How Silly is Too Silly?

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.

Metaphysical Detective Fiction

There are many subgenres to crime fiction. Police procedural, cozy crime, domestic noir, etc. I enjoy some more than others. But the subgenre I really love is metaphysical detective fiction.

It’s not a term you’ll encounter often, though it goes back to the 1940s. It’s probably not the best from a marketing perspective. It sounds a bit academic, perhaps.

So what is it? I have on my shelf a book of essays called Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. It’s a tough read, but I make an attempt at it occasionally. The editors define metaphysical crime fiction as: “a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot.”

I’d offer a more pedestrian definition: it’s crime fiction where the mystery or investigation extend to more abstract things than the crime itself.

I love this type of crime fiction because what I want from a mystery is maximum intrigue, where everything is subject to doubt, even reality and the nature of knowledge itself. I like a mystery that you can go away and think about, long after the “solution” has been presented.

One of the stories-within-the-story in my book Eight Detectives is called The Shadow on the Staircase. It plays on the themes and common aesthetic tropes of metaphysical detective fiction. A detective (it’s never made clear whether he works for the police or in a private capacity) is sent a photograph of a photograph of himself. The next day, someone leaves a dead body in his apartment.

The investigation of the photograph (of a photograph) soon evolves from asking who sent it, to asking what it means: “is it in some way a comment upon the original… intended to be inherently satirical or critical? Is its intention to draw focus toward the fact of the photograph as an actual physical object… Or had it been taken by someone who didn’t know of any other way to make a copy?”

As the detective considers this predicament, the dead body in his apartment also takes on multiple possible meanings. Was it left there as a warning? Or as a cry for help?

You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The term ‘metaphysical detective fiction’ was first used by Howard Haycraft, in reference to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. It was meant to highlight the fact that Father Brown approaches his investigations from a more philosophical point of view than any of his peers.

But in other respects the Father Brown stories work as conventional detective fiction. The subgenre really came into its own when authors started to write mystery novels that outright refused to conform to the conventions of the genre. Paul Auster is probably the best known proponent of metaphysical detective fiction in the English language. The three stories that make up his New York Trilogy feature detectives (in the American hardboiled mode) investigating mysteries that have no clear purpose, following leads that go nowhere. Nothing makes much sense. And nothing really gets resolved.

One consequence of this unconventionality is that metaphysical crime books are as likely to be categorised as literary fiction as crime fiction. Ottessa Moshfegh, one of my favourite contemporary authors, published a book last year called Death in her Hands. I haven’t read it yet, but the blurb gives a perfect example of metaphysical crime:

“While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. ‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ But there is no dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one.”

So in some ways, the subgenre is alive and well. But it’s also not really recognised as a subgenre. I’ve never seen the term used outside of an academic / critical context, which makes examples hard to track down. And I don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon. For now it’ll have to stay as a niche thing, propagated through word of mouth. On that note, here are five metaphysical crime novels I recommend:

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The Enigma by John Fowles (a short story, in the collection The Ebony Tower)

Making an author website

Hello. I’ve been making my author website over the last week. And I’ve decided to include a blog – the one you’re reading right now! Which means that I can’t put the site live until I’ve written an inaugural post. And I thought what better subject than to share my thoughts on the process I’m currently knee-deep in: making an author website.

There’s either too much information on this or not enough, depending on how you look at it. By which I mean, there’s plenty of info out there but authors’ circumstances vary so wildly that none of it is definitive.

But here’s my experience with it. All I wanted my website to do was look relatively professional and offer a blog and some basic information about my book(s). It didn’t need to be complicated (I only have one book, after all!) and I don’t expect it to be a major source of sales. So, after some extensive googling, it felt to me like there were basically three reasonable options:

One. I could pay someone to make a website for me. This would no doubt have got me the best end result, but also would have been the most expensive option. At least initially. When I have more complicated requirements, this might be the best option.

Two. I could use a site like wix or squarespace. These sites provide you with some very nice website making software. You pay a monthly fee to get access to the software and to cover the hosting costs for the site you build with it, all in one subscription. I’m sure these services are great to use, but they’re not cheap. If my website was a main source of my income, then I’d consider them. But for my simple use case I couldn’t really justify the cost.

Three. I could opt for managed wordpress hosting. This is the one I went for, so it’s the one I’ll say the most about.

If you’re not familiar with it, wordpress is a piece of software that provides both a simple interface for editing a website and everything needed to display that site to a user. Both of these things run on the same server, so if you visit a wordpress site you’ll either see the website itself or the editing options depending on whether you’re logged in as an admin or not.

The wordpress software is free. So managed wordpress hosting essentially means renting a bit of server space (which you’ll have to do anyway, for any kind of site – unfortunately this is not free) which comes with wordpress already installed on it. The hosting provider then takes care of keeping your wordpress installation up to date, while you can just log in and build the site you desire.

Many hosting providers offer a series of free templates you can use, to make them stand out from their competitors. Unless it’s changed by the time you’re reading this, the site you’re looking at is based on a free template for a sushi restaurant! That required some outside-the-box thinking, but made the whole process a lot easier.

Looking back, I’m happy with my decision to go with managed wordpress hosting. I got the site, the domain and a few other goodies for roughly £60 per year (for the first three years, at least). You could easily spend £20 per month on some of the other options. And wordpress isn’t the easiest software to use, but the worst you can say is that it’s fiddly (as opposed to utterly baffling).

Of course, wordpress is primarily known as a blogging platform. And it does make blogging extremely easy. Which brings us back to where we started…

Thank you for reading my inaugural post!