Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Unlikely Corpse

Having taken a close look at some pieces of detective fiction, the Noir writing style, and various episodes of CSI, I have arrived at three initial conclusions. The first is that Mysteries usually challenge the reader to solve them. The second is that atmosphere seems to have become more important for Mysteries in recent years.

The third, and probably the most remarkable, is that a Mystery seems to become far more interesting when it deals with a very unlikely crime or a very intractable situation.

The latter idea does not come as a surprise. Suppose that you're a witness at two different crime scenes: Victim A lies dead in the middle of a wooden floor with a bullet in his chest, while Victim B lies dead in the bathtub, wearing a skintight black leather suit with pink polka dots and clutching a rubber chicken in his left hand. Which of the two cases would immediately pique your curiosity?

This, I think, is why shows like CSI get some very good ratings. We don't watch these shows because we're interested in Grissom's entomology skills, or Caine's intensity, or Taylor's love life. We watch these shows because some writer decides to present us with a very improbable situation at the start, then goes through the motion of telling us exactly what happened.

What happened? is one of those questions that will concern us the most, regardless of who we are, or what we have to do with the situation in the first place. We are compelled to get an answer and resolve our curiosity. Failing that, we can do nothing but gawk at the crime scene, in the hope that somebody's nice enough to explain things to us.

This, I think, is the primary factor in an interesting Mystery. Good Mystery fiction has to get the reader asking questions about the story: What happened? Who did it? Who's involved? Why did it take place? And for goodness' sakes, what does the rubber chicken have to do with all this?

Mysteries are an exercise in the intractable situation and the logical conclusion. They allow us to follow the clues and attempt to unravel everything ourselves; We may or may not be able to do this depending on how well the story is written, but we do end up greatly empathizing with the dapper sleuth, the dilettante scholar, or the hard-boiled detective who is tasked to tie up all the loose ends.

I find this to be a great hook, mind you. It's hard enough to grab a reader's attention with an ordinary story, but present him with an unexpected murder in a seemingly impossible situation and he'll inevitably wonder just how the whole thing took place. And when he finally relishes the last words and closes the book on the Mystery, he's going to feel very satisfied at having sated his own personal curiosity. This, despite the fact that he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime or its proponents beyond turning the pages.

It's funny, somehow. Reading a Mystery is therefore something like staring at the scene of an accident, or rushing outside to watch the fire engines go by. We can't help ourselves -- we just have to know what happened. Yes, we know perfectly well what the sirens mean; But we still have to know what the sirens mean.

I'll try to adopt this approach the next time I head in this direction. At best, I could write a rip-roaring exposition of some twisted conspiratorial scenario. At worst, I suppose that I would have written a very odd crime scene for the books.

Whatever the case, I figure that the compulsion is there. People are just curious, I think. We just really want to know what happened, how events came to such a conclusion, and who was unlucky enough to go down for the count. It's human nature, yes. And it's a mystery.

15 comments:

Dominique said...

"...skintight black leather suit with pink polka dots..."

The horror! the horror!

Charles said...

I find that detective fiction and shows such as CSI develop in different directions. The first leaves hints to the reader as to what happened and keen readers can deduce who the culprit is (Scooby Doo shows are the opposite... the clues don't build up to finding out who the culprit is and is instead presented as a deus ex machina end where the culprit is the last person you expect and in the most absurd fashion). CSI for me on the other hand is about the drama, and many of the initial clues don't lead to the culprit. It's more of an explain-type of show rather than a find-out-about-it-yourself type.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

"We don't watch these shows because we're interested in Grissom's entomology skills, or Caine's intensity, or Taylor's love life."

-Actually, I watch CSI: Miami primarily because of Caine's intensity. And his cool shades. :)

I agree with Charles though. Since CSI is more a forensic science program than a detective show, viewers can't exactly solve the mysteries by themselves, without the aid of all those high-tech gadgets and lab equipment. We can only sit back and watch as they figure things out. It's still compelling stuff, but there's just no audience participation, so to speak.

pgenrestories said...

Ever since I made the open call for submissions for PGS, I have only received three crime/mystery/suspense stories. All from the same author, a Fil-Am, all of which I had to reject because...well...that's between me and the author. But that's it. Three. Horror, fantasy, and sci-fi stories have been the most plentiful; I have received one semi-romance (The Scent of Spice), and I'm open to full romances, but I'm not too worried since there are a lot of romance/chick-lit publications already out there. But this type of story, the crime-mystery, seems to be the most under-represented and underappreciated of the genres in the RP. After F. Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles, and then the coming Soledad's Sisters by J. Dalisay (exciting!), there is very little. I've heard a number of theories and hypotheses as to why. All seem plausible and none can be convincingly proven. I'd like to hear what you and your blog-readers think are the reasons behind this lack. It's a bit of a blow to me because I enjoy the crime-mystery genre as much as any other.

banzai cat said...

well, given my attempt to write a mystery-- as per orders from you, kyu! ;-) --personally I have problems with shaping the logic of the incident in order to come up with the incident itself. It's like trying to solve a murder ass-backwards: you have a culprit but you don't know how he did it and you have to figure out how.

pgenrestories said...

Hahaha! Don't force it BC! If it's not your thing, if you don't enjoy it, don't bother. It'll be like trying to get a metal lover to sing country or vice versa. Write what you want and know. Yes, try other genres, points of attack, tones and voices, but if you know you're going to fail, just accept it, shelve it, and start over with something new. I don't want to force you in any way.

Sean said...

Dominique: It does stick to your head, doesn't it? I remember the episode of CSI that featured the casino mogul in diapers; That one sure stuck to my head.

Charles, Ailee: But I must point out that the Sherlock Holmes stories didn't necessarily allow the reader to deduce what was happening, either. These were more like CSI in that they aimed to explain the circumstances behind each crime, rather than leave it as an exercise to the reader. (But then again, one can probably make a clear distinction between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and modern detective fiction. Maybe we've just come a long way.)

I draw the line at citing Scooby-Doo as a concrete example, though. :)

PGenreStories, Banzai Cat: I've always thought that it was because you need a lot of pages to write a good mystery. I mean, you have to set up the crime scene, introduce the characters, have them gather clues and put the logic together, and then finally bring the criminal to justice. It's a daunting task when you try to put it all together in one story; Personally, I've never been able to write a mystery that's spanned less than twenty pages. It could be that it's simply more difficult than most people expect.

That said, why not just make a note of this in a blog post? Past experience has shown us that if you give people an opening, then quite a few of them are bound to go for it. It could be that you just have to ask for mysteries from your writing audience, after all.

Charles said...

Maybe I'm a fluke or something but I was able to deduce some of the scenarios in the Sherlock Holmes stories. =)

I think a standard operation procedure of most mysteries is that the setup is early and the cast of possible who-did-it is presented as soon as possible if not in the beginning. CSI and the like differs in the sense that the criminal doesn't need to be introduced early on in the part of the show. It could be an appearance in the last 15 minutes of the episode. There's also the placement of decipherable clues (to the reader) that build up to the culprit. It's not always obvious but it's there. A not-quite-mystery-example are the Harry Potter books (with the exception of book five, haven't read the rest) where the identity of the villain-of-the-book is concealed but Rowling drops hints as to who it could possibly be (and is most likely the last person you expected).

Ida said...

Maybe because there aren't too many mysteries in the Philippines (related to crimes), and that's why there aren't many mystery/suspense writers here?
I mean, the police don't really investigate, criminals aren't really put in jail, and people die of obvious causes (malnourishment/accidents/gunshots (and the gunman is always seen by tons of witnesses but cases hardly ever go to court because lawyers are too expensive)). If you were to write about a particular crime that actually happened, it would just be "bad news". But if you try to spice it up by adding some mysterious elements, it tends not to be very believable/plausible in a Philippine setting. I mean, who'd believe that a guy in a skintight black leather suit with pink polka dots is actually an undercover SP01 (and the places here don't really have bathtubs, and do cops here even go undercover?)? It just seems to ridiculous to build up a real, serious, mystery on.

Oh, but I think the movie 'Keka' was pretty okay as a murder mystery movie in a local setting. But it's not really that serious a movie, is it? (What with a dancing sequence and all...)

Regarding CSI, I think the later episodes have weirder and weirder stories that I feel like the writers are trying too hard to make an unlikely scenario. (I've only seen the episodes of Las Vegas, though) Like in Numb3rs, where the "number" element seems forced into the story, and you could solve the mystery even without all the math-related information. But that's just my opinion.

pgenrestories said...

You make interesting points, Ida, but I feel that even in such a situation there must be some kind of mystery story present. Granted, corrupt law enforcement figures takes away the plausibility of a police procedural story, but such a story can always be twisted on its head. For example: a story told from the point of view of a petty crook framed by the police for a major crime because they are protecting someone in power. The story would revolve around how the crook--normally someone a reader wouldn't find sympathy with--trying to prove his innocence and pinning the blame on the correct people.

Frankly, I think that perhaps Pinoys are more attuned to the mythic, be it horror or fantasy or even scifi (which, if not hard scifi, is like fantasy projected forward into the future). For some reason, realist mystery stories set in the now don't fully resonate yet. But I'm still hoping that this genre will find its Pinoy fans in the future!

I'm not certain, but I kind of remember hearing somewhere that crime/mystery fans in the US outnumber fantasy/scifi fans. If these figures are correct, then the circulation numbers prove it: combined, Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen's mystery mags have almost 1M readers, while Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog combined have about 200K plus.

If the US were the RP, I guess those numbers would be reversed.

Sean said...

Charles: I think that mysteries have actually been moving away from a style that introduces the list of suspects as early as possible, and towards a style that just takes us along for the ride. The approach exists, yes... but I just don't think that it sees a lot of active use. I think that a lot of writers simply prefer to exercise control over the tempo of a story -- i.e. they don't want the reader to know whodunit unless the time is right. The presence of an astute reader who manages to figure out the case tends to upset the dramatic balance.

Rowling doesn't even strike me as an exception to this development: The attraction of the Harry Potter books doesn't lie in the inherent mystery -- I think it lies in the character dynamics. I don't see as many people discussing, say, Voldemort's return and demise about as much as they discuss the potential Harry-Hermione-Ron relationship triangle.

Ida: I don't think that modern reality cuts into mystery fiction very much. The state of Philippine law enforcement makes the concept of the "honest cop" sound unrealistic, but that only deprives us of a specific character model. You can probably have any character solve a mystery -- a police informer, an innocent bystander, a petty crook (as mentioned earlier) -- without sacrificing the essence of the genre. In fact, the modern Philippines might even provide a nice contrasting backdrop to a story: "How do you solve a mystery when no one else seems to care?"

PGenreStories: My guess is that the numbers go that way in the US because the modern mystery genre is far older than the modern fantasy genre, and thus gets a wider distribution of fans. American critics certainly seem to understand mysteries far better than they do sci-fi and fantasy. The trend does look reversed here in the Philippines, yes... although I must admit that, unlike the US, most of the critics over here have yet to catch up to either genre.

pgenrestories said...

My wife has an interesting hypothesis about why mystery in the US currently outnumbers fantasy/scifi. She thinks that it's because mysteries are mostly realist stories, so the imaginative jump a reader takes isn't so difficult, as against a fantasy/scifi world where you have to suspend your disbelief that such a different world could exist.

Projecting into the future, with all the new LOTR and younger Harry Potter fans, perhaps fantasy/scifi will eventually catch up with mystery/crime/suspense.

Sean said...

PGenreStories: So Americans are more attuned to the real, whereas Filipinos are more attuned to the mythic? Interesting. (This would explain how we could be so receptive to religious pieces, yet turn up our collective noses at the works of national artists. That's not to say that God is mythical, or that our national artists are worth ignoring, though.)

pgenrestories said...

Sean: well, I suppose generalizing that Americans are more attuned to the real and Filipinos to the mythic sounds simplistic. Perhaps I made a mistake in implying that. But frankly, there's no way to prove this probable cause as there is to prove any of the other theories why crime/mystery/suspense stories are weak here. But the reality is that fantasy, scifi, and horror are more popular here than crime/mystery/suspense. And like I said, it's a blow to me because I enjoy this genre as much as any of the others; and often, I feel like I'm alone (though I'm sure I'm not).

Sean said...

PGenreStories: I think that we're just looking for the seminal mystery work here -- that one short story or book that will influence Filipino writers to start experimenting with the genre. We've seen a few works come up, so I know that the potential is out there... we just need something to trigger the mass interest, I think.