Sunday, August 10, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Strange Kiss

[Another in my series of posts where I take Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" (plus the 13 addenda) and apply them to a comic book mystery story. Right now, posts tend to show up on Sundays, but that could easily change when I run out of stories to discuss.]

I know what some of you must be thinking: "Is Strange Kiss a mystery story?" Fair question. The short answer is "Yeah, sure, why not." The long answer is "Um... kinda. See, it's mostly a horror story about a guy getting revenge. But, seeing as how he has to figure out who to get revenge upon, he has to solve the mystery of who killed his buddy. It's not the central premise of the story, but it is a mystery. And, you know, after two weeks of stories that are obviously mysteries, I wanted to go for something a little askew. Something a little more messy, a little less certain. Something that borrows mystery elements, so we can see that genre-mixing is fun. Also, I didn't want another story set in Gotham after last week and I wasn't in the mood to go hunting for Ed Brubaker's Point Blank. So, let's look at this book and see how a story with the bare minimum of a mystery nonetheless holds up to Raymond Chandler's ghostly scrutiny. Also, using the first arc from Desolation Jones would have been a bit obvious. And, I wanted to have a laugh."

For those who don't know, Strange Kiss is a very simple story: William Gravel is a member of SAS, and is in the US on deniable ops doing horrible things for the British government. His oldest mate, Bull is gay and fucked a young man who somehow made his dick rot off and impregnate him with lizards. Because Bull is over the hill, he dies in the process of them being born--not before making Gravel promise to find those responsible and fuck them up. Through some basic detective work, Gravel discovers that a very old lizard being from another plain of existence is using pseudopods to impregnate humans so it can, well, have kids. Gravel hunts down the pseudopods, kills them and then kills the giant lizard thing. Of course, the central mystery: who filled Bull with little lizard eggs that wound up killing him? Simple enough. 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.

Giant lizard thing wants to perpetuate its species. It sees humans as a lesser form of life and killing them in the process isn't really a consideration. I'd say that motive is credible.

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.

Okay, the means of murder here are fantastical, but that's okay. Gravel's methods of detection are sound... kind of. He hangs around the hospital where Bull died, and waits to go talk with the coroner. While waiting, he sees a couple of very odd-looking people head in the direction of the morgue. He finds them guns out on two coroners, and kills them both. He finds a card for the art exhibit Bull visited where he encountered the man he had sex with--and also uses magic to discover exactly what the lizard people are. Okay, the magic part is a little dubious, but the rest is sound.

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.

We actually have more information than Gravel does most of the time. We get scenes involving other humans and the lizard pseudopods. But, everything Gravel knows, we know. Nothing is concealed. Maybe that magic bit where he figures out exactly what the pseudopods are, but when he uses it, we see what he sees, so how he does it isn't exactly cheating the reader. Particularly since it involves taking off his pants and doing... something to a pseudopod body... Probably best that those details are concealed.

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.

Despite the lizard pseudopods and magic, this story happens in the real world. Gravel doesn't give us much character, but that's not unusual for the special ops soldier type. One of the coroners, Leigh Hunt is very human and assists Gravel a bit. Their small bits of interaction are funny and add humanity to a story about people being buggered by lizards.

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

Since the mystery element is minor here, the story definitely has value beyond it. It's both a horror story and a revenge story. Both of those work, but I think the revenge element is the most important--the mystery/detection stuff assists the revenge. Considering the mystery is solved at the end of the second issue (three issues total), it obviously holds some value outside of the mystery if I'd read the final issue. I've also reread this series many times, showing its value there, as well.

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.

It's lizards in people suits impregnating people... yeah, I think the readers want to know how this one turns out. The suspense is there. Gravel never even seems in that personal of danger. He's very calm and cool under pressure. All of the suspense comes from the sheer horror of the situation. Since it is a short story, the shock value doesn't really have a chance to wear off, thankfully.

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.

Well, it's got that Warren Ellis charm we all know and love. It moves along at a swift pace with bursts of action with some wit and humour thrown in.

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.

Giant lizard being needs living beings as incubators. Very short and to the point. There's no strict denouement here. The end of the second issue gives us the point of the pseudopods, while the third issue gives a bit more detail. It's very simple and basic: procreation. Can't get much more basic a motive than that.

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.

Does it baffle an intelligent reader? Since the mystery is pretty simple, I'm not sure it does--or is meant to. However, we don't learn of the giant lizard creature until Gravel does, so unless a reader guessing its existence, I suppose the reader is baffled.

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.

Okay, what else besides a giant lizard creature is going to impregnate people with tiny lizards? This is one of the most inevitable solutions you'll find.

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.

Gravel may be our detective and protagonist, but he's a soldier and killer. He is menacing and brutal, but not particularly heroic. It's a horror/revenge story and sticks pretty much to that throughout.

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.

Gravel kills the giant lizard creature and slaughters as many of the pseudopods--and pregant humans--as possible along the way.


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 isn't a detective story proper. Yes, the second issue has elements of the detective story, but those aid in Gravel's main motivation: revenge. Ellis describes Strange Kiss as a horror story, but it really reads like a revenge story more than anything. It has elements of the horror and mystery genres, but, at its core, is about William Gravel fucking up those responsible for his friend, Bull's death. And Ellis focuses on that pretty well.

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.

The mystery here is so simple that there isn't much to hide behind. The reader may be distracted by the mystery of who William Gravel is exactly. Or, the role of the pseudopods. But, there's barely a primary mystery, so a secondary one would be a bit much.

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.

The key to caring about the corpse here is caring about Gravel. If the reader doesn't care about Gravel, then it obviously won't care about his dead friend. Does the reader care about Gravel? Is the reader given any reason to? I mean, Gravel is the protagonist, obviously, but is that enough? He visits his sick friend in the hospital--but while doing deniable ops in a foreign country... and, later, we discover, he should have left, but was doing some moonlighting work for money. Gravel is a pretty horrible person, probably. That doesn't necessarily prevent the reader from caring about him, though. Bull is a little more sympathetic in that we see that he's pregnant with lizards and his dick has rotted off. I think we don't really care about either until near the end of the last issue when Gravel says to the giant lizard creature, "LOOK, IT'S A SHAME. KIDS ARE IMPORTANT. NOT FUCKING DYING IS IMPORTANT. I AGREE YOU'VE GOT THE SHITTY END OF THE STICK. / BUT HE WAS MY ONLY FRIEND." Here, we pity Gravel, because he is a horrible person and quite powerful, but he's alone and looks to remain that way because of the choices he's made. He is the type of guy, though, who hunts down the giant lizard creature that killed his friend and kills it. That's got to count for something.

But, no, we don't care about the corpse really.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

I rather enjoy Ellis's dialogue here. It's him doing that "hard man" shit and it's rather funny at times. There's also some wit in its honesty. Like Gravel annoyed when his grenade gets stuck in his jacket. It's direct dialogue with little room for anything else.

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.

The transitions from issue to issue are pretty solid here. Information is given again near the beginning of issues two and three, but since the events here are so unusual and messed up, characters repeating things to get them sorted out makes sense. If you saw your best friend die while lizards shot out of his ass, you'd probably repeat it for a while... if only to convince yourself that it happened.

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.

Ah, Leigh Hunt... Ellis fakes us out with her. She appears like she'll be a love interest, but, of course, she's not. Although, we do get a bit of humanity from Gravel as he at least leaves her alive--albeit without her memory of him or these events. He's compromised, slightly, but manages to remain detached, too.

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.

Gravel has a personality. He's got a sense of humour here, but isn't sophisticated. (I'm trying my best to look at the character in just this story, not including what I know from subsequent stories featuring the character.) He's loyal and can turn a phrase. He's also very direct and capable. Since he has spawned... what, five more mini-series and then an ongoing series starring him, I'd say he's got some personality.

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.

William Gravel is not a giant lizard creature. He kills the giant lizard creature.

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.

There is no narrator here. The perspective is not exclusively place on Gravel, though. We get information he doesn't involving other humans and the lizard people. Gravel conceals nothing from the reader, basically. This is one of those rare mysteries where we know more than him.

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

I assume the giant lizard creature isn't insane. Wanting to procreate is a pretty sane desire.

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.

The audience here is the second type of reader: those who want "sensation, sadism, cruelty, blood, and the element of death." And the story provides. I think Ellis is able to elevate it to also target the fourth type of reader, but make no mistake, the goal here is horrific violence and fucked up shit. Not that there's anything wrong with 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.

There's a suspense here in the idea of "What happens if William Gravel fails?" Since this is a new character with no history and considering Ellis's reputation/track record, this story could have easily ended with the human race overrun by the lizard people and the entire planet turned into one big rape camp for the giant lizard creature, you know? In the back of the reader's head is that scenario: everyone on the planet is a possible breeding place for these things. "Someone just like me can have little lizards inside of them... ready to burst forth, killing me in the process." It's a scary thought and there's no guarantee that things will turn out alright. But, it's also a revenge story, and what's the point of that without the revenge?

Alright, that does it for this installment. A bit of a cheat this week, I know. Next week, I promise a "proper" proper mystery.