In the Woods

July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

My love/hate affair with mystery novels goes something like this: if I figure out the mystery before the detective does, I feel cheated, and if I don’t figure out the mystery before the detective does, I feel cheated. It’s a letdown either way. If I manage to unravel everything before the narrator does–especially if the narrator is intended to be supernaturally smart, like in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, or unnaturally perceptive, or just if, you know, it’s their job to do this kind of thing a la Rob in In the Woods–then the entire suspension of disbelief that the author has worked so hard to build up just collapses. Take In the Woods as an example–a book where I managed to predict the murderer from their first appearance on the scene, and the motives, accomplices, circumstances, et cetera before the book was halfway over. Is it any way believable that a beer-swilling Midwestern waitress like me could figure this out so quickly while the narrator–a cold-blooded murder squad detective–would take 400 pages to figure it out? If so, how does he still have a job?

On the other hand, because I have a raging ego and I do manage to predict the criminal more often than not, if an author does manage to get one over on me, I usually assume they did it by some kind of dirty trick or unnecessarily evasive writing. It’s a rare author that manages to write a mystery I can’t solve but that I still find satisfying. So I end up enjoying the process of reading mystery novels–it’s just that when the inevitable denouement occurs, my enjoyment inevitably follows the same downward path.

One thing that they never tell you about becoming a writer is that it ruins reading, and watching movies, and going to the theater–any and all kinds of storytelling are over for you, at least in the way you’ve always experienced them. It’s like taking the face off the clock and watching the gears turning under the surface instead. You’ll end up analyzing everything you used to just feel, and all the authorial manipulations will suddenly become apparent. You’ll become attuned to the Chekhov’s guns in everything you watch or read–any character who gets more screen time than their part really deserves, any idea that’s lingered on just a touch too long will catch your attention immediately, and you’ll see what direction things are going long before the rest of the audience catches on. Other people in your life will look at it as some kind of superhuman talent, but no, it’s just the fact that you’re a writer, and you’re studying this book, this movie, like you study everything else in your life, and the patterns quickly coalesce and become clear.

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§ 2 Responses to In the Woods

  • smokingangel says:

    It’s true, the antennae go up quickly while reading or watching a “whodunnit”. It can be a curse, but also, if the author does well by us, won’t it possibly influence our own style, our own way of approaching the characters and worlds we create? If, on the other hand, they have not met our standard, they at least show us what to avoid when we start pounding on the keyboard.
    Thanks for sharing what I surmise goes through a lot of minds out there….

    • h. says:

      It definitely does! And Tana French’s writing style is lovely even if the actual mystery here left something to be desired. (I actually just finished her second novel and enjoyed it more, too.)

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