Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blogathon 35: Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: New X-Men - Murder at the Mansion (Part Two)

[Concluding my application of Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to the New X-Men story "Murder at the Mansion."]


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 not a perfect mystery. There's the big hole of motivation. It's also rather compressed, done in only two issues and solved with relative ease. While enjoyable, it's not the type of story to set the world on fire either.

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.

If anything, in the larger scope of Morrison's run on New X-Men, this mystery is the mystery that conceals another. Who attacked Sage? That's the larger mystery of the entire run in a way. Since this mystery is but a part of the whole, it functions a little differently than most mysteries.

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.

Emma Frost was a central character until this point. In the issue that ends with her being shot, we get a detailed window into her past. We care. We care a lot.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

Unless it's in character to be overly flip, that's not the type of dialogue Morrison writes.

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.

Since this mystery is told over two issues (with the 'death' in the previous issue), there's only one cliffhanger and not really any 'curtains.' It's a smooth read between chapters.

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.

There's no love interest.

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.

Uh, yeah... let's move on...

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.

Bishop is hard-nosed, but also has a softer edge. He's a bit of a badass. He's mostly about the business. His personality isn't overwhelming, but I wouldn't call him the 'hero' of the story either. He's part of the team of heroes, so he doesn't carry the burden of the story alone.

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 is not 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.

This isn't a story told in the first-person. There are no narrative captions. Everything is told through dialogue.

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

Esme is misguided, but not crazy.

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 story definitely caters to the inner mystery nut, but also those that simply enjoy the writing of Grant Morrison. More than the rest of his run, the emphasis here is on the mystery, so it leans towards that direction more than other stories in the run.

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 no guarantee that every character is walking away. While Emma Frost is brought back, it's not beyond reason that when we see Sage with a gun pointed at her that she'll get shot. She's a character that hasn't shown up in Morrison's run yet and it's possible that he has permission to kill her off. As well, with many characters created by him, there's less holding him back from killing them than most Marvel characters.

All in all, "Murder at the Mansion" mostly fulfills Chandler's criteria; the lack of a motive for Esme's actions given in the story itself is the most glaring flaw, but it's one explained away by this being a part of a larger story.

In 30 minutes, I'll begin my discussion of Warren Ellis's superhuman trilogy from Avatar.

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