Friday, August 3, 2012
Struggling With Implausibilities
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant is lured to a deserted country crossroads on the Illinois prairie, where, in one of the movie’s most memorable moments, the bad guys try to kill him by strafing him with a crop duster. It’s a tribute to Hitchcock’s skill that the most implausible part about it, as it’s happening, is the aftermath: Grant has his suit, stained with topsoil and fertilizer, sponge-cleaned at his hotel in Chicago, then wears it to cocktails downstairs.
Afterwards, of course, it unravels when you start thinking about it. Who on earth would try to get rid of somebody that way? Why not just plug him when he left the hotel? Or do a drive-by shooting at the deserted crossroads? But the art of Hitchcock, and many another good storyteller, lies in the gift of making the viewer or reader suspend disbelief. It’s accomplished by handling the wildly implausible with a combination of self-assurance and panache. Done right it dispels (or at least delays) the audience’s rational analysis of what it’s seen or read.
The Conventions of a Mystery
The mystery-thriller genre couldn’t exist without an audience’s willingness to let go of reality for a while. In my book TheMcHenry Inheritance, for example, the protagonist is a man on vacation, who gets sucked in to the investigation of a murder that occurs where he is fishing.
That character is descended from a long line of “amateur” detectives in books and movies going back more than a century. Readers have come to accept that convention, however implausible it might be. Some authors try to make the amateur more plausible by making him or her a private investigator, but even a private eye almost never plays a significant role in a murder investigation. There’s a reason it’s called fiction.
As far as I know, there are no statistics on how often someone gets caught by the bad guys and lives to tell about it. I’m guessing about one in five hundred, but in books and movies the good guy always gets away. Either the villains unaccountably stash the hero somewhere for no apparent reason, allowing opportunity for a clever escape, or the police (or other good guys) show up at the last second and stave off disaster.
Why not just kill the captive and get it over with, the rational mind screams. The only possible answer lies in what a judge I know likes to say about criminals. “If they weren’t dumb, we wouldn’t catch ‘em.”
Working Through the Implausibility
Dealing with these implausible situations is a challenge for a writer of mysteries and thrillers. There are several approaches, none of which is entirely satisfactory. A writer can attempt to provide a plausible pretext for why the amateur detective is involved in the investigation or why the evildoers have decided not to kill their prisoner forthwith when they have every reason for doing so.
In the end, though, a plausible pretext for an implausible action can only be window-dressing. Some writers don’t even try, apparently figuring that if they move the story forward at breakneck speed and rack up a high enough body count, the reader won’t notice the problems. If you write in the genre, you always have do do some hoping like that.
It’s amusing to hear a reader of a mystery or thriller complain about some detail, like the trajectory of a bullet when the entire story really doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. In a sense, the minor complaint is a form of backhanded compliment. It means the author did well on the big stuff.