Quantum Uncertainty and Deerstalker Hats

China Miéville, writing at Whatever, complained this week about a crime novels, identifying a problem that most readers of mysteries have surely grappled with: the endings always suck. Of course, he uses fancier words than that, but his point is the same, that the fun part of a mystery isn’t the solution, but the mystery itself. He likens it to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows…. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ — which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing —  but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down.

This is a thought I’ve had many times, and I’ve found that the better the middle, the more disappointing the end. Because the reader never really knows what’s going on, Chandler novels are particularly susceptible to this. But it’s so fun to watch Marlowe staggering from suspect to suspect that when he finally tells us what happened, we no longer care.

Miéville proposes Lady Don’t Fall Backwards as the only “perfect” crime novel, an unfinished book that doesn’t actually exist. I think the middle part of “2666,” “The Part About the Crimes,” could fall in the same category. (It has the added benefit of being a real book.) Murders pile up, are investigated and forgotten. The plot thickens, turns, gets hazier and hazier, and we never find the killer. All the suspense, none of the let down.

Of course Miéville is wrong to say that all “crime novels are impossible,” simply because not all crime books are whodunits. James M. Cain and Jim Thompson made killers their heroes, putting atmosphere at the forefront and letting the mystery not be, “Will Detective So-and-So get his man” but the infinitely more varied, “Will Jim Thompson’s newest scumbag get away with it?”

Nadea.Mina@stmartins.com

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