Monday, August 25, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Watchmen

[Continuing my series of posts where I take Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" and apply said notes to a comic book mystery story. New posts on Sundays.]

I reread Watchmen this week for the Splash Page, so why not use it here, too? I'm going to guess right off that I won't find that many problems with Chandler and Moore matching up, because while I can probably find a few loopholes in the mystery plot, Moore more than makes up for that with style and personality, which Chandler is all about. That, and it's Watchmen. You know how most things that are universally loved don't deserve it, but a few things do? Yeah, this is one of them. It's not perfect, but it's damn good. Do people say that enough? "Watchmen is damn good." Because it is and they should.

But, for the two of you who read this blog and haven't read Watchmen yet (and I hope I'm overestimating there), let me clue you in on the mystery: Edward Blake aka the Comedian has been killed. Someone broke into his apartment, beat him up and threw him through a, I'm guessing, plexi-glass window. Our detective is Rorschach, an urgan vigilante. He thinks it could be someone targetting "superheroes." This theory seems confirmed when Dr. Manhattan is driven off-world, someone tries to kill Adrian Veidt (formerly known as Ozymandias), and Rorschach himself is framed for murder. Ultimately, Rorschach and Nite Owl discover that Veidt is actually behind the whole thing. Blake discovered Veidt's plot to save the world by ending the Cold War, so Veidt killed him before he could tell someone. Dr. Manhattan was taken out of the equation as part of the plan, while framing Rorschach was a means of preventing his snooping, while Veidt's own assassination attempt was to make Rorschach's theory make more sense and make sure he wasn't a suspect.

Now, let's introduce Mr. Moore to Mr. Chandler...

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.

Veidt wants to save the world and is afraid that Blake will expose his plot. He has good reason to fear this as Blake got drunk, broke into an old enemy, Moloch's house and blathered on like an insane man. While Blake may not have taken it further, he was an unknown and Veidt hates unknowns. Veidt's plot was years... a decade in the making and would save the world from nuclear war--I'd say the motivation works.

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.

Veidt breaks into Blake's apartment and beats him with his bare hands, which he knows how to do through his training and a previous encounter with Blake years previous. The method of Blake's murder is very simple.

The detective here is Rorschach and his methods are somewhat sound. They've been honed over the years as an urban vigilante. At first, he doesn't know that Blake is the Comedian, but discovers that quickly thanks to a keen eye. After that, he thinks of the most likely suspects--but he's paranoid and overthinks the possibilities a little and settles on a "mask killer" plot. Since he warns other vigilantes of the possibility, it actually allows Veidt to nurture it and avoid suspicion. Rorschach's flaws make solving the case not only more difficult because he's on the wrong track, but also prompts Veidt to have him imprisoned. The framing of Rorschach is partly because he visited Moloch, and Moloch informed him about Blake's visit. However, when there are more instances of supposed "mask killer" activities, Rorschach's old ally, Nite Owl breaks him out of prison with the help of the Silk Spectre. And, together, Rorschach and Nite Owl deduce that Veidt is behind the whole thing after going to his office to warn him. By interrogating various "criminals" at bars, they discover that Pyramid Deliveries is behind many of the activities of late and Nite Owl finds out that Veidt owns Pyramid Deliveries by hacking his computers. When they confront Veidt, he tells them of his entire plot.

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.

Specific knowledge isn't necessary here. If the reader is thrown off, it is because of Rorschach's focus on a "mask killer" and Veidt's purposeful misdirection.

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 it does involve many fantastic elements, Watchmen is realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. The character work is fantastic and definitely makes you want to read it several times.

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

The mystery element is what begins the story, but it becomes much more than that. It's a reflection on the Cold War, superheroes, morality... and many, many other things. The structure of alternating issues at first between plot and character really helps this as does the focus on non-vigilante characters like Bernie the newsvendor or Rorschach's psychiatrist in prison.

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.

There is a constant feel of uneasiness, mostly because of the Cold War standoff between the US and Russia. It's not just the main characters threatened, but the entire world. As well, relationships begin and die, characters are killed or imprisoned or attacked. It's not a constant onslaught of terror, but there is a continual feeling of suspense throughout the story. It does feel a little overplotted at times, but that is a trademark of Moore's work. In that regard, this is one of the most energetic pieces Moore has ever done. It was written early enough in his career that it lacks energy because he's trying too hard.

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, it has these, both in the writing and art.

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 think it has that simplicity: Veidt pushes the US and Russia to the brink before unifying them under the threat of something bigger--and, in doing so, must kill Edward Blake after he discovers the plot. It's more complicated than that, really, but it's also very simple.

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.

I can't say if this baffles an intelligent reader, but I'd guess it would. Edward Blake was killed so Adrian Veidt could save the world? The clues are all there, but until the solution is revealed, there's little chance a reader could assemble them correctly.

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.

This is one of the hardest parts of a mystery and I'm not sure it happens here. The mystery makes sense and scenes that happened one way now suddenly happened another. But... inevitable... that's a tall order. A former enemy trying to eliminate the heroes as in Rorschach's "mask killer" plot would seem inevitable. Veidt's plot is necessary and logical, but not quite inevitable. Others may disagree, but that's how I see it.

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.

Now, this is an element I'm torn on as I could see it going either way. This is a big story and it does a lot, but does it try to do too much? Is it too busy? I think it does a great job of combining types of stories by firmly attaching those types to specific characters. For Rorschach, it's a mystery; for Nite Owl, it's an adventure; for Veidt, it's a quest... and so on. But, is it too much, too unfocused? I'm honestly not sure. I think it works, but this could be interpretted by others differently. So, I'll leave this one up to others to decide.

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.

Veidt is punished at the end--by his own conscience and doubt. He's not sure if he did the right thing. He wants to believe that he did, but, as Dr. Manhattan points out, it never ends, so while Veidt may have stopped this one crisis, another will soon arise and his work will begin again. He's punished by the knowledge that he will never save the world no matter how crises he prevents.


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 the perfect detective story, really, because the motivation for the murder is logical, but is also so obtuse and outside of normal circumstances that it blindsides the reader and the detective. As a result, it's something different from a detective story, while still acting as one (if that makes sense).

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.

Veidt creates another mystery after Rorschach himself creates it. Veidt encourages and adds to the "mask killer" plot to distract from the truth, particularly by making himself the target of an assassination.

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.

Do we care about Edward Blake? We learn a lot about him as the story progresses. At first, we know he's a costumed hero of some sort and that may get our sympathies quickly--but, then we learned he attempted to rape another hero, which makes him repulsive. By the end of the story, we've received a lot of information about him and his life from a lot of perspectives, so I think it's hard not to care about him on some level--even if it's just a level of familiarity. We know him well enough that we can't help but care a little.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

Amen, brother. Moore writes some good dialogue here.

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.

While serialised, Watchmen was designed as a complete story told in twelve parts and, as a result, reads very well. As well, many issues have their own unique focus and narrative voice, which is both a positive and negative. It works as a serial in some spots, while giving a richer feel to the whole in others. Rarely are there obvious curtains of any kind, though.

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.

Rorschach loves no woman.

Nite Owl is essential to solving the mystery, but is not really a detective and his love interest helps, in a way, but also leads to his retirement.

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.

Rorschach has personality. Find me someone who disagrees. I dare you.

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 here is an ally of the detective, but isn't the detective.

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.

Veidt doesn't narrate anything through narrative captions. Rorschach does through his journal, we get Dr. Manhattan's thoughts, the narration of the pirate comic book and... Rorschach's psychiatrist's notes along with some backmatter material. All are very unique in their voices and all are truthful. Some contribute to the story more than others, but none mislead the reader really.

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

Adrian Veidt is very, very sane.

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 fourth type of reader is the main audience here, but every other type has its moments, too. This is one of the rare stories that manages to have elements that target all four types, which is partly how it primarily targets the fourth. There's Rorschach's puzzle, a few bits of action, a connection with the characters... something for everyone, really.

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.

Since these are all original characters, any of them could die at any moment and some do die. In comics, particularly with superheroes, readers are conditioned to reject death or, when death occurs, not take it seriously. This wasn't the case as much when Watchmen came out and since the story begins with the death of a "superhero," the reader cannot assume that it will be the last. The tone of the writing and the art suggests that the rules here are different. The ensemble cast also suggests that any character is expendible (in theory). Those small clues create a heightened level of suspense for the average superhero comic book reader that Moore and Gibbons obviously play with a little bit.

And that does it. Next week, I have no idea what I'll look at (I do have several options, though).