The Grand Illusion

Christopher Fowler thinks crime fiction has lost the plot. That means “has gone over the edge,” or “lost it,” for us on this side of the Atlantic. The gist of it is that most private investigators don’t work murder cases, and most crimes, even murders, go unsolved. And he is correct.

The basic premise of the detective or mystery story has been properly pegged as the return to order from chaos. And the second law of thermodynamics states the opposite: that  in any closed system, disorder (entropy) always increases with time. This is discomforting. Making order from chaos has the opposite, palliative effect. And that is why we enjoy mystery stories on a visceral level. Some kind of justice being done. It is soothing, in an increasingly unjust world.

Does this put all crime fiction in the genre of fantasy? No. Not all crime fiction follows the same structure. Read Tana French’s The Woods. Or some noir, though the loser getting squished like a cockroach is simply the cruel hammer of cosmological justice landing on someone who dares step outside his station, so in some ways noir is the most conservative subgenre of all. Some mysteries are best unsolved. They are mundane. Serial killers are still terrifying as psychopathic predators, but when you strip away their fetishes and rituals, they are all the same, damaged little children who had the empathy tortured out of them in one way or another.

This was the subject of my flash fiction story “The Uncleared.” It struck a nerve, and is one of my most popular stories. The justice is left to the mind of the reader, but feels as inevitable as the arrow of time. The law has failed, but justice will be done. This is the beginning of a novel, but I like it on its own as well. The thrills and gore and terror that will follow are all artifice, smoke and mirrors for what you already know, that justice can never be had. You can’t bring back the dead. To kill the pain inside you, you must become immune to pain. You know who doesn’t feel pain? Psychopaths.

So do I think all crime fiction is wishful thinking, because it doesn’t mirror reality? No. If I wanted reality, I can read the newspaper. Some stories do mimic the real world. Sometimes an episode in one’s life is like a story. Those often become memoirs. Because a “story” is also a construct meant to give comfort. They are often circular. They have familiar peaks and descents, the “rising action” which leads to… climax. And the good old afterglow, the denouement and the epilogue, which leaves us yearning.

Stories are all about verisimilitude. The semblance of reality. Just enough that we believe your cockamamie story, whether it’s about sparkly vampires, flying cars, someone having an epiphany about life, or a dogged police officer who won’t stop pulling at threads even if it means her life will fall to pieces as she puts one more unsolved case to rest. But I get what Fowler is talking about. I find myself more interested in the victims of crime and how they deal with it than seeing the cop fight the red tape, or the conspiracy, or the monolithic crime syndicate.

“The Uncleared” is based on a true story. A cousin of mine, she decided to become a real estate agent and sell her old house. Her husband found her in the basement bludgeoned to death. Her murder was never solved, but a killer with a similar M.O. was operating in the area and imprisoned. Another friend of mine, his mother was also murdered. The killer confessed in court, but due to a technicality, walks free among us. In a crime novel, my friend would plot the man’s demise, in a fiendishly clever manner that kept him out of jail. In reality, he has to live with it. And in some ways, that fascinates me more than any clever revenge plot. I can’t imagine living with it, but of course, I would. Life, like time’s arrow, goes only forward. It goes on. A gripping story could be written about it. Probably by John Irving. And I would like it.

But I also like stories such as Todd Robinson’s “Baby Boy” in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT. That is also based on a true story. We know how the story ends in reality, but Todd does what a writer is supposed to do. He gives it his own ending, one that is infinitely more thrilling. I don’t think Todd has “lost the plot,” nor have dozens of other crime fiction authors operating today. Sure, CSI and many police procedurals solve more crimes in fiction than have been cleared in the annals of history. But that’s a matter of taste. There are plenty of open-ended tales out there, ones that make for a satisfying read and have enough verisimilitude to not make us balk, even if we’re well read in true crime and unsolved cases. So while I agree with Mr. Fowler that neatly solved mysteries are not my cup of tea, I don’t think the genre has lost the plot or even recycled it ad nauseam. It’s all a matter of who you read.


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