Sunday, October 08, 2006

For Veronica Mars

In the Neil Simon movie, Murder by Death, Lionel Twain invites five detectives--obvious parodies of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marples, Charlie Chan, Nick Charles and Sam Spade--to dinner and stages a murder. Twain, who is played by Truman Capote, explains the motives for his plot this way:
You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.
I think I just don't like the mystery genre. By design, the plot payoff has to be the last thing you'd expect knowing what you know about the characters. This makes developing rich characterization next to impossible. It is also more damaging to the realism of a show than including space ships or vampires. It just bugs me.

9 comments:

The Modesto Kid said...

What is being included in the Mystery genre? I am always a little skeptical of this kind of criticism (i.e. against an entire genre) since I like a lot of movies and I'm not sure if any of the ones I like are being included in the criticism or not. For instance what about the film "Witness for the Prosecution"? I think it is a mystery -- it has some of the attributes I would think of as defining the genre -- and yet it is one of the best movies ever filmed. But then the person advancing the criticism could say "Well 'witness for the Prosecution', not that's an courtroom drama, not a mystery."

The Modesto Kid said...

"not" s/b "now" or possibly "no,"

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Genres are family resemblance groups, where membership is defined chiefly by how much you look like a few established examples. When I criticize a genre, I don’t mean to condemn every member of the genre. I’m basically saying the more deeply embedded something is in the genre, the less likely I am to like it.

I loved the first season of Veronica Mars, but hated the second season. I actually posted this after watching the second season finale, which had all the elements of mysteries that I hate.

JD said...

My love for "Murder by Death" is immense -- and not just because I agree with Lionel Twain's analysis of what kind of thing can wreck the mystey novel for the reader.

But, there are some TV-mystery formulae I have found very satisfying as a viewer.

A gazillion years ago, there was an "Ellery Queen mysteries" TV series which, in every episode, made a point of giving the viewers enough information (plus the usual number of red herrings) to figure out whodunnit. Before the last commercial break, the screen detective would talk to the audience to give some additional hints about where the relevant information was.

The opposite approach -- which I also liked -- was the "Columbo" formula, where you knew from the beginning whodunnit, and maybe even why, but the suspense lay in how Detective Columbo was going to snif out the bad guy and get him/her to reveal too much.

I've always thought a good mystery solution is like a good joke punchline -- when you have it in front of you, it seems like the inevitable resolution, but on the way there you *seem* to have good reason to expect something else.

Sorry _Veronica Mars_ did you wrong!

oudemia said...

Hmm . . . Lord Peter Wimsey. Nero Wolfe. Anyone in an Alan Furst novel. Let's see . . . Sophocles wrote a pretty good murder mystery. Dostoievski, too. Raymond Chandler is one of America's finest novelists. France's Robbe-Grillet is no slouch either.

I could go on and on, but I have to eat dinner, before Veronica Mars is on.

The Modesto Kid said...

oudemia -- you omit to mention E. Allen Poe, and Borges.

C.A. said...

You could also argue that the characters who are developed in Veronica Mars in the second season are the "dead-ends"-- Logan, Weevil, etc. who are developed in the process of being ruled out.

More generally you might be placing too much emphasis on the resolution of the mystery and not enough on the process that leads to the resolution. Think of every Columbo episode in which you know who the killer is and the plot is entirely driven by the method.

C.A. said...

A similar point was made a long time ago by Anthony Trollope who rejected the "sensation novels" or Dickens and Wilkie Collins. He aimed in his novels for a sort of charaterological necessity in which the outcome of the novel was alreay essentially set by the characters and the novel was merely a sort of working out of the logic of the interaction of those particular characters and their settings.

He rejected surprise endings, secret identities, and coincidence as hack techniques.

I just finished reading Wilkie Collins "Armadale" which of course has all three of those things but also richly developed characters. So even though the action is driven by coincidence there is certainly no lack of rich character.

And although I love Trollope's novels I find it hard to agree whole-heartedly that any reliance on coincidence etc. ruins a novel.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

All right, I'm going to have to back off my claims. Genre criticism is too complicated an issue for me to process right now. I should have just stuck with a "I hated the second season of Veronic Mars" post.

Actually, it was the treatment of Logan's character that bugged me the most. He was a real breakout character in the first season. It was great to watch him move from psychotic jackass to boyfriend to suspect. In the second season he had no comparable arc.