Saturday, October 27, 2018

Guest Blogger Tim Hallinan: Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part Two)

 I feel as if I’m playing second fiddle to Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman, which I guess isn’t a bad thing when you come right down to it. Perhaps even a bit propitious, since Heifetz once lived on Mykonos not far from where I live today.  But the bottom line truth is that my fiddler analogy is a guilt-ridden effort on my part to justify my shameless piggybacking on the hard work of two other maestros, purely for the purpose of giving me more time to pack for my return to the States tomorrow after five months away. 
The guy in the photo at the top of this post goes by the name Tim Hallinan, and he’s written a seminal two-part dissertation on the timeless Hatfield and McCoy-like feud obtaining between arbiters of all things literary and the crime writing community.  Each of us has our stories of run-ins on that subject, but Tim ties it all together.  Then there’s maestro Stanley Trollip of Michael Stanley fame, who posted Part One of Tim’s work here on Thursday, together with a introduction that I dare not attempt to duplicate. Instead, I wholeheartedly recommend that if you haven’t yet read Part One and Stan’s introduction you do so now, before reading any further.
Don’t worry, we’ll be here patiently waiting for you to get back…though Tim might be tapping his foot a bit until you return.
Welcome back.  Here’s Tim.
Tim's new Junior Bender, coming in November
As the title suggests, this post is sort of a sequel. If you haven’t read Part One and think you might like to, it’s back there somewhere.
When I ran out of steam last time, I was getting into two of the things I blame for the low esteem with which some people regard mysteries and thrillers. One was the universal human need to find someone or something to look down on The other is the term “whodunnit” and what it implies.

The problem, on a platter

“Whodunnit?” when you think about it, isn’t a very complicated question. It can usually be answered with a single character’s name, unless you’re reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which case the answer is, “everybody.” (Sorry about the spoiler.
And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think “Murder on the Orient Express” is a perfect book of its kind, and that I don’t actually like books of its kind. And by that, I mean books in which “whodunnit” is actually the most important thing in the story. Books in which a puzzle, rather than people, is what matters.

The usual suspects
A murder―any act of violence―needs to be taken seriously. These deeds affect people – obviously not just the victim, but those who loved the victim, who hated the victim, who envied the victim, who had his or her hopes pinned on the victim. Ultimately, since such acts have a ripple effect, people who never heard of the victim.

Add captionA world-changer
An act of violence is an interruption of everything we planned for, all the assumptions we depended on. It disrupts the world. It makes it apparent that our hopes are predicated on expectations that may not be fulfilled, on rules that some people don’t follow, on an instinctive belief in a prevailing underlying justice that may not actually exist. An act of violence, a murder, creates a crisis. And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.
I would argue that the revelation of character, of holding a human being up to the light to see how he or she works – where she is strong or weak or admirable or loathsome or flexible or rigid or holy or profane – is the primary function of fiction.
What’s most interesting to me about all this is that murder and violence – physical or emotional violence – have been used to reveal character and propel events forward in literature all over the world, from the very beginning. What’s Homer writing about? War and survival. The Book of Genesis takes us straight to a murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, and its repercussions. The greatest of Sophocles’ plays, “Oedipus Rex,” is a detective story with a twist, which is that the central character turns out to be the murderer. When Agatha Christie did precisely that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, it caused a minor sensation even though Sophocles had already pulled it off almost 2400 years earlier. To look at the Middle Ages, Beowulf is a straight-ahead thriller, a portrait of a society suspended, being held for ransom by violence until someone—some hero—will step forward and take action.
A classic example of serious literature using murder as the microscope for character is “Hamlet.”

A boy and his skull
“Hamlet” presents a classic setup: a man has been killed, and the job of finding the murderer and punishing him falls to the victim’s son. In fact, this situation has been used so often that it’s become a trope, one modern definition of which is “a story concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”
But in Shakespeare’s hands, the murder investigation leads us into all sorts of issues: the primacy of kings, the relationship between mother and son, the betrayal of friendship, the immeasurable value of honest friendship, the fragility of young love, the soul-sickness of the murderer, the eternal question of what sometimes keeps us from doing what we need to do even when the path seems clear.
At two points, Claudius’s failed prayer and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it takes us into regions like the silence of God, the relationship between God and the human soul, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Big stuff. And all of it arises naturally from fascinating, deeply felt characters who are responding to the old-testament blunt weapon of murder.
And after Shakespeare has put us inside these characters’ hearts and souls for hours―so deeply that Elsinore Castle becomes―the whole universe, at the end, when everyone is dead or dying, he brings in someone new and untouched by the mystery, Fortinbras, to survey the dead, frown at the disorderly throne room, assert a shaky claim to authority, and order that the word of these terrible events be spread far and wide, and now let’s get to work. We’ve got a country to run.
Fortinbras rolls up his sleeves and dusts off his crown
.At that precise moment the bodies on the stage – Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the others – who have been our world for hours, are just litter to be cleared away to make room for the new orde
We’re witnessing the restoration of order, which was Shakespeare’s great theme, whether the play is a comedy, tragedy, history, or one of the very complex late works that scholars, for lack of a better term, call “problem plays.” Whatever genre (there’s that word again) the play represents, in the first act we learn what’s wrong with the world it depicts, and the end of the fifth act, order has been restored
And that is absolutely what happens in a crime novel, whether it’s a thriller or a mystery. The reader enters a world that’s about to be broken or has just been broken. It’s out of kilter. It’s stopped working the way we believe our world should work. The characters of the people on the page are being stretched thin enough to become transparent; motives and enmities and love are suddenly made visible. The primary course of action of a mystery or a thriller is repairing that broken world and exploring those exposed characters, restoring both to some kind of acceptable balance. It may be retribution, it may be the revelation of the truth. The denouement may be thrilling or comic or tragic. Depends on the book. But at the end of the story – unless it’s noir – there will be some form of restoration.
Question mark or fish hook?
The reason that kind of exploration and illumination work so well in the whodunnit and the thriller is that each of them plants a question mark at the very beginning – in “Hamlet,” the opening words are “Who’s there?” called out by a terrified guard who’s asking the question that’s really being asked throughout the play. Who’s behind that mask? Who’s beneath that crown? Who’s wearing that smile? Who is that man who was pretending to love me?
The whodunnit and the thriller take that question mark and plant it right there in the first act. It may or may not be a coincidence that a question mark looks like a fish hook, because what the question mark does is hook the reader and pull him or her across 100,000 words or so to see what the answer is, and—more important—what happens as we get closer to it.
And that fish hook has to drag the reader upstream because as he or she sits there, nose to the type, the real world is flowing by. People take a break from their lives to read, and writers should never forget that. A reader with the book open is like a rock in a stream: life is flowing past, carrying with it lots of things that compete for the reader’s attention, and some of them will only go by once. I think we owe the reader something in our book that makes that commitment of time and energy and attention worthwhile.
So that means the books have to be about something that goes beyond whodunnit. On a purely personal note and from a writer’s perspective, I can testify that there’s probably not a theme in the world that can’t be explored in a thriller or a whodunit, not a society, not a culture, not a business.

 These are essentially investigative forms – there’s almost always a character whose primary function is to ask questions, and in such a story there’s pretty much nothing you can’t open up and put a microscope to. In a modest way, when I attempt to frame such a story I feel that I’m following in the tracks of hundreds and hundreds of talented writers who sat down day after day to write the best book they possibly could – to make the reading experience worthwhile for the people who open the book – in both literary fiction and genre fiction. Detective fiction and thrillers have deepened and broadened to include characters who are deeper than the page, predicaments that are more than puzzles, revelations that reflect our own lives. I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”
Far as I’m concerned, those are real books.
So there.

Tim—in for Jeff


  1. Bravo! Bravo! Encore! Not that we were getting tired of that second fiddle. But order must be broken before it can be restored. And besides, all of the writers here are first fiddles in my book...

    1. Ahh, Everett -- where would I be without you? My only regret is that there's only one of you. And, yes, this is a splendid and generous group of writers.

  2. Don't despair. The New York Times believes in genre fiction.

    1. Yes, to the extent of one roundup review on every ninth Thursday or something like that. Not that I'm not thrilled to be included.

  3. No offense to traditional mystery (cozy) readers and writers, but this is why I don't read them. All they care about is the puzzle, when what's important needs to be the people.

    1. Dana, there are a lot of traditional and cozy mysteries (two different things) that focus on the people in them and how the murder affects them. If you picked some of them up, you might be surprised.

  4. Tim, You've said it as well as it can be said. Applause, applause, applause.

    1. Thanks so much, Earl -- that means a lot, coming from you.

  5. If you want to advertise, hire a skywriter.

  6. From Annamaria: Tim, What Earl said. This essay is BRILLIANT! For me a Bardolator cum crime writer, I want to memorize it!

    1. Thanks, my dear anonymous Annamaria. This has been simmering inside me for years and years.

  7. I translated his Arabic. It's the name of some company which I will not do him the favor of rendering in English.