Sunday, August 03, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Batman - Broken City

[Another in my series of posts where I apply Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to comic book mystery stories. This time, it's Brian Azzarello's Batman: Broken City. New posts at random.]

I think it's safe to assume that Batman will be the most represented character in these posts. I mean, he stars in Detective Comics... it would say a lot if there weren't a plethora of mystery stories starring him, wouldn't it?

Since I just reread Broken City a few weeks ago (and since I'm a fan of Brian Azzarello), it seems like a natural choice. The story is very noir and contains first-person narration by Batman throughout. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's the Batman story Raymond Chandler would write, but it's obviously influenced by the Chandler type--or, at the very least, influenced by those influenced by Chandler.

As always, I am reprinting Chandler's "Notes" in their entirety rather than summarising because Chandler explains what he means better than I could. His notes are in bold with my comments after each note. Let's get to it...

Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story (Revised April 18, 1948)

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement; it must consist of the plausible actions of plausible people in plausible circumstances, it being remembered that plausibility is largely a matter of style. This requirement rules out most trick endings and a great many "closed circle" stories in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody. It also rules out such elaborate mises-en-scene as Christie's Murder in a Calais Coach, where the whole setup for the crime requires such a fluky set of happenings that it could never seem real.

There are two mysteries in Broken City: the murder of Elizabeth Lupino and the murder of the parents of a young boy. I'll discuss their relationship to one another--and which one is the "real" mystery and which is the "false" one--a little later. But, here's the basic plot:

Elizabeth Lupino was the sister of Angel Lupo, a man trying to make a name for himself in the Gotham underground. She was also in a relationship with Arnold Wesker, the man who spends his time with his hand up a dummy named Scarface's ass. Elizabeth was pregnant with Wesker's child and was going to keep it, because Wesker is powerful and wealthy. So, Angel's girlfriend, Margo Farr killed Elizabeth, because she was afraid that when Angel found out about his sister's relationship and pregnancy, he would go after Wesker and get killed in the process. Now, who actually killed Elizabeth is up for debate--it's hinted strongly that the Joker did it, but that doesn't seem his style. Or was it Killer Croc? It doesn't matter since Elizabeth was behind it and her motivation was good enough. She loved and relied upon Angel and wanted to keep him alive despite himself--so she hurt him to save him.

The other murder happens very much like that of the Waynes. A couple and their young son run across a man who kills the parents, leaving the little boy an orphan. It appears that Angel Lupo did it while trying to escape from Batman, but the scene in the final issue also hints that the Joker is responsible for that death. The language used is ambiguous, so we don't know which killer the Joker is talking about. Now, I tend to interpret it as referring to this murder since the rest of the issue references it. The motivation here is to strike at Batman in a personal way, to unhinge him, to play with him, which is very much the Joker's style. However, it also suggests that the Joker knows he's Bruce Wayne, which I've seen no evidence of elsewhere. But, that leaves us with two possible killers: Angel Lupo and the Joker, both with motives that make sense.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection. No fantastic poisons or improper effects from poison such as death from nonfatal doses, etc. No use of silencers on revolvers (they won't work) or snakes climbing bellropes ("The Speckled Band"). Such things at once destroy the foundation of the story. If the detective is a trained policeman, he must act like one, and have the mental and physical equipment that go with the job. If he is a private investigator or amateur, he must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was on the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only depreciates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author's knowledge of his own field. Conan Doyle and Poe were primitives in this art and stand in relation to the best modern writers as Giotto does to da Vinci. They did things which are no longer permissible and exposed ignorances that are no longer tolerated. Also, police art, itself, was rudimentary in their time. "The Purloined Letter" would not fool a modern cop for four minutes. Conan Doyle showed no knowledge whatever of the organization of Scotland Yard's men. Christie commits the same stupidities in our time, but that doesn't make them right. Contrast Austin Freeman, who wrote a story about a forged fingerprint ten years before police method realized such things could be done.

The methods of detection here seem sound to me. Batman hunts for the most likely suspect in Elizabeth's murder, her brother, as he has disappeared--and, in the process, discovers the truth. He tracks down leads and puts the pieces together himself.

As for the other murder, he assumes it was Angel because Angel was on the scene. The little boy who was left alive is in shock and doesn't speak.

3. It must be honest with the reader. This is always said, but the implications are not realized. Important facts not only must not be concealed, they must not be distorted by false emphasis. Unimportant facts must not be projected in such a way as to make them portentous. (This creation of red herrings and false menace out of trick camera work and mood shots if the typical Hollywood mystery picture cheat.) Inferences from the facts are the detective's stock in trade; but he should disclose enough to keep the reader's mind working. It is arguable, although not certain, that inferences arising from special knowledge (e.g., Dr. Thorndyke) are a bit of a cheat, because the basic theory of all good mystery writing is that at some stage not too late in the story the reader did have the materials to solve the problem. If specal scientific knowledge was necessary to interpret the facts, the reader did not have the solution unless he had the special knowledge. It may have been Austin Freeman's feeling about this that led him to the invention of the inverted detective story, in which the reader knows the solution from the beginning and takes his pleasure from watching the detective trace it out a step at a time.

I think this is honest with the reader. The only spot where some may disagree is whether or not the Joker had that boy's parents killed. Azzarello is purposefully ambiguous there. I think it's heavily implied--so heavily that it didn't occur to me that maybe the Joker was involved with Elizabeth's death until I was flipping through the story for this post. Since Margo had Elizabeth killed, there is an ambiguity, but not much of one. While Azzarello never explicitly states that the Joker recreated the death of Batman's parents to mess with him, the reader should realise that happened. No key facts or swerves are thrown at the reader--at least none that aren't also thrown at Batman. The story sticks so close to Batman that there isn't much room for deception.

4. It must be realistic as to character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in the real world. Very few mystery writers have any talent for character work, but that doesn't mean it is not necessary. It makes the difference between the story you reread and remember and the one you skim through and almost instantly forget. Those like Valentine Williams who say the problem overrides everything are merely trying to cover up their own inability to create character.

While this is a world of freaks, Azzarello goes out of his way to make these freaks as close to real as possible. Killer Croc isn't a mutant, he's just a big guy with a bad skin condition. Scarface and the Penguin are just gangsters with eccentricities. Batman is also very human; he gets beaten severely a few times, and is very vulnerable psychologically. A big part of the story is the psychology. These are interesting characters. Now, I'll admit that Azzarello's characterisation doesn't necessarily fit with other Batman stories, but it works within this story.

5. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element; i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

Let's see, Batman beating up Killer Croc, messing with the Penguin and Scarface, facing his own demons regarding his parents, and even fighting a couple of new Japanese crooks... with a sexy woman and lots of guns thrown in? Yeah, it's worth reading apart from the mystery element.

6. To achieve this it must have some form of suspense, even if only intellectual. This does not mean menace and especially it does not mean that the detective must be menaced by grave personal danger. This last is a trend and like all trends will exhaust itself by overimitation. Nor need the reader be kept hanging on the edge of his chair. The overplotted story can be dull too; too much shock may result in numbness to shock. But there must be conflict, physical, ethical or emotional, and there must be some element of danger in the broadest sense of the word.

The second mystery really adds that extra level of suspense since Batman is not just trying to solve that case for the little boy, but for himself. If he can find the murderer of that case and bring him to justice, it will be like finding the man who killed his parents. In the final issue, he even admits that everything he'd done was for the wrong little boy (meaning himself). As well, the mystery itself is intriguing and intricate enough that you're not sure who did what--and it's a matter of who will find Angel Lupo first. There are a lot of people looking for him, so there's suspense in Batman's hunt for him--motivated by the murder of the boy's parents more than anything else by the end since he knows Angel didn't kill his sister.

7. It must have color, lift, and a reasonable amount of dash. It takes an awful lot of technical adroitness to compensate for a dull style, although it has been done, especially in England.

Oh, this story definitely has that. The narration is very stylised--more Azzarello than Batman--and the art is also very stylised, influenced by the likes of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, while maintaing Eduardo Risso's own style. A few complaints I read online about this story was that there is too much style--I'd disagree, but that's because "too much style" is a phrase I don't know.

8. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. (This is possibly the most often violated of all the rules). The ideal denouement is one in which everything is revealed in a flash of action. This is rare because ideas that good are always rare. The explanation need not be very short (except on the screen), and often it cannot be short; but it must be interesting in itself, it must be something the reader is anxious to hear, and not a new story with a new set of characters, dragged in to justify an overcomplicated plot. Above all the explanation must not be merely a long-winded assembling of minute circumstances which no ordinary reader could possibly be expected to remember. To make the solution dependent on this is a kind of unfairness, since here again the reader did not have the solution within his grasp, in any practical sense. To expect him to remember a thousand trivialities and from them to select that three that are decisive is as unfair as to expect him to have a profound knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy, or the mating habits of the Patagonian anteater.

I explained both murders above and they are simple. Now, for the Elizabeth Lupo murder, Azzarello builds up a lot of extra plot surrounding Angel's activities, but it doesn't matter except in the ways it distracts us and Batman from the murder itself. The denouement by Margo is not short and comes only under duress. He puts off Batman a couple of times before that and the way she explains it makes sense.

Now, the other murder's explanation is vague and ambiguous, as I've said. Much of its meaning is implicit, but all of the details necessary to understand it are in the story. It's also very simple.

I've noticed that Azzarello's mysteries tend to have very simple, very human motivations, much like Chandler's. Sure, lots of plot accumulates to complicate things, but, in the end, it comes down to stuff like revenge and love and people being stupid.

9. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. This opens up a very difficult question. Some of the best detective stories ever written (those of Austin Freeman, for example) seldom baffle an intelligent reader to the end. But the reader does not guess the complete solution and could not himself have made a logical demonstration of it. Since readers are of many minds, some will guess a cleverly hidden murder and some will be fooled by the most transparent plot. (Could the "Red-Headed League" ever really fool a modern reader?) It is not necessary or even possible to fool to the hilt the real aficionado of mystery fiction. A mystery story that consistently did that and was honest would be unintelligible to the average fan; he simply would not know what the story was all about. But there must be some important elements of the story that elude the most penetrating reader.

Hmm... I do think both mysteries would baffle an intelligent reader until all of the details are revealed. Hell, the Joker killing that boy's parents comes out of left field, in a way. Margo having Elizabeth killed is easily believable and, when revealed, makes a lot of sense--as does the revelation of that Elizabeth was pregnant with Wesker's child. Enough hints were there to maybe be enough for someone to figure it out, but not quite.

10. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. This is the least often emphasized element of a good mystery, but it is one of the important elements of all fiction. It is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.

I think this happened. As I said, enough details were dropped so when it was revealed that Margo killed Liz because she was pregnant with Wesker's kid, it made sense.

The Joker element also has that feel, oddly enough. It does come out of nowhere, but also has that "Oh my god" feel that it makes perfect sense at the same time. Since the emphasis of the story was placed on the other murder, not much was given for this one, making the solution that much more horrible, in a way.

11. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance. An atmosphere of terror destroys logical thinking; if the story is about the intricate psychological pressures that lead apparently ordinary people to commit murder, it cannot then switch to the cool analysis of the police investigator. The detective cannot be hero and menace at the same time; the murderer cannot be a tormented victim of circumstance and also a heavy.

This is a story about family, love and passion, and doesn't really try to be anything else. This isn't a puzzle mystery since Angel was the only suspect for both murders for most of the story. The revelations that he was innocent in both came about naturally (kind of) and related to those ideas of family, love and passion.

There is a lot of violence, but since the talk of love is just that--talk--it doesn't conflict. At the core, this is a noir story with all of the violence, passion and fucked up bullshit that comes along with it.

12. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. Contrary to popular (and Johnston Office) belief, this requirement has nothing much to do with morality. It is a part of the logic of detection. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

The only one who isn't punished is the Joker, so the story fails here. Everyone else is jailed or dead, but the Joker is in Arkham, perfectly happy and content with what he's done. Arkham is his home and he gets to keep doing what it is that he does. Technically, he is punished by being locked up, but it's not a true punishment. It works within the larger context of the Batman/Joker dynamic--the Joker almost can't be punished properly, because he needs to keep on beating Batman in his own way. Otherwise, everyone else is punished... including Batman. After all, isn't he also partly responsible for the death of that boy's parents?


1. The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing. It would be nice to have Dashiell Hammett and Austin Freeman in the same book, but it just isn't possible. Hammett couldn't have the plodding patience and Freeman couldn't have the verve for narrative. They don't go together. Even a fair compromise such as Dorothy Sayers is less satisfying than the two types taken separately.

This is definitely in the Hammett/Chandler mode of writing where character and style trump the puzzle aspect of the mystery. It's not a pefect mystery because everyone involved is flawed and messed up. It's a downright basic and sloppy mystery when you break it down--it just seems complicated.

And the second mystery is so personally motivated that its solution almost couldn't be solved by the reader. It's based so deeply in character and Azzarello's style that it's not even close to a perfect mystery since it's so obtuse in its own way.

2. The most effective way to conceal a simple mystery is behind another mystery. This is litrary legerdemain. You do not fool the reader by hiding clues or faking character [ala] Christie but by making him solve the wrong problem.

Batman solves the wrong problem here by finding Elizabeth Lupo's killer. That isn't the "real" mystery of this story. It's the instigating mystery and an intriguing one that needs to be solved by someone, but it isn't the one that Batman needs to solve. The story begins with Elizabeth Lupo dead, while the first issue ends with the death of the boy's parents. It's the real mystery, the important one, the personal one. It leads to the last half of that final issue where we get insight into the night of the Waynes' murder, and those terrible last three words Bruce said to his parents. The focus is on the Lupo murder when it should be on the other one. After all, the Lupo murder is full of corrupt people far from innocent, almost undeserving of justice, while the other is the murder of innocents for no reason other than to mess with Batman. It deserves to be solved.

3. It has been said that "nobody cares about the corpse." This is bunk. It is throwing away a valuable element. It is like saying the murder of your aunt means no more to you than the murder of an unknown man in an unknown part of a city you never visited.

There are three corpses...

Do we care about Elizabeth Lupo? I think she's sympathetic as she didn't really do anything wrong and she was pregnant. We care about her more as the story goes on as we see that he murder was motivated by two men loving her, and one woman loving one of those men. If they cared about her that much, shouldn't we? But, these are also criminals. Scum. So, I think we do care about Elizabeth, if only because of the pregnancy.

Do we care about the boy's parents? Yes, because they are innocents and because we, like Batman, associate them with Thomas and Martha Wayne. We care about them and the little boy, because of the connection to Batman's past. The killing is random (or so it seems) and gets our sympathy for that reason, too.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

Azzarello doesn't do flip dialogue. His language is purposeful, often allusory and involves puns and other little fun language games. It borders on obtuse at times. But, it's rarely flip, except when it comes from someone who isn't witty. And, more importantly, Batman isn't flip.

5. A mystery serial does not make a good mystery novel. The "curtains" depend for their effect on your not having the next chapter to read at once. In book form these curtains give the effect of a false suspense and tend to be merely irritating. The magazines have begun to find that out.

Azzarello does a good job of transitioning from one issue to another, using Batman's narration to remind the reader of what's going on. It's a little intrusive, but often minimally so. It's a necessity and Azzarello does as good a job as you'd expect. As well, he often has the narration of each issue work on its own as a whole for that issue with its own little thematic underpinnings that also work with the larger story. His use of language is key here.

6. Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic and not complementary to the detective's struggle to solve the problem. The kind of love interest that works is the one that complicates the problem by adding to the detective's troubles but which at the same time you instinctively feel will not survive the story. A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm.

No love interest for Batman, except for his parents, in a way. His attachment to his parents makes solving the second mystery problematic. He's not detached enough and focuses so much on Angel that he misses the real killer until the Joker tells him because he thinks it's funny. So, Azzarello demonstrates by contrasting both mysteries why the detective should be detached. It both upholds and violates this note while explaining it... odd.

7. The fact that love interest is played up in the big magazines and on the screen doesn't make it artistic. Women are supposed to be the target of magazine fiction and movies. The magazines are not interested in mystery writing as an art. They are not interested in any kind of writing as an art.


8. The hero of the mystery story is the detective. Everything hangs on his personality. If he hasn't one, you have very little. And you have very few really good mystery stories. Naturally.

Batman has personality. He's cynical, he's hard, he's driven, he's damaged, he's smart, he's capable... The Batman here is one of the more complex versions I've seen and the story does work in a large part because of that. At the beginning of the story, he discusses how damage Gotham is as a city, that the rain is God's piss... this is a dark Batman--like I said, cynical. But, he's also hopeful by the end. This is Batman as an optimist, which he is--he's cynical, because he's always let down, but he hopes for a better future, one where he isn't necessary.

And, seriously, the revelation of Bruce's last words to his parents breaks my heart every time I read this story. I mean... shit, Azzarello is cruel here (in that way only really good writers can be).

9. The criminal cannot be the detective. This is an old rule and has once in a while been violated successfully, but it is sound as it ever was. For this reason: the detective by tradition and definition is the seeker of truth. He can't be that if he already knows the truth. There is an implied guarantee to the reader that the detective is on the level.

The criminal isn't the detective here. I said Batman is complicit, in a manner, in the murder of the boy's parents, but that's because the crime is directed at him. The Joker purposefully kills them to strike at Batman. But, it's because of that tie that Batman doesn't solve that mystery--the Joker confesses.

10. The same remark applies to the story where the first-person narrator is the criminal. I should personally have to qualify this by saying that for me the first-person narration can always be accused of subtle dishonesty because of its appearance of candor and its ability to suppress the detective's ratiocination while giving a clear account of his words and acts. Which opens up the much larger question of what honesty really is in this context; is it not a matter of degree rather an absolute? I think it is and always will be. Regardless of the candor of the first-person narrative there comes a time when the detective has made up his mind and yet does not communicate this to the reader. He holds some of his thinking for the denouement or explanation. He tells the facts but not the reaction in his mind to those facts. Is this a permissible convention of deceit? It must be; otherwise the detective telling his own story could not have solved the problem in advance of the technical denouement. Once in a lifetime a story such as The Big Sleep holds almost nothing back; the denouement is an action which the reader meets as soon as the detective. The theorizing from that action follows immediately. There is only a momentary concealment of the fact that Marlowe loaded the gun with blanks when he gave it to Carmen down by the oil sump. But even this is tipped off to the reader when he says, "If she missed the can, which she was certain to do, she would probably hit the wheel. That would stop a small slug completely. However she wasn't going to hit even that." He doesn't say why, but the action follows so quickly that you don't feel any real concealment.

Batman conceals Wesker's name from us in issue five of the story. He holds that bit back, but that doesn't really betray the reader at all. The information is important, but not entirely necessary, except that it allows Batman to set up Angel Lupo, in a way. Does he set Angel up to die because he thinks Angel killed that boy's parents? That's never clear, although it seems almost like he did. It also adds suspense to the end of issue five when Angel is shot--we don't know who did it and will therefore read issue six to find out. Batman also conceals the three words he said to his parents, but anyone with half a brain can figure those out. The concealment is selective and is never anything that the reader can't accept or figure out.

11. The murderer must not be a loony. The murderer is not a murderer unless he commits murder in the legal sense.

In the first mystery, this rule is upheld.

In the second, it's broken. But, that murder (and the revelation of who was behind it) doesn't work without the rule being broken. The murder happens because the Joker is insane and obsessed with Batman--and he tells him that he did it because he's insane and obsessed with Batman.

12. There is, as has been said, no real possibility of absolute perfection [in writing a mystery story]. Why? For two main reasons, of which has been stated aboved in Addenda Note 1. The second is the attitude of the reader himself. Readers are of too many kinds and too many levels of culture. The puzzle addict, for instance, regards the story as a contest of wits between himself and the writer; if he guesses the solution, he has won, even though he could not document his guess or justify it by solid reasoning. There is something of this competitive spirit in all readers, but the reader in whom it predominates sees no value beyond the game of guessing the solution. There is the reader, again, whose whole interest is in sensation, sadism, cruelty, blood, and the element of death. Again there is some in all of us, but the reader in whom it predominates will care nothing for the so-called deductive story, however meticulous. A third class of reader is the worrier-about-the-characters; this reader doesn't care so much about the solution; what really gets her upset is the chance that the silly little heroine will get her neck twisted on the spiral staircase. Fourth, and most important, there is the intellectual literate reader who reads mysteries because they are almost the only kind of fiction that does not get too big for its boots. This reader savors style, characterization, plot twists, all the virtuosities of the writing much more than he bothers about the solution. You cannot satisfy all these readers completely. To do so involves contradictory elements. I, in the role of reader, almost never try to guess the solution to a mystery. I simply don't regard the contest between the writer and myself as important. To be frank I regard it as the amusement of an inferior type of mind.

This one falls firmly into the last category. There's lots for the second class of reader, but this is mostly aimed at the fourth category. The mystery itself doesn't matter so much as the journey, Batman's narration, the interplay of characters, all of that.

13. As has been suggested above, all fiction depends on some form of suspense. But the study of the mechanics of that extreme type called menace reveals the curious psychological duality of the mind of a reader or audience which makes it possible on the one hand to be terrified about what is hiding behind the door and at the same time to know that the heroine or leading lady is not going to be murdered once she is established as the heroine or leading lady. If the character played by Claudette Colbert is in awful danger, we also know absolutely that Miss Colbert is not going to be hurt for the simple reason that she is Miss Colbert. How does the audience's mind get upset by menace in view of this clear knowledge? Of the many possible reasons I suggest two. The reaction to visual images and sounds, or their evocation in descriptive writing, is independent of reasonableness. The primitive element of fear is never far from the surface of our thoughts; anything that calls to it can defeat reason for the time being. Hence menace makes its appeal to a very ancient and very irrational emotion. Few men are beyond its influence. The other reason I suggest is that in any intense kind of literary or other projection the part is greater than the whole. The scene before the eyes dominates the thought of the audience; the normal individual makes no attempt to reconcile it with the pattern of the story. He is swayed by what is in the actual scene. When you have finished the book, it may, not necessarily will, fall into focus as a whole and be remembered by its merit so considered; but for the time of reading, the chapter is the dominating factor. The vision of the emotional imagination is very short but also very intense.

We never believe Batman will die, but the introduction of the Fat Man and Little Boy have Batman contending with foes who beat him severely. In the moment, we fear for his life, because he does, too. But, this also makes his ultimate triumph that much more impressive. As well, his beat-down fits into the noir detective pattern were the detective almost always takes a beating in the course of his investigation.

Ultimately, this story adheres to most of Chandler's notes, but, as I said, it's written in the Hammett/Chandler manner, so that makes sense. What I want to know, from others who have read this story, what do you make of the Joker scene? I think that he killed the boy's parents, but others could disagree, certainly. Any thoughts?