Tuesday, July 03, 2012

When Plot isn't Enough

(Reflections on THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, an early novel by Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee as "Ellery Queen", two novels by Henning Mankell, THE TROUBLED MAN and RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER, and the Roman Polanski film CHINATOWN.]

Returning after forty years (!!!) to read a novel by a leader in the classic detective fiction of the 20th century's first half, I was disappointed.  It was all plot, with characters who were all "types," and no texture - memories, social observations beyond stereotypes, atmosphere, inter-textuality.  Another novel by a modern master, however, was not much more lively, despite the dutiful layering in of mixed feelings, memories, and cultural comments. 

"Ellery Queen" was once a powerful brand name for readers of detective fiction.  It covers stories, novels, and media products featuring detective - writer named Ellery Queen, and it's also the pseudonym for two men who wrote that fiction and edited the eponymous "mystery magazine."   At 12, "he" was my favorite, with his knack for decorously macabre murders and his emphasis on logic to solve the puzzles.  I especially recall a novel built on "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the last verse pinned to the back of the victim:  "Your true love gives to you this ... knife / The finishing stroke to end your life."  

So I returned with fond memories to Ellery Queen's THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, one of only a few available on Kindle.   Here, the murder occurs in row LL of a Broadway theatre during the performance of a violent play about organized crime.   Inspector Richard Queen, accompanied  by his Ivy League wunderkind Ellery, blocks access and egress from the theatre until it can be ascertained that, whoever committed the murder must still be in the theatre.

That's as interesting as it gets.   I kept turning pages from loyalty, while the Queens interview witnesses and acquaintances of the deceased, a shyster lawyer.   Clues are repeated:   He must have worn a hat, but none can be found... He owned several books on handwriting analysis...  He (or someone) had doodled the number 50,000 in his program, along with his own signature several times.
Who could have seen the murderer leave that seat?  Where could the hat be?   Why did the murderer take it?  We know that the victim brought a hat into the theatre because he was in evening dress, and, logically, someone would have noticed had he not worn a hat to match the suit.   That, and other leaps of "logic", were pretty debatable.  By the time I learned Whodunnit, I didn't recall much about the culprit, and I didn't care how he did it.  

In the sixty years between Ellery Queen's novel and Henning Mankell's THE TROUBLED MAN, we've come to expect a more textured story.   Plot is overlaid with backstory and sidestory.   For backstory we have Detective Kurt Wallender's tense relationships with his grown daughter and with his ex-wife her mother, with parallels to his ambivalent relationship with his father.  The sidestory is related:  Wallender fears that he is showing signs of the Alzheimer's disease that destroyed his father. 

But the texture here felt just as generic as the plot in the Ellery Queen novel.   We get a bit about the plot -- concerning the disappearance of a retired admiral who had something to do with a Soviet submarine's spying on Sweden in the 1980s -- and then a bit about Wallender's fraught family life, and then a bit of worry about his mental capacities.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.   It's clear by the end that Mankell himself has tired of this character, and he sets up a new focus on the daughter's crime-fighting career.

Mankell gives himself a boost of energy by introducing a different detective for his RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER.   This one has a bizarre murder that Ellery Queen might have been too fastidious to describe:   the victim's bloody footprints show that the murderer tangoed with him -- or with his corpse.  Mankell varies the point of view, so that we know more than the detective about the one who did it.  When there's a second murder, we know that it's someone else's doing. 

This novel succeeds in ways that the other two do not, creating some images and some encounters of characters that are gripping and haunting.   Even so, the "texturing" again seems routine.  Our detective, for example, has cancer, and the author checks in with the same set of thoughts periodically:  "Oh, I've got cancer, and I may not live much longer, and nothing matters, does it?"  Neo-Nazis are involved in the plot, and we run through a predictable series of thoughts about that every so often.

It may not be fair to compare novels to a movie, but CHINATOWN fits this discussion as an examplar of a detective fiction in which character, plot, and texture are all of one piece.   It's LA around 1940, an apparent paradise of elegant facades, blue pools, and lush green fields.  The characters look good, and their roles in life are well-defined: the efficient detective, the dignified wife, the crusading politician.  The plot is straightforward:  Hired to catch the politician in his affair, the detective discovers that nothing is what it seemed -- not the man, not his wife, not even the blue pool or the green field.  Nothing feels added on, not even Jerry Goldsmith's music (which really was added in later):  it's all integrated.

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