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A.J. Hall: JKR as a Mystery Author

May, 2005: Repost

“An interesting essay by sistermagpie which spins out of the current debate about authorial intent which I gather itself spins out of something Joss Whedon has done or said got me thinking once more about how reading the Potterverse as an extended detective story affects my interpretation of it, and also what that impact then has on my fanfic.

One of the difficulties in writing detective stories particularly of the pure puzzle or Golden Age classic type (whether whodunnit, howdunnit, whydunnit or willhegetawaywithit) is narrowing the spread of the canvas upon which you are working sufficiently in order to make the knowledge set which the reader has to work with manageable. The reason the Knox decalogue rules out “poisons unknown to medical science” and asks that secret passages be limited is that if the former is used the reader is unable to apply the basic knowledge base that they may be presumed to possess — and what knowledge it is permissible to attribute to the reader is discussed below — since by definition even an expert rather than a gifted amateur would be hopelessly at sea if confronted with such a beast. Likewise, one can legitimately assume that the author is giving you a jolly big hint that “secret passages could well be relevant here” if the description of the mise en scene begins “The Manor was immensely old, parts of it dating back to the thirteenth century, though the bulk of it had been built in the 16th and 17th century when the family — one of the great Catholic families of the country — had thrown their immense wealth into sheltering first recusant priests and a little later Jesuits. But the family’s wealth had flowered in the mid eighteenth century, when the house’s proximity to the sheltered coves made it a prime centre of the south coast smuggling networks”. If, however, the author begins “The flat - the penthouse at the top of No 1, Deansgate — had been completed so recently that the Corian worktops still had the protective shrink wraps over them, and was furnished with a severe minimalism that was so extreme that one looked warily over one’s clothes on entering, in case a stray bow or ruffle sullied the severe purity of the decor” then any solution involving a secret passage is right out, sunshine.

Essentially the author of the detective story is expecting an inter-action from her readers which is very close to that which produces fanfic in one respect, and a long way away in others. The readers are expected to make up stories about the characters, and to spin hints and allegations into fantasies which take them further than the text allows. If the readers are not interacting with the text in this way, then the detective story does not work — at least, not as a detective story. Amanda Cross, in my view, fails badly as a detective story author because, engaging as her characters can be, the milieu in which they move is neither sufficiently limited by nature nor sufficiently delimited by authorial depiction to allow one as a reader to predict responses with sufficient accuracy to create possible scenarios all of which could be true. The actual scenario which is going to be true is plucked almost out of the air by Cross, and she doesn’t bother demonstrating why the other solutions can’t be true. That’s what Agatha Christie does brilliantly at; showing why the herrings must be red. Amanda Cross is like following those irritating sets of driving instructions which assume that you’re always on the right road to begin with, so if by any chance you stray off that road you have no idea when you get back on it at what point you’ve rejoined it, so the rest of the instructions are functionally useless. Agatha Christie, however, writes the sort of directions which say “and if you get to the Dog and Duck you’ll have gone too far”. She anticipates the stories which the readers will be spinning off her work, and encourages them only up to a point.

However, in detective fiction there is a right answer. This is the difference from fanfic. Ultimately, the author must reveal “the solution” and the readers measure their solutions against it and have succeeded or failed based on an objective standard, not (as fanfic succeeds or fails) whether they have made a good job of their alternative story.

This, of course, is productive of much kerfuffling in fandom. People proclaim they have “canon theories”. That’s the detective story approach. My Dumbledore is Voldemort theory is basically “Dumbledore, in disguise, for reasons of personal profit, in the whole of the Wizarding World”. My usual success rate with detective stories particularly with Christie is that I get to the last but one plot twist, and fail on the last hurdle, so I don’t think my Dumbledore=Voldemort theory is necessarily going to be vindicated when everyone’s called into the library for the final piece of exposition, but I’ll be very surprised indeed if people’s actions aren’t affected by serious suspicions of Dumbledore’s motives in the next couple of books.

I’d happily write a fanfic where Dumbledore was Voldemort, and I bet I could make it a jolly good read. But then, I’ve also planned a slashy version of Strong Poison in which Vaughn did it. (Actually, Sayers could have set up a much better alternative suspect if she could have made the slashy Boyes/Vaughn subtext explicit, in the same way that the question of the body in the bath’s religion could have been made more of in Whose Body? had she been able to refer explicitly to circumcision.).

That’s where the readers’ assumed knowledge comes in. Not only are the readers entitled to consider what the author tells them, they are entitled to consider what they can legitimately know to be true given the milieu concerned. Now, as you get a more heterogenous readership, or a more exotic environment, the balance between what the author has to tell the readers, and what the readers are expected to assume changes. Take “Ilkley Moor Baht’at”. That’s a detective story. The young man addressed is a murder suspect being confronted by a key witness. The fact that he was without his hat is a key point 1) to her identification of him, because being out without one’s hat was sufficiently unusual to be noted and remembered 2) to the state of agitation he must have been in to forget his hat was itself evidence. Everyone, when that song was new, knew what it was about, because the rules about men’s outdoor dress were fully understood by everyone.

Now, as various people have pointed out, once you get into science fiction or fantasy it becomes harder to write detective fiction, because you cannot assume what readers will know about a place that doesn’t exist, or science which is currently non-existent. If you consider a locked room mystery in the Star Trek universe, therefore, you have to consider how the matter transporter affects that plot line, and tell the listener who knows about the matter transporter how this has been looked at.

In Space Cops someone actually worked out that a space station is the ultimate locked room mystery setting. And once it became apparent that no-one could have got in or out — as the monitors showed — the suspicion naturally focussed on — the man who was behind the monitors, as the only person who could have buggered what the detectives thought they were seeing. It’s exactly the same point as that made in The Body In The Library. We know the body is virgo intacta; that’s in the coroner’s report. A character identifies it as her sister. We know her sister is sexually promiscuous. Therefore the body is not her sister. Therefore the mis-identification is a clue.

If you actually consider the role of magic in the detective fiction of JK Rowling you will note that a piece of magic never has plot significance unless we’ve been shown it and how it works at an earlier point (books earlier, actually). JKR is not big on laws of magic or laws of robotics (I’d say she was definitely iffy on laws of physics, principles of arithmetic and her grasp of genetics is completely out to lunch, too. Fortunately, she knows her weaknesses and her stories don’t turn on points which she isn’t fully up to speed on, unlike some detective authors who should know better — Laurie King, cough cough). But she is superb at making sure that if a gun gets fired, we actually saw the gun on stage in the previous act (Chekov was not writing detective fiction but talking about dramatic technique, so naturally he was more worried about the converse of this proposition).

Now, fanfic authors often “assume a magical bridge” i.e. where they perpetrate something outside the normal physical world they assume that a spell, unnamed, has been used to bridge the gap. Like the mysterious frost-proof willies in constant display during the hot sex in cold climates scenes on top of the Astronomy Tower.

That won’t do for detective fiction. It’s the equivalent of the poison unknown to medical science. And because it’s not done, JKR as a very good detective story writer doesn’t do it. Anything on which a plot point will turn is demonstrated at least once in advance in a neutral or not apparently directly applicable setting well before it is used in sinister earnest. Which is, of course, why the malicious application of ton-tongue toffee and extendable ears continues to fascinate me.

The Potterverse is of course a WIP. And the final denouement is yet to be denoued. So all bets are off about how, why, who, when and what dunnit. So far as theories go.

So far as fanfic goes, the more the better. But until the last word is written we can’t really say whether a particular plot or character twist is OOC or not. You can make predictions, of course, and dead people usually stay dead (except of course in “And Then There Were None”) but there is, at least as far as the main thrust of the plot goes, a right answer.

Hagrid, in St Mungos, With The Hippogriff, quite possibly.”

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Red Hen Note: This article has been reposted, by permission, from a (now deleted, and much missed) LiveJournal entry made on February 20, 2005.