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Armchair Detective #4: Dramatic Irony

[This is the fourth installment of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. Read past episodes here, or browse all our ongoing features from the Features category.]

A mystery writer using dramatic irony to create suspense is a bit like an exterminator using napalm because somebody saw a cockroach: it works, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. Dramatic irony is especially detrimental to mystery novels, but I hate it in almost all types of fiction.

I don’t even like Jeffrey Eugenides, a talented literary author, because he’s the modern king of dramatic irony. He’s so eager to give away the plots of his novels—and the fates of his characters—that sometimes he does it in his titles, like The Virgin Suicides. I hate knowing more than the characters do about their future because it robs their decisions of risk and it makes them feel doomed, trudging unknowingly through the actions that will eventually make, say, the virgins kill themselves.

In mysteries, dramatic irony is often executed in more gimmicky, less careful ways. In a movie, it might be a panning shot that reveals, unbeknownst to the hero, an ominous goon watching him. In a book, it might be a chapter-closing zinger like, “Little did he know, he would never see his wife alive again.”

For one thing, this is a cheap way to ratchet up the suspense. More importantly, dramatic irony warps the reading experience: it tips the balance of knowledge, and creates an emotional gulf between the hero and the reader. In a mystery, that is something I never want. I want to experience everything as the character does, and that includes epiphanies, solutions to cases, and all the suspense along the way.
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Armchair Detective #3: The City & The City

[This is the third installment of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. Read past episodes here, or browse all our ongoing features here.

WARNING: This post contains medium-grade spoilers about The City & The City. These spoilers will limit your potential enjoyment of the book, but the post will limit your desire to read it, so it cancels out.]


I hate it when people energetically recommend fatally flawed books. Possibly the most egregious example from 2009 is China Miéville’s cross-genre novel, The City & The City, which just last week co-won a Hugo award for science fiction, capping off a year of rave after rave after undeserved rave.

City is half-decent sci-fi—imaginative if utterly ludicrous—but it unfortunately attempts to be detective fiction also, and as such, it is woefully inadequate. In fact, it’s been the most overhyped, overpraised mystery novel since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the interest of stemming the whitewater tide of critical effusion, let’s take a closer look.
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Armchair Detective #2: True Mystery

[This is the second installment of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. Follow it here or follow all our ongoing features here.]

In the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more so-called literary writers crossing over into genre fiction. Crossover has never been all that rare, but literary writers used to separate their genre work: Mike Beeman discusses Graham Greene’s “entertainments” here, and here’s a Washington Post piece about the pseudonyms that writers once used (at least partially) to write in different genres.

These days, the crossover is more condescending and less satisfying. In “mysteries” like The Missing and The Nobodies Album, authors attempt to elevate genre formulas with literary sensibilities, but they succeed only in creating hollow mishmashes, prettily written but horribly plotted.

I think I know why.
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Armchair Detective #1: Missing Pieces

[This is the inaugural episode of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. This time: how passion can make or break a mystery. Follow this column here.]

Relatively late in my reading career, I came to the decision that I shouldn’t try to finish bad books, because they sour me on reading and waste my time. Mysteries are a bit different because they naturally reward a finished read, and I think there’s value (and fun to be had) in deconstructing what makes the bad ones bad. If I’m going to quit on a mystery novel, it’s probably dead middle of the road: not bad, per se, but certainly not good. Just, kinda, average.

Last week, I had to quit on not one, but two mystery novels—If the Dead Rise Not, by Philip Kerr, and The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell—both of which looked and felt much better than average. At first, I couldn’t quite figure out the problems I had with them—when I finally did, I found that it was one problem with two sides. These two novels and their complementary shortcomings illustrate a crucial, but subtle, element of good mystery narrative.

I started reading If the Dead Rise Not first, after I heard a glowing review on Fresh Air, and it sounded terrific. Dead has a great hook: it’s set in pre-WWII Nazi Germany, when Hitler’s crimes are just beginning, but there’s already no justice in Berlin for Jews. It stars Bernie Gunther, who was forced out of the police for not being a Nazi, and, though he’s been reduced to a hotel detective, he’s the only one willing to dig into the shadows.

Kerr uses oppression and injustice to light Gunther up with righteous rage, but he doesn’t give Gunther anywhere to go, and we’re left with a human flamethrower, spouting fire impotently into the air.
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