Although classic detective novels tell stories, these stories are presented as “problems of logic and deduction…”
Those aren’t my words, but the words of Raymond Chandler in his seminal essay The Simple Art of Murder. He’s talking specifically about an early detective novel by A. A. Milne called The Red House Mystery. Chandler continues:
“[I]t is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce.”
The argument, stated simply, is that since the novel revolves around the problem presented, if the problem and its solution don’t quite hold together then the whole exercise is futile. That’s where I disagree with Chandler. I think of classic detective novels as stories that aspire to be, or at least to emulate, “problems of logic and deduction.” Even if they fail in that aspiration, it’s still a way of telling a story that can make for a uniquely rewarding reading experience.
But it’s clear that Chandler is partly correct. If a detective novel presents a problem and solution that stray too far from “the elements of truth and plausibility” then the whole thing falls apart. But how silly is too silly?
I’m not going to try to answer that. But I do think it’s worth noting here that the genre as a whole really is pervaded by silliness, the classics included. My favourite example comes from a certain TV programme, which I won’t name. In this particular episode, the detective works out that a blind old man seen jumping to his death from his bedroom window (an apparent suicide) was actually murdered. How? He’d had a lifelong phobia of fire and his daughter had recorded the sounds of a house fire onto a cassette tape and set a timer on his stereo to play this tape in the middle of the night, overdubbed with the sound of her voice urging him to jump. He wakes and, being blind, is so scared by the sounds that he leaps from the window to his death.
My objection to that is simple. It just wouldn’t happen. If you played an audio recording of a fire to a blind man with a fear of fire, he wouldn’t jump out of a window. Even if a voice he trusted came on the tape and told him to jump, he wouldn’t do it.
Why not? Several reasons. Firstly, the sound of a house burning down is nothing at all like the sound of a stereo playing a recording of a house burning down. People are able to detect direction when they hear noises, so you just can’t replicate one with the other. They’re as different as night and day. Secondly, fire comes with other indicators, namely the smell of smoke and the feeling of heat. Without either of those, how much could you really panic when standing in a perfectly temperate room and breathing fresh air? Thirdly, there’s no urgency in this situation, even if it were true. Once you’re by the open window and ready to jump, why wouldn’t you just wait and hold out for the possibility of rescue by the fire brigade, or at least a voice on the ground reassuring you it’s OK? Why just jump?
Sure, the situation is neither logically nor physically impossible, and people behave irrationally all the time, but this was a premeditated murder. The daughter had to know what was going to happen. She had to be able to rely on this behaviour. And that’s where it crosses the line. How silly is too silly? That’s too silly for me, far too silly.
Raymond Chandler finds most classic detective fiction to be similarly implausible, thus undermining its attempt to present “problems of logic and deduction.” The Red House Mystery concerns the murder of one brother by another. Both look remarkably similar. No doubt you can already guess part of the solution. Chandler puts it like this:
“A man is missing, a well-known local man, and a body in the morgue closely resembles him. It is impossible that the police should not at once eliminate the chance that the missing man is the dead man. Nothing would be easier than to prove it. Not even to think of it is incredible.”
I have to say I agree with him. The Red House Mystery is far too silly for me.
But this silliness pervades even the best examples of the genre. One of my favourite Agatha Christie novels is A Murder is Announced. I am not going to spoil the ending, so don’t worry if you haven’t read it… The plot concerns an advert in a local newspaper giving advanced notice of the time and place of a murder, which happens to be in a small village. When the time comes the whole village gathers at the address specified to witness the incident for themselves. The lights go off and sure enough someone is murdered.
It’s a spectacular premise and a great book. But the circumstances under which the murder are committed are so outlandish and so high-risk that (if you applied common sense) you’d expect there to be a really convincing reason why it had to be done in that way. But is there? No. The mystery is neatly resolved – and I’m saying nothing about that – but the question of why the murderer chose to commit their crime in this bizarre fashion is barely even considered.
The story is a lot of fun. But as a problem of logic and deduction? I doubt Chandler would be impressed.
However, these judgements are always subjective. Death on the Nile is another Agatha Christie novel. And it’s one that I seem to like significantly less than everyone else. Again, I won’t spoil it, but let me just say that the murderer’s plan in that book is so needlessly complicated and risky that I find the whole thing completely, absurdly implausible. Why do it that way, rather than just confronting your victim in their cabin late at night? The answer, of course, is because it makes for a more exciting book. After all, that is the root cause of all this silliness.
But how silly is too silly? Draw your own line. Mine would be somewhere along the Nile.