Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

September 3, 2008

Fairness and narration

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play,John Dickson Carr — Jon @ 9:12 pm
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I’m probably going to be under fire for this, but I don’t think Seeing is Believing is unfair. An “established fact” is not necessarily a true one.. Natural science is a field of knowledge in which this is evident: the established facts of yesterday are today known (or supposed!) to be false. The same can be said of History. In more prosaic terms, even a fact proven in court may, after all, turn out to be false.

In Seeing is Believing, it is not the narrator that establishes the fact. The narrator merely states that the fact was established. Carr would have been unfair if, for instance, any of the evidence the narrator explicitly states as reliable in paragraphs 3-5 of Chapter I of The Hollow Man would in the end turn out to be false.

I agree this is a borderline case. But I believe it is pure, legitimate misdirection. A puzzle plot mystery is a battle of wits between author and reader in which the reader must be prepared for misdirection from the narrator; a novel is made of words, and words, being subject to multiple (and wrong) interpretations, are therefore a legitimate means of misdirection.

This doesn’t mean I hold Carr as a fair-play saint. In The Man Who Could Not Shudder, one of the characters tells a lie that is so unmotivated the reader has no chance of perceiving it as a lie. In And So To Murder, H.M. explicitly clears the killer – this could have been fair-play if the reader had any element to detect that H.M could be lying, which is not the case. There are also other minor instances. But I stick to Seeing is Believing.

Scott writes: «However, though Carr admitted to approving of and admiring brilliant violations of his Golden Maxim, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in fact *never did* violate his maxim that: “The criminal shall never turn out to be […] any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.”

I admit I’m confused by this. By definition, the reader is always allowed to share the thougths of a homodiegetic narrator (that is, one who is a character in the story), as the narration necessarily pressuposes the subjective perceptions (= thoughts) of the narrator. Therefore, Carr’s maxim directly invalidates the homodiegetic narrator as criminal. But it does more: it also invalidates the solution in which the culprit turns out to be a character whose thoughts have been revealed by an omniscient narrator, or by a heterodiegetic internal character focaliser (that is, a character that works as focus of perception, a device frequently used by Carr). For instance, in Brand’s Heads you Lose, which I’ve recently read, the reader is allowed to share the thoughts (and dreams) of the killer about his crimes without mentioning the fact that it wasactually he whodunnit. by Carr’s rule (and also by my standard), this is totally unfair. In the end, Brand explains that the criminal was insane and, when thinking about the crimes, he wasnt’t aware he had comitted them – this would provide an explanation for the fact that the omniscient narrator “forgot” to mention that slight detail. But it still is unfair because the reader is not supplied with evidence to point that the murderer might be mad (and, to make things worse, the supposed mental illness provided by Brand is total rubbish). In Carr’s The Emperor Snuff Box, a trick of similar scope is also played, but fairly and brilliantly: we see the facts trough the eyes of Eve Neill (the internal focalizer) and are therefore lead to believe her perception of them, which ends up being false (as a matter of fact this is so fair that I’ve spotted it).

Sayers article is interesting, but she confuses author and narrator. Only the narrator can vouchsafe anything in a narrtive, not the author. Therefore, it seems we must distinguish between:

a) Position of the narrator in relation to the narrative: homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrator. A heterodiegetic narrator must always tell the truth. But he/she is not obliged to tell anything, or to tell everything in the easiest way possible for the reader. If so, there would be no puzzle-plot mystery stories. This is why I believe Seeing is believing is fair. A Portuguese idiom goes: “Com a verdade me enganas” — it’s difficult to translate but Spanish-language readers will surely understand it; the point is that “Truthfulness may deceive”. This is indeed at the core of classic detective fiction; sometimes, as in Seeing is Believing, it may be stretched, but this is only a quantitative deviation, not a qualitative one, from the standard narrative devices used in all puzzle-plot detective fiction. A homodiegetic narrator may or may not tell the truth: I agree with Sayers on this, which I believe is contrary to the Carr Maxim. An extreme, doubtful case would be that of the narrator-detective-criminal.

b) Point of view: omniscient narrator and internal character focaliser. Here I am refering to heterodiegetic narrators (in fact, except in experimental literature, omniscients narrators are by definition heterodiegetic narrators). Following Carr, omniscient narrators shall not probe into the thoughts of the culprit. This is because, since the omniscient narrator is supposed to simultaneously know everything and tell the truth, there would be no excuse for not revealing who commited the crime before the time that is considered proper to the narrative. In order not to incurr in a narrative assymetry (the narrator probes the thoughts of some, but not of all characters) and in order not to disclose the culprit’s identity to the intelligent reader (the culprit must be one of the characters whose thoughts have not been probed into), from this seems to follow that, ideally, an omniscient narrator should not probe into the inner thoughts of any character. This is extremely difficult to do, technically speaking. I believe this is why Carr’s earlier books mostly use internal character focalisers; his later books may be weaker in many aspects but as soon as he managed to work well with an omniscient narrator within the framework of his own maxims he practically abandoned the internal character focalisers tecnique. I also believe this is why reading some modern authors that try to keep within the framework of the puzzle story while having concerns of “psychological density”, like PD James, is so uncomfortable for readers used to GAD standards. As to internal character focalisers, and still according to Carr, since their thoughts are by definition probed into by the narrator, they shall not be the culprits. I agree with Carr on all of this. In fact, I believe standards of narratorial fair-play must be more demanding in the case of a heterodiegetic narrator, because in this case the narrative is supposed to have a higher degree of objectivity, than in the case of an homodiegetic narrator.. Dr. Sheppard may be permitted to lie or omit not no reveal his guilt, but an objective narratorial instance has no such excuse.

Henrique Valle

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