The Smart Detective Conundrum


Fresh from binge-watching Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series, Orange is the New Black and looking for more of the same, I started on her earlier Showtime effort, WeedsThis show is every bit as wild and crazy and compulsively watchable as I hoped it would be. But what exactly makes it so much fun?

Thinking about that question reminded me of my MFA workshops. So many of the stories we had to critique shared a flaw I came to think of as “Fear of Narrative.” Pages full of lovely description and elliptical conversation would trundle by, but nothing would actually happen. People in the stories would remember things that had already happened, or contemplate making things happen in the future, but the writers struggled with a kind of inertia about real-time events. Events have consequences and trying to deal with those consequences causes more unpredictable things to occur. If you’re not careful, causes and effects can start to cascade, like an avalanche. During these moments characters and relationships are swept helplessly into the accelerating chaos, tumbling toward new catastrophes.

But here’s what Jenji Kohan understands, a truth my fellow students and I struggled with: The avalanche is good. In fact the avalanche is the mainstay of Western literature; it’s called plot.

Even worse consequences

Jenji Kohan understands plot. More happens in one half hour of Weeds than in all the stories I read at Vermont College put together. Terrible things happen, people overreact and even worse consequences crash down on them before they respond, and the response makes things even more awful. The viewers are left to wonder how disasters and calamities continue to descend on poor Nancy Botwin in the show?

Jenji Kohan is relentless. And she knows you have to be merciless to your characters. You have to hurt them and abuse them and make them suffer. Searching YouTube, I found the lady herself in a little post-Weeds premiere interview. “I feel kind of bad for Celia,” she gloated. You could tell she actually enjoyed torturing Elizabeth Perkins’ character.

All writers could benefit from a study of this festive narrative cruelty and its benefits. But they all face the same question: How to keep this torrent of events plausible? The problem is even more acute for mystery writers because of a fundamental flaw in the structure of the mystery novel itself.

the wild leaps of a smart Detective

To solve the case, the detective has to be far smarter than cops around him, far smarter than the reader, and in fact far smarter than it is possible for anyone to be. This is the central implausibility facing detective writers, and it gets worse as the plot becomes more elaborate. If the hero solves the crime and then explains his thought processes, the reader will notice the wild leaps of intuition and the superhuman deductive powers at work and say, “Wait a minute! How did he figure that out? No one could notice all that stuff and put it together that way!”

So how do you seduce the reader into believing in a protagonist’s mental skills? Let them get ahead of him. Tip your hand to the reader and let the detective follow. The audience rarely notices the fact they’ve been told something the hero has to figure out.

A good analogy would be the physical search. If the hero notices the extra filament in a light bulb that holds the microdot before the reader does, then your stalwart mystery fan will rebel and say, “He would never have found that! Don’t you usually need light to search a room?”

However, if you let the reader know where the microdot has been placed, a totally different dynamic occurs. As your hero searches the room and the clock ticks and the villains approach while he’s haplessly looking for cut-out pieces of books and hollow chair legs, the reader is saying: “It’s in the light bulb! Just turn out the light. They’ll see someone’s in the apartment if you have the light on! TURN IT OFF!” When the hero finally finds the microdot, all the reader will feel is a giant shudder of relief.

Cheating? Perhaps. And as Jenji Kohan might say, “Now you’re ready for the next disaster!” So bring it on, and let the cunning, sadistic con-artist in you run wild. Everyone will be glad you did.