I’m still exploring options for my upcoming seminar on ‘women and detective fiction.’ Frankly, right now I’m feeling tired of the whole project and wouldn’t mind not reading any more mystery novels for a long time: after a while, the machinery just seems so creaky. Start with a prologue introducing the crime or the criminal. Sound an ominous note to create suspense (from the book nearest to hand, for instance, “If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?”). Introduce the detective, more or less alienated from work or partner or family or society. Start investigating. End lots of chapters with ominous notes, of the “little did she know how things would turn out” variety (“Things seldom went this swimmingly for me, which should have been a clue”). Reach putatively thrilling denouement. Fade out. Repeat as necessary. I know, I know. The good ones are not like this, or do it well. Still, genre fiction is, inevitably, formulaic. A particular phenomenon I’ve been struck by lately, though, that actually bothers me more than the essential predictability of the form (which is, as P. D. James has argued, in some ways a strength of the genre as it establishes a firm structure within which the author is free to explore themes and characters as desired): there seems to be a trend towards overwriting, providing lots of unnecessary literal detail that contributes little to either plot or atmosphere but is just there. Now, I’m a Victorianist, and I like details: I’m not one to argue in favor of brevity for its own sake. But I like the details to be somehow resonant, whether with thematic or symbolic significance or with literary interest or pleasure. Dickens’s details, for instance, hum with life. But I don’t feel any life in this kind of writing:
I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. The 1967 edition was there and I toted it with me, riffling through pages while I activated the On button and waited for the machine to warm up. The first twenty-five-plus pages were devoted to the graduating seniors, half-page color head shots with a column beside each photograph, indicating countless awards, honors, offices, interests. The juniors occupied the next fifteen pages, smaller photographs in blocks of four.
I flipped over to the last few pages, where I found the lower school, which included kindergarten through fourth grade. There were three sections for each grade, fifteen students per section. The little girls wore soft red-and-gray plaid jumpers over white shirts. The boys wore dark pants and white shirts with red sweater vests. By the time these kids reached the upper school, the uniforms would be gone, but the wholesome look would remain.
I turned the pages until I found the kindergartners. I checked the names listed in small print under each photograph. Michael Sutton was in the third grouping, front row, second from the right.
I’m no best-selling author, but I can’t see why a reader needs to know most of this. We’ve seen yearbooks, after all. The uniforms are, I suppose, period details and class markers, but the number of pages, or rows, or photographs per row, seems tediously irrelevant. How about this, instead:
I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. I found Michael Sutton’s kindergarten picture in the 1967 edition . . .
The whole book is padded with this kind of excessive, and excessively literal, description of mundane objects and activities:
As long as I was downtown, I covered the seven blocks to Chapel, where I hung a left and drove eight blocks up, then crossed State Street and took a right onto Anaconda. Half a block later, I turned into the entrance of the parking facility adjacent to the public library. I waited by the machine until the time-stamped parking voucher slid into my hand and then cruised up three levels until I found a slot. The elevator was too slow to bother with so I crossed to the stairwell and walked down. I emerged from the parking structure, crossed the entrance lane, and went into the library.
I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that once she is actually in the library and has spent a couple of paragraphs explaining about the directories she’ll consult, she reaches into her bag and “remove[s] a notebook and a ballpoint pen.” The blow-by-blow description slows down the action without developing anything else–not atmosphere, character, or theme. In other ways, this particular book is well built: Grafton is clearly interested in experimenting with form beyond the journal-like first-person narration she has used in most of her novels, and here she varies her point of view and alternates between past and present events in a fairly effective way. Still, the novel could have been much shorter and not lost anything valuable if someone had edited it more strenuously. I’m reading The Girl who Played with Fire and feel very much the same way about it: it just goes on and on and on.