Sunday, July 27, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Identity Crisis

[The first in my application of Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to comic book mystery stories. New posts at random.]

I'm a big Raymond Chandler fan. So big that I'm one of those people who bought The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, a handy little paperback containing odds and ends like his essay, "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story." Well, it's not so much an essay as it is... a series of notes. Also included are 13 addenda, bringing the total number of notes up to 25. I figured it would be fun to take these notes and apply them to some comic book mystery stories and see how well they match up to Chandler's standards.

Before I begin, I should note that I'm reprinting the notes in full rather than summarising them. Now, this is a total copyright breach and if those who hold the copyright want me to take down this post, I'm okay with that. I'm using Chandler's notes in full, because he says what he means better than I could. I began with the intention of summarising and quickly decided against it, because Chandler is clear and to the point often. In some spots, he goes on tangents, but they help, I think. Chandler's notes are in bold.

Also, my selection for this first post is Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer. We all remember this book and since it is primarily a mystery story--and one of the better known and received ones in recent years--it seems like the logical starting point. I reread it for this post and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I'm warning you ahead of time that it doesn't quite make it as a mystery story according to Chandler.

My plan here is to go through Chandler's notes and apply each to Identity Crisis. Some notes are repetative or don't apply, but do allow for discussion nonetheless. I don't know how well this will work, so let's see. Should be fun.

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.

So, do we buy Jean Lorring as the killer? Her motivation is to attack Sue Dibny and not kill her, just scare the superhero community enough that her ex-husband, Ray Palmer (aka the Atom) will want to get back together with her. Meltzer emphasises that the families of superheroes are the ones to benefit, so there's a certain logic there. I'll give credible motivation of Lorring's actions here.

But, is this a story "in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody"? I think Meltzer justifies Lorring's actions within the context of the story, but if you knew the character ahead of time, it could be hard to believe. Little explanation is given as to why she didn't just call up Ray and ask him to dinner. There's no set-up for her turn, so while the motivation is plausible, it's only that way because we don't know anything about her otherwise. Since this does take place within a larger world, I don't think Meltzer succeeded here.

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, obviously the "fantastic poisons" and such don't apply here since this a story that takes place solidly within the realm of the fantastic. We'll ignore that part of this note. This note does raise a few problems with the story, though. The first is, who is the detective? This is a narrative problem I've had with Identity Crisis since the first time I've read it as I think it's too expansive in the number of voices it includes. I understand that Meltzer was going for an expansive story, but it makes the mystery element much weaker. Green Arrow is the only consistent voice throughout the entire story in that his first-person narration shows up in every issue. But, Green Arrow also isn't the detective since the mystery is solved, ultimately, by Batman, Dr. Mid-Nite, and Ray Palmer. Since there are so many people involved, it's difficult to get behind any of them and it also allows for various methods of detection to ultimately solve the mystery--leaving the reader in the cold. (Actually, Elongated Man/Ralph Dibny's detective skills are so emphasised in the first issue that you'd think he would play a bigger role, but he doesn't play an active role after issue three. After that, he appears in flashbacks and single panels that show he's still grieving--except for the end of issue seven. Odd, don't you think?)

The second problem is that the methods of detection aren't sound. Jean Lorring gains access to the Dibny house by phone and then "grows" to regular size. At one point, Mister Miracle notes that there are 17 methods of gaining entry to the house and they didn't check the phone records? Really? They didn't do the most basic of police procedures? Or, they, somehow, didn't find any physical evidence despite Lorring standing there at full size with a flamethrower? These are such basic things that our detectives--who are supposedly better than the police--miss. A pretty big flaw in the story, I think.

I also have to wonder why the autopsy takes so long. It takes Dr. Mid-Nite at least a week, it seems, to complete it from when he began. Does that seem a bit long to anyone else?

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.

The story isn't honest with the reader regarding the death of Sue Dibny. Meltzer and artist Rags Morales give us a panel in issue one where Sue hears a noise downstairs and this is obviously a red herring. Those few panels exist only to throw the reader off and are cheap tricks.

Some would jump on the misdirection when Lorring is almost killed, but the information we get there is from her, so it's misleading, but for the characters as well. The portrayal of Sue's death is seen only by the readers, so puposeful misdirection only affects the readers. It's a cheat that hurts the resolution of the mystery since the reader will then look back and see that the authors lied.

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.

Here, Meltzer shines. He does his best to make sure this story is rooted in realistic characters. I've read this story three times now and it's been good each time, because Meltzer does such good character work. Actually, I think his devotion to that element of the writing hurts the mystery--and it's almost certainly a choice he made while writing. The story is so expansive and deals with so many characters that it's more a character piece than a mystery, honestly. And, as Chandler himself will point out, there's nothing wrong with that. However, it does leave the story open to certain criticisms--but what story doesn't?

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

Again, the murder of Sue Dibny kicks things off, but the story becomes so much more with the villains, the exploration of what it's like for the families of superheroes, the mind-wiping of villains... Meltzer created a story that works very well outside of the mystery.

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.

This is a very nuanced "note," but it's one that I think Meltzer pulls off. There is action and threat of death, but there's also the suspense of the secret the old Leaguers share, of Batman finding out what they did to him, of the whole superhero community possibly torn apart... there's also the intellectual suspense of how Wally will handle it, how he'll come to terms with what was done--or, even how Green Arrow will defend it despite not agreeing with it at the time. Again, Meltzer uses the murder mystery as the catalyst for a lot more.

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.

Yeah, I'd say the story has all of these things. While I didn't like what I read of his Justice League of America run, Meltzer has his own style and he uses it here. His overuse of narrative captions, for instance, is very much part of his style as he wants to show us the inside of a lot of characters' heads. Also, his pacing is very good--that's more technique than style, but it's a stylised pacing that works with the suspense and mystery elements.

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.

The denouement is simple: Jean Lorring wanted to attack Sue to scare superheroes, including her ex-husband, into becoming more protective of their loved ones. To keep up the rouse and throw suspicion elsewhere, she fakes an attempt on her life and hires a supervillain to attack Jack Drake--but sends him a gun to make sure the villain fails.

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 don't remember anyone guessing this solution until maybe the end of issue six. Although, I do think that's partly because of the way Sue's death was portrayed, and because of Lorring's misdirection. But, this is a baffling mystery until the denouement, I thought.

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.

Here, I think Meltzer fails. This goes back to the cheap manner of fooling the reader regarding Sue's death, but I don't think the fooling was honourable. I'm not sure how I'd feel without that factor.

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 one area where some would be tempted to say that Meltzer fails, because he does try to do a lot, but he doesn't mix elements that aren't appropriate. The closest he comes is having the old Leaguers erase the minds of criminals, alter Dr. Light's brain and mindwipe Batman--but, those actions are open to interpretation. I agree with them, others may not. Meltzer does try to do a lot, but he doesn't push the story beyond its limits.

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.

Lorring is locked away and has her loved spurned by her reason for everything she does. However, the way Lorring is punished conflicts with addenda #11, so Meltzer may not have succeed her after all...


(Quick note: some of these are comments, rather than instructions like the above, but that leads to discussion nonetheless.)

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.

As I said above, Meltzer's strength is character and mood, not the creation of the perfect mystery. The mystery here has some serious flaws, but the story works despite them because it plays to Meltzer's strengths so well.

On the other hand, would fixing the problems with the mystery detract from character? Obviously, altering the portrayal of Sue's death wouldn't, but making the heroes as good of detectives as they're supposed to be would, because the mystery would have been solved on page 29 of the first issue. Granted, the story could have continued as a meditation on the dangers of families and superheroes, but it would have worked then only as a 64-page graphic novel at best. In order for the story to continue as he wants, Meltzer had to make the mystery flawed. It's a clear choice.

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.

Meltzer doesn't do this exactly, but he does use the old League stuff to distract the reader. By issue three, Sue's murder was pushed to the side in readers' minds, everyone so focused on what the League had done--and when Batman's mindwipe was revealed, the speculation and interest increased. It may not be another mystery exactly--although Meltzer does make it one since we see Batman struggling with Dr. Light along with the rest of the League in a flashback in issue three and his sudden appearance isn't addressed until issue six, which I'm certain caused speculation and wondering by readers.

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.

Meltzer focuses on character and he makes you care about not just Sue Dibny, but Ralph, too. Same with Jack Drake and even Jean Lorring. He wants you to care about these people and want their killer(s) caught.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

Too true. I don't think Meltzer ever falls into that trap--except maybe any time a villain is on panel. They kind of attract flip, witless dialogue.

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.

I have the trade paperback, but did read it in serial form, too. Meltzer really plays up the suspense element with the end of each issue, but the transition between issues six and seven is the only awkward one (excluding some narration that recaps events) with the repition of panels from the end of issue six at the beginning of issue seven. The rest of the time, events either pick up immediately following the last issue or begin with different characters, which works with the internal pacing the issues where a surprise often happened only to cut away for a scene or two before returning. I recall reading somewhere (maybe even in the bonus material at the end of the trade, which I skipped this time) that Meltzer turned in the entire series at once, not single script by single script, so that helped--as did his experience as a novelist where you learn that it's good to end chapters with little surprises or pieces of intrigue, but also how to work those into the larger narrative. It's about wanting to the reader to keep on reading, but not making it tedious. Meltzer does that well.

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.

Since there is no central detective, this one doesn't necessarily apply here. As well, the story itself is about loved ones, so it really doesn't apply. That said, Batman has no love interest here, so he is not distracted. I'm not sure about Dr. Mid-Nite. The fact that it took him a week to complete the autopsy suggests a girlfriend, I must say.

Although, is this rule why Ralph doesn't participate more? He has no objectivity, he's lost his sense of detachment?

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.

Who is the detective? Who is the protagonist? I don't know. Is it just all of the heroes? There can be multiple protagonists, of course, but who are they here? Besides the mystery, I think this is the weakest area of the story. I especially think giving a narrative voice to the villains doesn't work at all. I think the same story could have been told by focusing on Green Arrow (who I pick because he is the only consistent voice in the story--and probably the strongest voice, too). The stuff he narrates is fantastic and are probably the best parts of the story, in my opinion.

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.

Not an issue here since there is no detective--or, at least, none of the detectives turn out to be the murderer.

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.

Meltezer uses a lot of first-person narration (14 different first-person narrators to be exact), but he does avoid using Jean Lorring as one. That said, I think this overuse of first-person narration both helps and hurts the story. It helps in creating that expansive feeling that these events affect everyone, but it also makes the story unfocused and kind of all over the place. This relates to the question the detective or of the protagonist(s). It's clear why Meltzer chose to tell the story this way, I just don't think it's an effective manner and should have been changed.

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

Jean Lorring is institutionalised and portrayed as insane. So, Meltzer violates this rule. I'm still not clear what drove her insane exactly, because it wouldn't be Palmer rejecting her. Was it Sue's death? When did she become insane exactly? It's rather vague, I find (I could be missing something obvious, of course).

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.

And this is why the mystery itself doesn't necessarily matter that much. It's a catalyst for the true purpose of the story, which I think Meltzer aims at the fourth type of reader. Granted, the other three types will no doubt find some benefit here (especially the third class, which I can't help but see as the equivalent of the "fanboy" type of reader; the one who follows these characters primarily rather than writers). But, it's clear that Meltzer aims for a story that goes beyond just mystery, continuity and cheap thrills--or, is it? This story does rely heavily on continuity and the reader having a pre-existing attachment to these characters, so, perhaps, the third reader is the target here after all. I'm not sure and think arguments could be made for both. However, I do think the mystery/puzzle is not the primary focus of this story.

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.

Meltzer does place a great importance on each scene captivating the reader's attention. He knows how to write a scene so that it draws you in and Rags Morales's art helps with this. What's key here is that the quiet scenes do this just as well as the shocking, suspenseful ones. There's a rise and fall pattern throughout the story so it's not all just action, death and suspense, but it's always interesting and captivating.

Ultimately, I think Identity Crisis fulfills enough of Chandler's criteria to be considered a success. While the mystery itself is deeply flawed in its execution and lack of logic in some points, Meltzer obviously made a choice to emphasise character, preferring to use the murder mystery as a catalyst for the story of superheroes and their families. That's a valid choice and the story itself is engaging and works as a result.