Sunday, January 30, 2011

『How to Read』

"The current vogue in detective literature is all for the practice of placing the reader in the position of chief sleuth. I have prevailed upon Mr. Ellery Queen to permit at this point in The Roman Hat Mystery the interpolation of a challenge to the reader... "Who killed Monte Field?" "How was the murder accomplished?"... Mr. Queen agrees with me that the alert student of mystery tales, now being in possession of all the pertinent facts, should at this stage of the story have reached definite conclusions on the questions propounded. The solution - or enough of it to point unerringly to the guilty party- may be reached by a series of logical deductions and psychological observations.... In closing my last personal appearance in the tale let me admonish the reader with a variation of the phrase Caveat Emptor: "Let the reader beware!",
"The Roman Hat Mystery"

Reader beware. This post doesn't really make a point. Or any sense at all. I think.

Funny how things tie in to detective fiction. Lately, I've been listening quite often to game-related podcasts like The Brainy Gamer and the Experience Points Podcast and the topic of game (genre) literacy is something that pops ups quite often as a topic. It involves the concept of game (genre) conventions and how well a player is able to read these conventions and work with it. A highly game literate person will be able to draw upon his experiences when he plays a new game.

Someone who has played never played games may not be familiar with the concept of a hit point bar, while a literate person may have seen dozens of variations of a HP bar within a game. While games within a genre also differ from each other, many staples stay the same. Fighting games often include buttons for attacking and blocking, roleplaying games HP and magic bars, et cetera. Experienced gamers might skip tutorials (something inherent to videogames?), while newcomers might want to read everything before starting the game.

This literacy is not built (solely) on things like cliches. It's more akin to tropes, devices used by authors to make up their story. These also include unnamed systems. In games, you are often confined to a certain area to move in, because that's all of the world the creaters have made. You can't get behind that unsurmountable waist height fence, and while beginners might try all kinds of things to get around it, an experienced gamer recognizes it for what it is and accepts it.

And as I was listening to another podcast (the excellent ゲーム脳ばと "Game Noubato"), the topic of Arisugawa Alice and the detective novel came up. Specifially, the Queen-styled detective with a formal "Challenge to the Reader". One of the hosts noted how he throrougly enjoyed the book and how the Challenge to the Reader forces the reader to read the book in a specific way. And that remark was something that really interested me.

As someone quite used to a Challenge to the Reader, I had never really thought about how a newcomer to the genre, specifically a story with a Challenge, would react to it. Like I noted before, games often include tutorials to explain how a game system works and how the player must interact with the world to succeed. Book don't have them. Like Bissel remarks in Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter, you don't go through a tutorial every time you pick up a book. You just pick it up and read it. But is a detective story (with a Challenge) different? The Challenge changes a normal literary work to something much more akin to a game. There is a win/lose condition. There are rules to the game, which, ideally, the author adhers to.

Of course, it is our knowledge of a genre, our literacy in it that often allows us to see through the tricks authors have set up. Like the HP bar, experienced readers have seen it dozens of time and it is this knowledge that allows them to outsmart the author. Like Poirot said in The ABC Murders:

"But what is often called an intuition is really an impression based on logical deduction or experience. When an expert feels that there is something wrong about a picture or a piece of furniture or the signature on a cheque he is really basing that feeling on a host of small signs and details. He has no need to go into them minutely-his experience obviates that-the net result is the definite impression that something is wrong. But it is not a guess; it is an impression based on experience."

In an attempt to let detective novels take over the world, I occasionally (*cough*) recommend detectives to people and because of my own preference, these usually turn out to be the Queen-like puzzler. Should I explain to them how 'the game works'? Is a tutorial necessary for a novice detective reader?

I do think a puzzler detective novel should be read differently from 'normal' novels. While readers of many genres might guess the ending of a story way before the end, it is seldom expected from the reader. I sometimes see people commenting how detectives are no fun, because they always end in an unexpected way, but is this because these people are not literate in the genre? Should they have been informed that they could and should have tried to solve the case on their own? Compare to the thriller, which may have common points with a formal detective novel, but differs at the essential point. Detective novels and thrillers try to provide totally different kinds of entertainment.

But how do you explain newcomers 'how to read this book'? In a first person shooter, your enemy has a red name (and is probably shooting at you). How do you explain to a person how to pinpoint a criminal or how to break that alibi? Is it something that can only come with experience?


  1. Do people seriously complain that detectives, with puzzle-orientated plots, tend to end unexpectedly? This strikes me as rather unbelievable considering that the least-likely-suspect/twist ending is the most well known and clichéd trope of the genre. It's so well known that even the most illiterate reader, who never even played a game of Clue, should be expecting it.

    Many of the complaints I see are about the complexity of the plots (i.e. they're too "brainy" to be any fun) or the lack of short, clipped and easy-to-read sentences.

    I know I'll probably come across as an elitist for saying this, but sometimes I'm afraid it takes a certain intelligence to fully appreciate these stories. The detective story is, after all, as John Dickson Carr so eloquently described it, an "exercise of one's ingenuity, the setting of the trap and the double-trap, the game you play chapter after chapter against a quick-witted reader."

  2. It's true that there are certain tropes in the mysteries with a challenge subgenre, but I wonder whether they're necessarily ...necessary to explain. People expect a fair game when they want to solve the mystery, and most books play fair. Of course there are your Ackroyds and whatnot, but those might just be more for the "educated" audience.

    Then again, maybe the rules of the game aren't as obvious as I think them to be.After all, Umineko spends an entire episode reinforcing how the culprit is a known character. And I think there's a good amount of modern readers who are along for the ride more than anything(hence all the thrillers out there).
    I think your parallel with video game literacy is valid, but I don't think detective fiction ever went that far. What might be the biggest problem with modern audiences is that they don't realize that they *can* find the answers themselves(well, most of the time).