That’s Not ‘Realistic’

by Nancy Jane Moore

The Doorbell RangMystery is my favorite genre for comfort reading. I started with Nancy Drew and developed a serious habit by raiding my mother’s stock of Rex Stout and Agatha Christie novels. (The pictured Rex Stout novel is one of my all-time favorites.)

I’ve read pretty much everything Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett ever wrote, and also like Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, and John D. MacDonald.

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of British TV mystery series, including various series about Christie’s Miss Marple (for whom I have developed a great fondness as I’ve grown older), Rosemary and Thyme (in which the detectives are two middle-aged women gardeners), and Inspector Lewis (which grew out of the Inspector Morse series).

But while I’ve enjoyed my reading and watching, I recently realized a core truth about mystery stories: The plots are preposterous.

Take the multitude of British mysteries, both on TV and in books. Given the low murder rate in the UK, I’d venture to guess that more fictional people die violently in Britain every year than actual people. Oxford has a particularly low murder rate, but in every episode of Inspector Lewis there are multiple murders, often committed by prominent people.

Rosemary and Thyme is even more ridiculous, though I’m very fond of the title characters. (The way to my heart is to build a story around single middle-aged women.) How realistic is it for there to be a murder everywhere Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme go to fix up someone’s garden? Particularly if it’s in England?

Then there is the murder mystery convention of multiple deaths: People who might be useful witnesses are murdered just before the detective tracks them down. Sayers rarely does this — in fact, in Gaudy Night, the mystery at the core is not even a murder — but she’s an exception. I find it hard to believe that Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, and Jane Marple are geniuses when they are only able to solve the murder after three or four deaths.

Murder in real life doesn’t work like that. A lot of murders grow out of stupid fights fueled by alcohol. There’s a good reason the police suspect the spouse in a lot of cases and spurned lovers often do something insane. Though random violence does exist: Here in Central Texas a man was recently released from prison after 25 years because his lawyers finally got some DNA evidence reviewed that showed someone else — the classic random stranger — had killed his wife. The other man, who also killed another woman in similar circumstances, is about to go on trial.

Of course, in a mystery novel, the reason behind the actual murder would not have been random violence, but some dark secret in the victim’s past.

Then there are the very dark stories of gritty crime, usually set in large U.S. cities. Chandler and Hammett were masters of this. Some good more recent examples are the novels of George Pelecanos and the TV series The Wire. Everybody’s got dirty hands in these stories.

I’m somewhat familiar with the mean streets of D.C. and Baltimore reflected in those works, and I know there’s some truth there. The Wire makes my short list of great TV series. But these works are built on an assumption that the real truth is that life is gritty and rotten and everyone is dishonest. And you know, I have trouble believing that. I’m sure it’s true some of the time, but I don’t believe it is as widespread as the fiction would have you think.

I’m using mystery as an example because I’ve read a lot of it, but I suspect that a lot of what is considered serious literature is equally improbable. I loved Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, but I don’t think the plot is particularly realistic.

I also don’t think it matters if the plot could have happened, whether we’re talking about Bel Canto or The Doorbell Rang. The plot gives structure so the author can tell us about a deeper truth. In Bel Canto, the characters ring true; in The Doorball Rang, Rex Stout takes down the FBI in a delicious manner.

In a lot of good mystery series, the detective character grows and develops over time. There’s truth in these characters, too, and truth in some of the things they’re fighting — Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski goes after corporate criminals — regardless of whether the real story would have happened in quite the way it’s told.

Which brings us to fantasy literature. It is a common theme among lit crit types to damn fantasy as “escapist,” as if it were the only genre that used made up settings and plots. And in fact, many people assume it’s a literature for children only, because when we grow up we are ready to face “realism.”

Bah. Regardless of genre, most fiction (whether written or performed) rarely gives an accurate description of the way real life works. However, the best of it — again regardless of genre — gives us a true understanding of human nature or challenges us to think about the world in a way we never previously considered.

Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic series — which is fantasy — is an excellent example of this. Neither her world nor her magic system exist, but her characters are fully developed human beings and her ideas about how to put an end to the ongoing cycle of violence in the world are very provocative.

That’s truth, and a great deal more of it than is found in a typical gritty mystery.

If a lot of other fantasy or mystery or mainstream literature is not so deep, well, there really isn’t anything wrong with a little escapism and comfort reading.

I eat a lot of vegetables, but I like dessert, too.

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That’s Not ‘Realistic’ — 9 Comments

  1. Angela Lansbury’s character on Murder She Wrote should evoke terror in every town she visits: there are always murders that seem to follow in her wake. In a logical world, everyone would assume she was a serial killer, but no. In fact, my theory is that she just moves about in an aura that causes people around her to kill each other.

    Hey, it’s as plausible as the show.

  2. In fantasy we have a core of readers, writers, and reviewers who complain quite loudly that all literature–especially genre–has to be bleak, grim, ugly, bloodthirsty in gritty detail, and hopeless in order to be realistic.

    Not every moment of every day in our world is like that. Not every life is tainted by violence. Not everyone gets anything out of massive blood and gore other than nausea. Certainly this violent stories can teach us something. I’ve never gotten deep enough into one to find out.

    Reality is in the eye of the beholder. Murder She Wrote is really about people and relationships and solving the puzzle rather than dead bodies stacking up like cord wood.

    Nancy has it right, we’re read for the story, and the characters, and the underlying truth more than reality.

  3. Every book needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. I’d rather use up mine to believe in aliens, magic, and other worlds than in ruthless workaholics becoming perfect lifepartners for uneducated secretaries. (or 200-year-old vampires for highschool girls etc)

    Another nice series is Midsummer Murders. Property in that village must be dirt cheap, seeing there are several corpses each week…

    My personal quirk in mysteries is that I want to read a mystery, dammit – I’ve picked up too many books that started with a murder and had the bodies pile up, ending in a threat to the sleuth (if female) or his girlfriend/wife/daughter (if male). I would much rather read a slower book that deals with odd stuff in more depth than with the relentless raising of stakes.

  4. My husband has a pretty good definition for this situation, which he first formed when we were watching Speed: “if this were possible, this is how people would act.” And I think that’s really all there is to it. Us humans seem perfectly ready to accept any number of completely preposterous plots, as long as we believe in the characters that move them.

    And as for Midsomer Murders, they had one brilliant ad campaign, describing inspector Barnaby “struggling to protect the dwindling population of rural England”. And even in-series, they referenced the incredible number of murders a couple of times, with outside characters observing that they have a lot of murderers in a relatively small population, and Barnaby inevitably commenting, “Yes, people have remarked on that before.”

    • Even in “Murder She Wrote” Angela Landsbury addresses that in an episode. A young woman is accused of a murder because previously she’d been chief suspect in another murder. No evidence just proximity. She says “People are going to start calling my the Typhoid Mary of Murder.” Jessica replies “No, that’s what they call me.”