Sunday, October 2, 2016

Do Your Characters Lie for the Same Reasons You Do?

Some of the most intriguing scenes in mysteries, both filmed and printed, take place early in the narrative, when the detectives are questioning witnesses of an event or the close friends, associates, and relatives of the victims.

Without thinking about it, you're already certain everyone in such interviews is holding something back, deliberately not mentioning some opinion or fact, asking if he or she is a suspect or merely an onlooker. In some cases which have a particular personal pleasure for you, one or more witnesses or relatives can't seem to stop with the details and opinions, causing the detectives to react with tact, politeness, or a necessary rudeness to cut off the flow of information.

If you happen to be reading a mystery, say something as recent and absorbing as Tana French's latest, The Impostor, you savor these early interviews because of their importance in causing you to feel a close personal attachment with the mystery at hand. 

You find yourself looking for the lead detective's working hypothesis (to see if it matches yours), and you watch carefully for competing hypothesis about why the crime was committed and who its main and ancillary practitioners might be. You are also particularly mindful of the working hypothesis of the lead detective's immediate supervisor. 

This early introductions to strangers and to some professional hypothecation, if done well, transcend mystery fiction, offering you the unique opportunity you are afforded each time you begin to read or write a new work. You are in effect looking at a segment of the author's world view. Is he or she an optimist, a romantic, a pessimist, a cynic? Perhaps none of these, perhaps the author is attempting to tell us something indeed other about the world in which the narrative is set and the individuals who inhabit that landscape are prone to feel.

How, for instance, could you not come away from Madame Bovary without a heightened sense of the boredom driving the lives of the principals? How could you think the author would have been a populist sympathizer similar to the recent supporters of Bernie Sanders.

If the mystery novel is successful, you find one or more characters who are not directly involved in the crime at hand, yet they, nevertheless appear wary and suspicious because, as the net of inquiry begins to pull in information like a Japanese trawler pulling in tuna, evidence appears linking these second-tier characters to, if not outright crimes, sins of pride, egotism, lust, envy.

Some years back, the grand Italian semioticians, wrote The Name of the Rose, a mystery in which the main investigator was a monk of one religious order and the suspects were monks and Abbott's or yet others, thus setting forth a jolly opportunity for the investigation of motive, of demonstrating the pitfalls of humans trying to live a straightforward, guilt free existence.

At about the first quarter, you like to sit back for a moment of interpretation of the information you've been presented, including the victim or victims, their associates, enemies, and personal relationships. Of course you include the investigators, their subordinates and superiors, looking for some sense of who is at the top of the social or moral triangle in this picture, demanding the case be solved ASAP, the perpetrators brought to trial, justice, such as it is, served. 

You not only have a successful and intriguing landscape presented you, you have a diverse one. Almost without thinking about it, you see a simulacrum, a slice of a diverse-yet-plausible Reality. You understand how you are holding in your hands a time and place carved out of reality where you might enjoy a long stay.

Small wonder you've observed to more than one group of students how the mystery novel is in effect the paradigmatic form for the novel in general, how, for instance, Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key or The Maltese Falcon are kissing cousins of A Passage to India and, to include the variety, Middlemarch. As the weight of such information bore onto your awareness, you were also able to say how the alternate universe novel, say The Golden Compass, is a similar paradigm, due to the single, simple fact that all narratives are the author's version of, and therefore travels guides to, Reality.

Your early drafts of your own work are to get as many of the necessary details down on the page. Your early revisions are to get rid of the digressions, the needless explanations (we don't, for extreme example, need to know how birds fly or indeed why they fly so much as why, from time to time, on one particular door with a pane of glass, or on one particular window, more than one bird has met its unexpected death through an unanticipated collision).  

You need, through your removal of what is not necessary and your placement of what is, to leave a stand-alone ecosystem. A novel is not an explanation of what drama is or can be, it is a demonstration of a world that was once in order until you came along, orchestrated a disorder, then attempted to describe what happens to the characters as the go about setting things right again.

If you are successful, you may well come to understand what "setting things right" means.

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