Nearly a month ago, I parted company with Louise Penny, for the simple reason that she and I no longer get on together – literarily, that is. When I inaugurated a new era of Kindle reading, I read all her novels in one fell swoop and, despite a lingering affection for Armand Gamache and his Three Pines compatriots, I found Penny’s books lacking in the mystery department.
Saying goodbye to Elizabeth George is a more complicated affair. I have been intimately acquainted with her work for nearly thirty years now, ever since A Great Deliverance (1988) marked her debut as a writer. I actually met George – twice! – and was taken with her intelligence and generosity. (She even wrote this budding writer a lovely letter of encouragement!) Still, her latest tome, A Banquet of Consequences, feels like the proverbial straw, so I think it’s time to call it a day.
If you are at all familiar with George’s work, you know that her novels comprise one part murder mystery and one part soap opera and that they are very very long. Fans of George have been enamored of both her dark, twisty plots and of the trials and tribulations of her hero, the aristocratic Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (who shares far too many traits with other “steeped in nobility” sleuths, from later Peter Wimsey to Roderick Alleyn, Adam Dalgliesh, and Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury) and his strikingly odd partnership with the far more interesting working stiff, Sergeant Barbara Havers, who can’t seem to catch a break in either her professional or personal life. The saga (and “saga” truly describes it, as in “long, involved story”) of this pair, and of the small company of supporting players who orbit around them, has so far comprised nineteen novels consisting of twelve thousand, two hundred eleven pages – an average length of 643 pages per novel. Several titles are actually over nine hundred pages long!!!
In this latest doorstop of a book, Havers’ career is once again on the line. After her last disastrous case (Just One Evil Act), where she struck out on her own to save her neighbor/friend/potential paramour’s young kidnapped daughter, wreaked havoc in Italy, and solved a murder case that left every person in her life, including herself, emotionally devastated, Barbara has been forced to sign a transfer order that her Superintendent now holds over her head as a threat unless she toes the line. But Lynley, who knows Barbara well, sees that “toeing the line” actually inhibits Havers from doing her best work, and he steps in to try and help his hapless ex-partner (the “ex” business comprises another saga) prove her worth to Superintendent Ardery.
The case in question is particularly grubby, and it centers around two women: noted feminist author Clare Abbott and her personal assistant, the odious Caroline Goldacre, whose family – husbands, sons, their spouses and lovers – form the suspect list when murder rears its ugly head. Over the course of six hundred and eight pages, which seem to stretch into infinity, Havers and Lynley unearth one sickening secret after another as they attempt to unmask a ruthless killer. This certainly resembles the structure of a “fair play” mystery, but alas! there’s nothing remotely fair play about this book. Rather, it’s a long slog of procedural activity, displaying little to no sleuthing acumen along the lines of Hercule Poirot. In fact, most of the salient evidence is uncovered by sheer luck, and the conclusions drawn from each clue are invariably wrong. What is particularly frustrating about this pattern of discovery is that the solution to the whole plot is incredibly obvious, hinging on an early exchange between two characters that remains unresolved for hundreds and hundreds of pages and is never uncovered by the sleuthing team. It all leads to a shockingly dissatisfying denouement that is sure to rile anyone possessed of even a whiff of a sense of justice.
In between, we are treated to dozens and dozens of scenes that inch each character’s arc forward just a bit: the conflict between Clare, Carolyn and Clare’s devoted lesbian editor Rory; the oh so slowly developed love story between Carolyn’s second husband Alastair and his employee Sharon, a woman so loving and perfect as to be almost unbearable (as a topper in ludicrous character traits, every time Sharon displays an element of goodness, Alastair develops an erection); the slow unearthing of Carolyn’s true nature as a horrible woman, person, wife and mother in every way, all of which could have been avoided had she remembered the Number One Rule: never push “send” after writing an angry e-mail. Meanwhile, on the soap opera side, we are treated to further developments in Lynley’s troubled new love relationship with Daidre the veterinarian, as well as Barbara’s trouble-plagued attempts first to fit in at Scotland Yard (through a series of comic misadventures that are decidedly unfunny and really make no sense for this character) and then to prove her worth by solving the case all by herself. Since Havers has acquired no sense of tact or decorum after twelve thousand pages of detecting, she is assigned a partner in the person of Sergeant Winston Nkata, who makes every right decision in the story and deserves all the credit for any correct procedure in this investigation. (He also cooks like a dream and loves his mother, another of George’s disquieting “saints.”)
Now, listen: I love long novels – I’m a Dickens and Dostoevsky fan from way back. I’ll also be the first to admit to a lifetime love of soap operas. I grew up on Dark Shadows! I watched All My Children for its entire run! But questions arise here, and a deconstruction of Banquet provides the opportunity for discussion of the following:
- How long should a mystery be? Just when does a detective novel become too long?
- In the war between SAM and SIS (the Stand Alone Mystery vs. the Serial Investigative Saga), where does the quality of imbuing your regular characters with a rich backstory and a continuing personal narrative independent of the crimes they solve become a disadvantage?
- Regarding the propensity of modern detective fiction to eschew the puzzle element and favor psychological complexity, when – if ever – is complex characterization a detriment to bringing off a good murder mystery?
There is no doubt that the mystery has evolved in a more striking way over the years than any other type of genre fiction. Science fiction continues to mirror the preoccupations of the times. Perhaps the romance novel has gotten more . . . explicit (Hello, Mr. Grey!), or maybe it’s just the covers, but the purport of your average bodice ripper remains the same. Perhaps fantasy novels have been inculcated with more elements of regular literature in order to increase the audience base beyond the gratified fanboys and fangirls who devour them. (Thank you, George R.R. Martin . . . I think!) One still has to commit to embracing an alternate universe with more rules than the bidding system for bridge!
But even as far back as the 1930’s, the height of popularity for the Golden Age of Detection, some of its progenitors like Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were descrying the form’s limitations. (And for this information we are truly grateful to author Martin Edwards, whose must-read book, The Golden Age of Murder, plus his commentary in Taking Detective Stories Seriously, a marvelous compendium of Sayers’ book reviews, provides keen insight into how both these authors forced the evolution of the genre.) Sayers and Berkeley asked why the mystery couldn’t tackle some of the more serious elements of general fiction, providing richer language, better characterization and historical context, as well as deeper thematic resonance, rather than maintain the rigidity of a puzzle plot.
Most of Sayers’ peers essentially ignored her advice, and the puzzle ruled over all other elements for most of the Golden Age. (To these folks I say: “Hurrah, huzzah, and a million kisses!”) For them, the plotting, involving the author’s inherent contract with the reader to provide us with a mystifying series of events and to challenge us to figure the whole mess out, dominated the proceedings.
It couldn’t last, of course, for a variety of reasons. In my buddy JJ’s recent post about Miles Burton over at The Invisible Event, he cites the advancement of forensic investigation for speeding the demise of the classic whodunit. Our growing interest in psychoanalysis also contributed to focusing the mystery away from the puzzle and more on the lasting effects of crime on a community and the whys and wherefores of a killer’s actions. And honestly, people simply burnt out on the sheer inundation of plots that depended on increasingly repetitive variants of the same tricks and twists, with little else in the way of reading matter within its pages to appreciate and enjoy. I would suggest that the reason we can re-read the best mystery writers of old is because their works stand up as fiction: there is strong characterization to be found in Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand, much worthy historical context present in John Dickson Carr, and a whole slew of thematic treasures in Ellery Queen’s writing.
Gradually, the pure puzzle has been replaced by novels of psychological suspense and murder mysteries where the solving of the case is no longer the be all and end all of the story but a means to hook readers into the increasingly complex lives of a new generation of crime solvers. This became increasingly evident during the social upheaval of the 1960’s, and the phenomena circled the globe. You see it in Scandinavia in the ten Beck novels (1965 – 1975) of Per Sjowall and Maj Wahloo, which sought to expose the failed experiment of Swedish social democracy. This couple originated a movement that continues to today, with writers using the tropes of mystery fiction to investigate everything from sexual politics to the repressed guilt the Northern European nations felt over their complicity with the Nazis.
In Great Britain, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell embraced the conventions of Golden Age mystery and then sought to distance themselves from identification with the classic mold. The modern European mystery novel increasingly merges the troubled psychology of the sleuth and the sinner. Cases tend more often than not to provide fodder for a detective’s drunken binges, fractured relationships, and existential soul-searching; clearly there’s no time for actual detecting. There’s also little chance of order being restored anymore in this damaged world. Finally – and saddest of all – there’s very little fun to be had, for murder is a serious business, and don’t you forget that!
The Scheherazade Effect
Classic mystery authors rarely included serial elements in their books. When Hercule Poirot journeys to Broadhinny to prove whether or not the right person was convicted of bludgeoning Mrs. McGinty to death, his final summation marks the end of our relationship with every character save the two or three involved in solving the case. Furthermore, if Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, a late entry in the Agatha Christie canon, is a reader’s first experience with the author, that reader will have no problem if his next choice is an earlier novel, since there is little continuity from one Poirot novel to another. The Ariadne Oliver of McGinty is scarcely different from the one we met sixteen years earlier in Cards on the Table, nor will she change a lick by the time of her final appearance twenty-one years later in Elephants Can Remember.
One can criticize Christie (as many do in tiresome fashion) for reducing her characters to a series of mannerisms (Mrs. Oliver has flyaway hair, loves apples and makes silly pronouncements of feminism), but this standalone status – including a certain “freezing” of her series characters – freed Christie to focus all her energies on the puzzle. The idea of reading Poirot’s adventures in chronological order may be preferable, and it is certainly enjoyable; it is not, however, essential. Even characters who do age, like Tommy and Tuppence never lose the same spirit of character – they just move a little slower.
Does the lack of characters moving forward result in a certain sameness whenever one picks up a Christie novel? Perhaps – but then we are focused on the plot, not on how Poirot is getting along. Still, I will be the first to admit that most people are strongly attracted to serialized stories and characters they can follow on an extended basis. It’s the whole Scheherazade Effect. We like cliffhangers. We identify with the changes that time and incident have wrought on people we care about. This quality has made TV addicts of us all. Even Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law and Order franchise, finally acknowledged the power of the serial, making Special Victims Unit his longest running success. Will Olivia find love? Will Tutuolu pass his sergeant’s exam? Will that blonde detective quit gambling and realize her sister is psycho? Even the standalone nature of the L&O cases is often varied with multi-episode arcs or even crossovers between one Dick Wolf series and another!
This obsession with the private lives of beloved characters can build an author’s fan base, but it comes at a cost. I would challenge anyone to start reading Elizabeth George in the middle of her nineteen-book saga and not find oneself totally confused by what is going on. Some fairly interesting things happen to Lynley over the course of the canon, including a horrific tragedy that, to my mind, brought the whole series crashing down into a depressing bore. It is to Banquet’s credit that Lynley finally seems to be turning an emotional corner. He is decidedly less morose this time around, although his romantic travails with the comely vet feel like an endless spinning of wheels, flavored with some of the worst romantic dialogue I have ever read. Daidre actually says at one point: “There’s such equanimity in stasis, Tommy.” What the heck is that supposed to mean? Who talks like that to her boyfriend??
I reckon people have stuck with George through thick and through thin because of their love of the characters, Havers in particular. Yet I have to admit that our Barbara irritated me throughout this latest episode, falling back on her old ways and actually casting doubt as to whether her career deserves saving, as Sergeant Nkata made all the sane decisions during this investigation. The sad fact is that, as the author has expanded and explored Lynley’s universe, the mystery aspect of her novels has suffered mightily. George seems to require more and more space to tell less and less story, and the last half dozen or so titles have failed to satisfy in the crime department.
Meanwhile, my blogging colleagues are churning out two or three reviews a week, while I have spent the first two weeks of my summer vacation alternately reading and listening to the audiobook of Banquet in my car in a frustrating attempt to speed up this process. Why are her books so long? Well, part of it can be written off as a propensity on the author’s part to overwrite in an attempt to show off her descriptive powers. The rest may be due to her emphasis on the psychology of her characters. But her exploration into the darkest impulses of the human mind is pretty superficial in my opinion, often played for shock value without being particularly insightful. I could have told you by the end of her first appearance in the novel that Caroline Goldacre was a mother. Over the course of the next six hundred pages, we learn just how loathsome she was, but we never explore how or why she became this way. Or take her second husband, Alastair MacKerron: we observe the slow dissolution of his marriage to Caroline even as he grows closer and closer to Sharon. Yet those moments between the lovers become essentially the same scene played out, with slight variation, over and over and over again! By the fifth or sixth time Alastair declared himself unworthy of Sharon’s love, I found myself snorting, “Too right!”
The same goes for the plotting of the novel’s other major triangle, that of Caroline’s son Charlie, his estranged wife India, and her charming new suitor Nat. (The way that storyline played itself out made me want to throttle all three of them!) The alternating scene structure of Banquet made me feel like I was stuck in a sort of repetitive loop throughout my reading. (At one point, I placed discs thirteen and fourteen in the wrong order in my car’s stereo system, so disc 14 followed on the heels of disc 12. I actually did not notice my mistake for a long time.) In short, the novel feels extremely padded, adding to a sense of deep disappointment by the end.
We have seen this phenomenon over and over again, and not just in mysteries. The fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire Saga is over four hundred pages longer than the first (and a hundred times less satisfying). This is clearly read by editors as giving fans “more of a good thing.” Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I call it “bad editing.” Clearly, the increased length of George’s later novels has not, to my mind, improved her efficacy as a writer. She can still pen an episode that is incredibly gripping, and then she will drag it down with a compendium of overripe descriptions of minor people or places. She has never done comedy particularly well, yet Banquet sadly provides us with too much page time for one of George’s least convincing characters, Scotland Yard secretary Dorothea Harriman, whose ludicrous attempts to “fix” Barbara Havers’ social life amount to more unbearable filler than this reader could stand.
So I guess I’m done with the anvil-like adventures of Lynley and Havers . But reading them has, as I say, brought up these questions that I would like to open up for discussion. What is an “acceptable” length for a mystery? Can a story from this genre sustain itself over eight or nine hundred pages? Does the serialized nature of the modern mystery create an almost insurmountable obstacle toward the creation of a strongly clued puzzle? Does a greater emphasis on characterization or theme – or, for that matter, any element of “literature” that tended to get played down during the Golden Age – obstruct from the real job of a mystery writer: to baffle us until that “aha” moment of enlightenment?
There is no doubt that the modern mystery presents a more realistic depiction of how crime decimates a community. Gone, for the most part, is the sense of “order restored” by the end of a modern crime novel. Is this move toward realism a good thing for the aficionado of detective novels? I know that matters of taste can’t help but come into the dialogue, but I really am interested in a more technical application of the question. As a lover of complex characters myself, I still feel that Elizabeth George gets bogged down in the inner life of her characters, reducing the reading of her mammoth books to a slow crawl. Is this an example of “too much of a good thing,” or is there truly no place for such a plethora of detail in a well crafted mystery?
What do you think?