Correcting Brad's Opinion

The Gauntlet has been Volleyed

John Russell Fearn

If you ever run into film director Mike Leigh, don’t compare him to John Cassavetes. He hates it. My friend Matt made the mistake of doing just that during a Q&A session years ago. Leigh didn’t take too kindly to Matt’s comparison and treated him with contempt. I happen to love John Cassavetes, but I can understand how I’d start to hate him if dumbass critics were constantly comparing him to me. The truth is that Leigh and Cassavetes have a few elements in common, but their films are mostly different in style, tone, and purpose. If their filmmaking were on a Venn Diagram, their shared circle would be small.

Just like Mike Leigh, I have a label of which I am not so fond. It’s pastiche. I’m not a fan of the word because it is not (nor has it ever been) my intention to recreate novels of the Golden Age. I want to continue building their structures by using the same tactics and tricks they used. Admittedly, this can be a little confusing because I employ tons of homage and I set my novels during the early part of the previous century; however, I’ve never written anything with the intention of having it pass for a Golden Age novel. Note: This is my impression of the word pastiche. I understand there may be other (slightly different) definitions of the word which might eliminate my objection — clearly, I am influenced by older mystery novels. My point is that I want to write twisty plots filled with interesting clues, not create imitations of Golden Age mysteries. Pastiche sounds a little too much like fanfiction for my taste.

The only book I’ve written that might qualify as a genuine pastiche is Goodnight Irene. This was purely for functional purposes. At the time, I didn’t have a voice that was my own, so I imitated the “sound” of old mysteries I had read. My friend and fellow mystery enthusiast, Brad Friedman wrote a terrific review of Irene. But he had a few problems with the book, namely what he saw as excessive violence. He wrote:

And be warned: I haven’t read such a violent book in I don’t know when. But the gore is (nearly) leavened by enough humor to lend the whole book a screwball effect.

It wasn’t too long after this when I read his review of Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain. Curiously, he didn’t mention the violence in that book. There’s a nasty bit near the beginning that’s more graphic than anything in Irene. My take on acceptable violence in a murder mystery was formed by Christianna Brand. The beheadings in her books are exactly as detailed as the ones in mine and I’ve never heard anyone say anything about those beheadings, or Carr’s for that matter.

So, why? Why did my violence bother him but Lin’s didn’t even deserve a mention. Perhaps it was because GI reads like a pastiche and DitHoR doesn’t. The style of Irene might have influenced his expectations. Here’s a story in the 20s with wisecracking detectives and a murder in what is essentially a country house. The bridge is even out for Christ’s sake. Or it could be because DitHoR is a book from a foreign country and he was more open to it. Only Brad knows the answer.

I find it quite telling that the book of mine he likes the least is The Opening Night Murders which is easily my favorite. That book “sounds” like I think I should “sound”. The humor and horror are balanced. It’s bleak and it’s filled with morally questionable, quirky, and desperate characters. And yes, it has a bit of shock thrown in. Brad never fails to mention how angry it made him. I fully admit to taking a bit of cynical pride in that.

Compared to Cassavetes and Leigh, Brad and I probably have a bigger shared circle on our Venn diagram. We love a lot of the same books and we get annoyed by a lot of the same tropes. There are, however, significant differences in what we want from our mystery. Brad is more dependent on the quality of the characters and specifically characters with whom he can sympathize. I, on the other hand, am far more enamored with plot and subtextual ideas than the experiences and relationships of the people on the page. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a character-based mystery nor that Brad can’t enjoy a book without strong characterization. My next challenge to him is to read Madball, a fantastic book without a single morally upstanding character!

Not too long ago, I posted an enthusiastic review of John Russell Fearn’s Pattern of Murder. Although I was disappointed that the book was an inverted mystery, the weapon and subsequent clueing were more than enough to make up for it. (Note: cluing in an inverted mystery is obviously different. In a whodunnit, the cluing is done for the reader to deduce the solution. In an inverted mystery, the cluing is there for the reader to deduce how the character will deduce it. Narrative suspense aside, I think it’s obvious which one is better.) PoM impressed the hell out of me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the murder weapon. Besides its originality, I adored how it was translated into evidence.

Brad…not so much. He admits to enjoying certain parts of the book, but he disliked most of the characters (dismissing a perfectly nuanced one as a “sexist pig” and blaming the police for their inaction…they’re only following the law, Brad.) and he decried the inverted structure. This last point is one in which we are in complete agreement. More on that in a moment.

As for character, I suspect we have different tastes. I lot of my favorite characters are not people I would like to meet in real life. One of the best films I’ve recently seen was The Gambler (1974). As played by James Caan, Axel Freed is utterly fascinating, one of my favorite characters — I remember his name! In real life, that fucking guy is gonna get me killed. I don’t want to be anywhere near him.

I suspect Brad’s insistence on sympathetic characters and my general disinterest in them has something to do with the way we read. Once again, I must stress I am only guessing, but I think Brad is one of those readers who puts himself in the shoes of the characters. He may even judge characters on whether or not he’d want to be friends with them in real life. Again, it’s incredibly telling that the one character I create with whom Brad would love to have a beer is one I happily murder. In my mind, it wasn’t even a question. Of course, I’d kill that character!

One of the many reasons I adore detective fiction is that it allows me to play God or at least God the Detective. I see the evidence as the detective sees it so that I may play alongside him/her, not walk in his/her shoes. I don’t need to identify with the characters in order to appreciate the stakes or to feel what the characters feel. I’ll also add here that unlikeable characters do wonderful things with the plot. I love making everyone dangerous and locking them in a house just to see what happens.

This is all well and good–If Brad and I approach mysteries in different ways, it might explain some of our disagreements. Neither of us is wrong, and I appreciate his opinion. However, the element Brad was most disappointed in was the murder weapon. He grudgingly admits to admiring the general idea, but overall, he wasn’t too crazy about it. Here, I must use a nasty word, one Brad used on me. Wrong.

Here come spoilers for both Pattern of Murder and Murder is Easy. I realize not many people have read PoM, but it’s worth tracking down and reading. Conversely, if you have no intention of ever reading PoM, continue reading.

The murder weapon in PoM is the soundtrack. Through a fascinating inner monologue, we learn the science involved in the process. Here’s the dumbed-down version: When small holes are present on a soundtrack, the projector produces a hum. If enough small holes are created close enough together, the speed of the projector will produce a vibration that can be used to jostle a prepared light fixture above the head of a certain woman.

Is this science sound? I don’t care. It seems as if it is, and that’s all I need. I’m sure Fearn fudges the facts, especially with the repositioning of the speakers, but it isn’t important. When Brad theorizes that I was enamored with the science of the murder weapon, I can definitely say that’s not the case. I accept the science. That’s all.

Brad also hints that perhaps I like the murder weapon because it is so unusual. This is partially true. I do think it’s original, but unusual murder weapons are a dime a dozen when it comes to murder mysteries. Most unusual murder weapon is not a prize I’m interested in awarding.

No, the reason I love this murder weapon is far more poetic than practical. You see, this soundtrack creates the clue in the form of artwork. Under the right conditions, repeated vibrations will create complex (and beautiful) patterns in gathered dust. Our stand-in detective finds these patterns of murder in a vent within the range of the speakers.

Can you think of another murder weapon that leaves evidence like this? As Brad correctly points out, the inverted nature of this mystery ruins some of its strengths. Imagine if it were a whodunnit. We follow the character as he opens the vent and is presented with artwork within the dust. What an awesome clue…except…then we would cry foul because of the heavy science. Yes, if PoM were a whodunnit, we’d get the science lecture at the end and it wouldn’t be fair because we non-sciency types wouldn’t have had a chance to solve it. Tomcat makes the suggestion that it would work better as a howdunnit, with the method hidden and the murderer revealed. I can see what he means.

The fact Brad never even alludes to the production of this clue (the patterns in the dust) tells me he doesn’t appreciate it the same way I do. One commenter on his post asks how one would go about defining the best murder weapon. Leave it to mystery fans to demand codification and rules. 🙂 Suffice it to say, PoM’s weapon is not one that can be replicated by following rules.

The soundtrack in search of a murderous image is a poetic, expressive murder weapon. Its functionality is almost beside the point. The artwork it creates is brilliant evidence. I can’t think of another weapon that does what it does.

Brad’s choice of best murder weapon is pus from a cat’s ear. Swear to God, that’s what it is. Now I love cats. And Brad has beautiful cats of his own. But this is not a great murder weapon. It’s unique, sure. It’s sound, fine. But it isn’t nearly in the same class as PoM.

Brad probably appreciates Christie’s method because it is fairly clued — we learn about the cat and its malady fairly early on. But I’m guessing he appreciates its practicality even more. That is honestly not among my criteria for judging murder weapons. This isn’t real life. It’s art. Give me something poetic. Or maybe Brad doesn’t think Winky Pooh is a great murder weapon and he’s just making fun of my pretentiousness.

I find Brad’s analysis of mysteries to be intelligent and thoughtful. He rarely makes obvious points and his passion shines through his writing. And it tickles me to no end that he’s able to find things he likes within my nasty little novels. But we have some fundamental differences in taste.

And make no mistake: If I am walking along a path and there’s a road to the left leading to The Agatha Christie Academy of Distinguished Country House Mystery and a road to the right leading to the Paul Halter School of Narrative Fuckery, I am turning right every single time.

1 thought on “The Gauntlet has been Volleyed”

  1. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading a rebuff more in my life! Regarding characters, I feel that this requires a parry/thrust of my own, which I will get to as soon as I can, but I will point out that I liked Sid in Fearn’s book just fine, and I loved Billy, who reminds me very much of a certain character YOU created who YOU decided to bump off. YOU have every right to bump him off – he’s YOUR character! I just hated that you did, which I know you understand to be one of the greatest compliments you could be handed. Who doesn’t want to be told they’ve created a character who will be sorely missed?

    As to violence, well . . . I have come to abhor modern violence, and I’ve all but given up the horror genre because of its emphasis on gore and true. Your form of violence certainly has its antecedents in pulps and even some of that “genteel” crime fiction we read. It is also nicely leavened by your sardonic humor. Goodnight, Irene was the first, and the juxtaposition of wit and wet (as in blood and guts) was a bit surprising. I’m more used to your style now, which, as you yourself point out, keeps developing. It’s funny that I didn’t mention any qualms with the violence in Death in the House of Rain, but then I had to re-read my own review to remember anything about that book. It turns out I loved it, and I do recall the cleverness of its solution. But I don’t remember a single scene – except I think someone gets ground to bits by an elevator??? Anyway, I surely DO remember the raging flood , the scene of the crime, and the murderer in GI, the mob scene in Barrington Hills Vampire, and that wonderfully creepy final page in Five False Suicides that reminded me so much (in a good way) of EC comics.

    Maybe Terry’s psychopathy caused him to demand of himself a more artistic way of ridding the world of Vera. I don’t hate that method at all, and I’m sorry I didn’t call attention to the patterns in the sand. I also didn’t get into detail about how Miss Waynflete, flush with her earlier success, eagerly offers to apply iodine to Bridget’s cat scratch. I already talk too much and these details seemed overmuch to me at the time.

    I also want to say that I called you WRONG in fun (and you know that already.) These days, I feel my online existence consists mostly of posting daily Wordle results, and the idea of issuing a challenge to a writer I respect would result in a good time for all. Your response above proves that. Is there ANY way that we can gather the four or five GAD lovers existing in the US to a meeting in some corner of this country (my only preference is a blue state) and chat about Christie and Brand and Carr – oh my? I would invite you to tea here at The Agatha Christie Academy of Distinguished Country House Mystery, but I fear you would break out in a bad rash . . .

    Liked by 2 people

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