The game is afoot.
- â€” Sherlock Holmes
There’s just one more question I’d like to ask you.
- â€” Columbo
And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those nosy kids and their mangy dog!
- â€” innumerable Scooby-Doo villains
Forget about making a hundred, forget about the victim, forget about the suspect and focus on the only thing that can’t lie: the evidence.
- â€” Gil Grissom, CSI
O photoprocessing machine, I command you to reveal to me that which is hidden!
- â€” Bee
Like most good ideas, mysteries and detective stories have many ancestors, but they didn’t really get to take a place in entertainment until the Industrial Revolution. It’s not hard to see why. The underlying message behind the traditional mysteryâ€”and the traditional detective story, its most famous subgenreâ€”is always the same. That message: our world may seem confusing, but patience, pluck, and especially reason can lay its secrets bare, punish the guilty, and reveal the monsters as aged men in latex or clockwork springs.
The true hero of a detective story is not the detective, but detection itself. For all the quirks of a Holmes or a Grissom, ultimately he is just a means to an end. You could swap Holmes with Grissom, give Holmes some time to get up to speed on new tech, and run almost all the Holmes mysteries and CSI episodes to the same essential conclusion. Every so often an element of the personal does make itself feltâ€”a feared nemesis, perhaps, or a determined would-be loverâ€”but it feels almost like an intrusion, a distraction from the power of reason that serves them and us so well.
If a murderer ends up coming after the detective to do him physical harm, that only reinforces the power of reason in the endâ€”because in the traditional detective story, the detective will escape harm, protected by either a universe that seems ordered to preserve his life, or, even better, by his reason.
Television shows give this formula the force of ritual. Virtually every Murder, She Wrote ends with the suspects all cozily gathered in the den, virtually every Columbo ends with his famous line, virtually every Scooby-Doo ends with the ceremonial unmasking of the villain. The science in CSI and Numb3rs may be more sophisticated than in Dragnet, but its role never changes.
Modern forensic science can still inspire the kind of awe that makes slack-jawed Watsons of us all. But detectives of all kinds have been having a bad decade. DNA evidence failed to convict O.J. Simpson. The 9/11 hijackers slipped through our every security measure. Enron embezzled more valuables than all the jewel thieves in the world could ever steal. And this year, the most massive intelligence failure in United States history can be summed up in one four-letter word: "WMDs." Of those responsible for these disasters, only the Enron employees face justice. And even this victory tastes bittersweet after we’ve learned about the culture of institutionalized crime at Enron and similar companies, how they got away with so much for so long. That corruption is what stays with us after the trials are over. Reason, it seems, is not such an unstoppable force for justice after all.
Can fictional detectives retain their power over us, after all of that?
I believe that one of the many purposes stories can serve is to show us a world that’s better than our own. A world which, in the short term, can provide us escape, and in the long term, can inspire us to improve ourselves. But we must know our audience. Today’s reader is not as enchanted with reason as yesterday’s. In response, detective writers have tried either to reinforce the classical rules of the gameâ€”or to break them.
The Rules of the Game
1. Red herrings. Any detective story that centers on a question with only one conceivable answer is either a parody and not a real detective story, or a real bad one. The classic game Clue uses a sextet of suspects, for example. Five of them are clearly red herrings. And sometimes the herring can be a how and not a whoâ€”if a murder has been made to look like suicide, there may be only one suspect and the reader may have a gut feeling that it was murder, but the only way the murderer can be punished is if the detective can prove it was murder, by discovering how the victim was murdered. Suicide is the obvious red herring in this case, and a twisty mystery can add others.
2. Suspense. Detective stories are no more interesting than crossword puzzles unless something is at stake. They begin with a crime, with things going bad. But in any good detective story it must be clear that if the crime is not solved, things will get even worse.
3. The end in sight. Occasionally writers can get so enchanted with twists and turns, artful red herrings, and ever-escalating stakes that they end up with something that doesn’t lead logically to the conclusion. This must not be.
4. A fair challenge. In a classic detective story, the clues are all there for the readers to discoverâ€”they may not necessarily figure it out, but looking back on the story they will think, "ah, I should’ve known!" They’re a bit like puzzle games. Sometimes a lot like puzzle games. The Encyclopedia Brown stories, for instance, always paused just before their end to announce that the readers now had all the clues and should be able to answer the question themselves.
It may surprise you to learn that this is not the first guide to writing detective stories ever published. As early as 1928, S.S. Van Dine published a list of twenty commandments. Some of these were laughableâ€”Dine outlawed love interests and atmospheric description, and declared that the culprit must be neither a professional criminal nor a cultist nor a spy nor a "servant." In Dine’s world, the butler never does it. But five of his rules are worth quoting:
The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himselfâ€¦
The culprit must be determined by logical deductions â€” not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmeticâ€¦
And most importantly (emphasis mine):
The truth of the problem must at all times be apparentâ€”provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the faceâ€”that all the clues really pointed to the culpritâ€”and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
This is the rule the modern detective story most frequently tramples.
CSI and Numb3rs preserve the heroic role of science, but often as not they leave the viewer incapable of deducing the outcome. One key scene may describe the tools, identify the clues, and reach the conclusion all in one fluid motion. This kind of cheat makes a detective into a magician. "Yes," this brand of modern detective story says, "reason can protect you from criminals and monstersâ€”when we apply it. It’s beyond you. Don’t worry your pretty little head over it. Leave the game in the hands of the pros."
This inspires awe and certainly creates a safe world whither people can escape, but it throws self-improvement right out the window.
To be fair to detective writers, though, they face a harder challenge than the entertainers of previous eras. The Web allows an audience to collaborate in challenging new ways.
Hoodwinking the Collective Intelligence
Pity, if you will, the creators of the TV series Lost. A recent episode had advertised the death of one of its characters, but which one? We’d have to watch to find out, yes? Well, no. My roommate informed me who was going to die one minute before the episode began, and he was right. He had arrived at this conclusion from the deductions of the online legion of Lost fans.
If a mystery becomes popular, then many people will try to solve it. In 1928, their ability to collaborate was limitedâ€¦ then as now, two detective novel aficionados might compare notes if they’d both reached Chapter 17, but that assumes a close friendship, and the information wouldn’t spread past the two of them. But the Web unifies people by interest group, bringing their collective intelligence to bear on the largest of problemsâ€”and the most trivial.
This means, essentially, that if one devoted fan of your work can figure out your detective story, they have all figured it out.
This is why shows like Lost rely on clues so abstract as to be almost meaningless. What do the "numbers" in Lost mean? Are they a mathematical reference, a biblical one, some kind of code? Who knows? We’re not sure the producers themselves have it figured outâ€”earlier TV mysteries in the Internet Age like X-Files and Twin Peaks promised considerably more than they delivered.
How to play fair when the audience cheats?
That’s a puzzler.
In a sense, they’re not cheating at all. Collective intelligence theory holds that the Web gives us a joined identity in addition to our individual selves. The collective intelligence is like one mind, just a very, very smart one.
When I wrote a supernatural detective story in Fans, my red herring was the detective story itselfâ€”as the culprit stood revealed, we learned that the detectives pursuing him were as bad as he was or worseâ€”and one of them promptly turned on our heroes. To my gratification, the readers didn’t guess who the culprit was. But they did guess every other twist and turn the story took until its epilogue, and I resolved to stay one jump ahead of them with future Fans stories. I was mostly successfulâ€”but I didn’t dare go back to the detective genre with such eagle-eyed readers watching me.
Mystery writers like Jason Little and Joe Zabel seem untroubled by this audience shift, and perhaps they shouldn’t be troubled. After all, no one is forcing their readers to check out the forums, just as no one forces a reader to flip to the last few pages of an Agatha Christie. But if we want to hold all our readers in the grip of uncertainty, perhaps we cartoonists have to leave the detective story behind. Perhaps we should see it as too much of a giveaway.
Or perhaps we should see it as our greatest challenge ever. Perhaps we should just build one that’s hard enough even to challenge the collective intelligence, yet clear enough that the answer is in there.
As I write this, I’m preparing a Fans sequel which attempts just that, and I urge the "detective cartoonists" in our community to try the same. Holmes showed the power of reason, but he was far too proud to mingle with the bungling efforts of policemen and other detectives. Modern detectives, and modern writers, can take full advantage of the wealth of information today’s world has to offer.
Let’s show what the power of collective reason can do in our entertainment. Let’s show collective intelligence its own potential. We’ve inspired ourselves to improve ourselvesâ€¦ let’s try now to inspire ourselves to improve ourself.Â