Martin – Ma Ziqiao
Think Hard and Be a Holmes: Mysteries Immerse Readers in Reasoning
Art pieces themed on detectives are extremely popular. When asked to list some famous detectives, even children can come up with several names like Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Bao from classic Chinese dramas and Conan Edogawa from the famous Japanese animation Detective Conan. In the field of popular literature, romance readers seek for emotional comforts and sci-fi fans get fascinated by writers’ unrestrained imagination. However, readers of detective novels probably share a totally different experience. Readers have a natural demand for logical thinking and gain great gratification in the process when they think hard, get confused, and then think harder until finally reaching a logical conclusion. This process accounts for the popularity of classic detective novels: They provide readers a chance to be immersed in logical reasoning.
First of all, vivid characters were built in detective novels to appeal readers to think. Among all the figures built in a mystery story, it must be the detective that has the closest connection with the readers. Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, the famous criterion respected by most mystery writers, mentioned it as rule number one that: “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery” (Dine). This rule reveals the competitive relationship between readers and the character serving as the detective. Comparing a detective novel to a quiz, the detective is like another examinee doing the same exercises. The existence of a competitor naturally
encourages readers to think harder and get ready to start reasoning quickly after the story begins. Also, it’s worth pointing out that a detective in a mystery novel doesn’t necessarily possess a noble and academic temperament like Sherlock Holmes. Some detective figures look and behave nothing like one of our acquaintances. In The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie built Miss Marple, “a white haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner” who behaves just like someone in the neighborhood (13; ch.3). Readers find Miss Marple is a figure vastly different from their recognition of a traditional detective. By building such ordinary detectives, the novelist conveys a message that one can be a detective as long as he or she is discerning and willing to think. Readers will therefore feel more confident and willing to compete with the detective figure in reasoning.
Apart from character building, a successful detective novel also elicits readers’ train of thought by ingenious development of plots. Many detective novels elaborate their narrative voices to limit the number and order of clues given, and one of the most impressive ways is to polish the POV (Point-of-View). POV means “the narrative perspective through which reader experiences the story” and it limits readers’ access to facts because none of the characters is omniscient (Rasley 2). Agatha Christie, known as the Mother of Mystery Stories, is very adept at managing the third alternating POV. In And Then There Were None, Christie’s character Miss Brent says that “[t]here’s no question of defence…I have nothing with which to reproach myself” in the perspective of Wargrave, which prevents readers from knowing the crime she committed (59; ch.4). However, she later admits that she compelled Beatrice Taylor to
death in the perspective of Vera and explains for her previous concealment that “[i]t was not a fit subject to discuss before gentlemen” (“And Then There Were None”, 90;
ch.7). By switching the perspective, Christie succeeded in presenting all the clues in the order she wanted, which engenders and leads readers’ train of thought in the way she designed. In this case, take the previous simile of a detective novel to a quiz, and the POV technique serves to arrange the questions, alternating explicit ones with hidden ones to keep examinees on the way to the correct answer: far from reaching it, yet not totally lost.
The ending is the heart of a novel and many mystery writers polish their plots by applying an O. Henry ending. An O. Henry ending style reveals an unexpected truth, but logical enough to convince readers. One of the most well-known novels applying an unexpected O’Henry ending should be Murder on the Orient Express, another masterpiece by Christie. After all possible reasoning is proved to be impossible, Christie finally announces the shocking truth through the detective: “[a]nd then, Messieurs, I saw light. They were all in it” (“Murder on the Orient Express”, 166; ch.9). The ending goes undoubtedly beyond expectation: The number of murderers in classic mystery stories is rarely more than two, let alone twelve! However, the result is logical and can be proved solidly by organizing all given clues. The surprise brought by an O’Henry ending like this is more than powerful because it brings the story to its climax without breaking the logic of reasoning. Without a shocking ending, it’ll be highly unlikely that a climax can be reached. Readers will find the ending so dull that they may even get the correct answer even chapters before. In this case, readers’ logical reasoning stops before the story ends; hence, the novel will fail to keep readers thinking and even get a deduction on the previous reasoning quality. It’s worth mentioning that
there are plenty of different ending styles other than an O’ Henry ending, like giving a pseudo-ending before the final truth is revealed, a technique used in The Devotion of Suspect X. However, all these ending techniques serve to delay and give a sudden announcement of the truth, extending readers’ thinking process and improving readers’ quality of reasoning.
Successful character building techniques and plot arranging skills help a mystery novelist to promote and lead readers’ train of thought at a macro level. However, without exquisite descriptive paragraphs at a micro level, readers’ reasoning process wouldn’t move smoothly. Mystery stories usually contain a large proportion of environment descriptions to help readers to think. In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie describes that “Ratchett’s day clothing was hanging from the hooks on the wall. On the small table formed by the lid of the wash basin were various objects. False teeth in a glass of water. Another glass, empty…also two burnt matches” (44; ch.7). The descriptions given here are not as suggestive as common environment descriptions usually are. Instead, it severs as a concise display of all possible clues, which helps to visualize a certain scene in the story. This is important for detective novels, because clues are basically discovered from either the murderer or the crime scenes. A visualized scene provides readers with an immersive reasoning experience, as if they were participating the investigation. Similar to the relationship between environment description and the crime scene, manner and action descriptions serve as a key to the inner world of the suspects. Without certain descriptive paragraphs, unnecessary difficulty will be loaded onto readers, interrupting readers’ reasoning process.
The key to the success of popular literature lies in how words provide gratification for the readers in the reading process, and classic detective novels find its own key by satisfying readers with an immersive reasoning process. Even since the Golden Age of Detective Novels, novelists have developed a series of rhetoric patterns to manage readers’ train of thought. However, as detective novel has almost reached its peak in terms of logic, novelists find an alternative path in social detective novels. Nowadays, social detective novels have a growing potential to touch readers in terms of pathos, unlike classic ones did by using logos. Collins et al. point out that “a murderer commit a crime with logical modus operandi and a reasonable motive” (qtd. in 12). Novelists have shifted the motif from how a criminal physically conducted the crime to why a criminal conduct a murder. One of the most representative works should be Keigo Higashino’s Journey under the Midnight Sun, which involves many sentences unrelated to the crime itself. For example, Higashino writes “[o]n its far side stood a seven-storey building…inside it was almost entirely hollowed out,” which doesn’t provide any clue but simply demonstrates the economic depression in Japan (2; ch.1). Readers know from the beginning that the main characters are the criminals, yet still get touched by how they are compelled to commit a series of crimes. In this case, social detective novels win readers’ heart in a different way from classic ones. Any piece of art is developing ceaselessly and readers should be glad that detective novelists are too on their way.
Christie, Agatha. “And Then There Were None”. 1939. London: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.
—. “Murder on the Orient Express”. 1933. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.
—.“The Murder at the Vicarage”. 1932. London: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.
Collins, Jim, and D. Porter. “The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction.” Substance 13.1(1984):104.ResearchGate. Web. 3 Dec 2017.
Dine, Van. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” The American MagazineSep 1928: Print.
Higashino, Keigo. “Journey under the Midnight Sun”. 2002. London: Little Brown, 2015. Print.
Rasley, Alicia. The Power Of Point Of View: Make Your Story Come To Life. 1st ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2008. Print.