravity, or just to give their characters something to do.  I've read two brilliantly plotted hard-boiled crime novels recently, one published in 1953, the other in 1961, and the third novel in my new holy trinity of crime fiction plotting appeared in 1959. (The books are, in order, Nothing in Her Way, by Charles Williams; Any Woman He Wanted, by Harry Whittington; and The Galton Case, by Ross MacDonald, whose story is so brilliantly worked out that one can almost overlook Macdonald's wince-making amateur Freudianism and badly dated jabs at suburbs.) In none of the books is plot a mere mechanism to activate the characters. Plot reveals character and is inseparable from it. The books reveal the shallowness of expressions like plot-driven and character-driven.

Those novels appeared more than 50 years ago, and here are your questions: Were the 1950s and early 1960s a high point for plot in hard-boiled writing? If so, when did plot lose its prestige, and why? What are the more brilliantly plotted crime novels you have read?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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14 Comments:

Blogger Bill Crider said...

You could say "brilliantly plotted" about just about any novel by Macdonald, Whittington, or Williams. And in every one of them you'd find fully developed characters, too. Maybe even a bit of social commentary (especially in Macdonald). I'm not sure why plot is looked down upon these days. Some of the greatest writers of the past where fine plotters, including Sophocles, whom Macdonald must really have admired.

February 16, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

I will vote for Colin Dexter and Tony Hillerman as masters of plotting. As for writers still writing and publishing, I have no nominees for the title of plot master, but I would give high marks to Indridason and Camilleri (though character does also take center stage).

And, Bill, you've nailed it. Sophocles deserve high marks. Aristotle (writing a century after Sophocles) was wise enough to cite plot as the #1 element in Oedipus the King.

February 16, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sophocles came to mind. You'll have noticed I've been reading a fair amount of crime fiction from the very late 1940s through the mid-1960s recently. Not all of it has been as good as the best of Williams and Whittington. Some of it lays on the schtick and the patter a little too heavily, for example. But I've given myself some incentive to persist with those books to see if they are well plotted despite their flaws.

I wonder when plot began to lost its prestige. A convenient starting point might be the 1960s, when a good story might not have seemed enough because there was so much to say about the times and what they had done to people.

February 16, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Aristotle, says Detectives Beyond Borders, might have liked crime fiction.

I think of Arnaldur and Camilleri as having fine eyes for setting, character, and theme, rather than brilliant in how their plots play out. That is not to disagree with you, but rather just to say that their plotting has not jumped out at me.

February 16, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Several years ago I read Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast and enjoyed it very much. Even after I finished it, I found myself looking back to see the significance of some of the actions to the plot.

February 16, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, The Redbreast gives lots of book back through, that's for sure. I wonder to what extent tight plotting is possible in a book that size.

I fondest memory of the book is the highly amusing interview with a U.S. president on the opening pages, on the eve of the Oslo peace talks.

February 16, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Perhaps it was not so much the plot of the book as the plot for the attempted murder. It was so meticulous. For example, I remember early on puzzling over the poisoning of the tree and wondering what that had to do with the price of tea in China. Only later to find that the leaves on the tree had to be gone in order to attempt the kill shot. Who thinks of these details? I guess writers like Jo Nesbo.

February 16, 2015  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I can't think of a crime writer better at plotting than Sebastian Japrisot. His stories can be outrageously unlikely but they're put together like a Swiss watch. Ross McDonald's plotting is probably his greatest strength, but, as you mention, you also have to put up with some cringeworthy writing. I have read a Ross McDonald in a long time and now I'm curious as to how he holds up.

February 17, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

I really had no idea that plot had taken such a back seat to other features of a story. I'd say more that good plotting should be invisible because whenever you make a mistake in it, you ruin everything.

You mention Stieg Larsson, but the plot of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stinks to high heaven, which undermines the whole thing. I'd say plot equals authority for a writer. If you can make readers believe your plot, you own them. If not, at the most you have their indulgence.

February 17, 2015  
OpenID melhealy said...

I'm in general agreement, but there are quite a few exceptions. Pierre Lemaitre’s "Alex"?

February 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It may of interest that commenters have cited Jo Nesbø, Sebastian Japrisot, and Pierre Lemaitre. None is American. I wonder if American hard-boiled writers, more than those from other countries, have plot behind more than those from elsewhere.

February 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, I've read just one novel and one short story by Macdonald, but I say that his stories hold up, but their trappings do not. The plotting of The Galton Case will probably stand up as long as people read crime fiction.

The opening of another novel of his I once picked was suffocating in its imitation of Chandler. But I think Macdonald himself talked about eventually breaking away from Chandler;s influence, so I won't hold that against him.

February 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mel, I have not read Alex. I have heard, though, that it contains some surprises that one would not guess at from the opening.

February 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I think plots are generally invisible, at least in crime fiction. I notice them when they are spectacularly good, say when a surprising turn of events hinges on something that had seemed innocuous when an author mentioned it many chapters earlier, but not so innocuous that I had forgotten it. I also notice plot points that are too obviously plot points.

It was only when considering the skillful, surprising, or even daring plots of the books I consider here that I realized how little I think about plots. And I suspect I am not alone. Two of the better plotters in crime fiction were Harry Whittington and Donald Westlake. Each was prolific, which makes me wonder whether plotting is knack one acquires only with long practice.

February 17, 2015  

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