Sunday, July 03, 2005

I Call Foul

I just reread Peter Lovesey's mostly enjoyable mystery The Vault (2000). Set in Bath, the series exploits local historical connections, in this case Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's stay there during the composition of Frankenstein. The central detective character, Peter Diamond, manages to differeniate himself from standard-issue Rankin-ish curmudgeonly insubordinativeness with a taste for inappropriate punnery. The plot in this novel turns around the seamier sides of book-collecting, the antiques trade, and uses of history--all themes that always intrigue me. (If you have recommendations to make in this line, I'm open to suggestions!) There's much to like in this book.

So why did Lovesey have to employ the hackiest of thriller tropes to heighten suspense? In the past half-decade, more and more mystery, thriller, and even the odd romance crossover novel have presented odd snippets of the deranged-killer stream-of-consciousness at regular intervals, in the belief, I suppose, that such snippets increase the reader's sense of impending doom or that such willingness to imagine the deranged-killer's point-of-view imparts "seriousness" to what is clearly a thriller or mystery. Lovesey's book has some interesting moments of psychological realism--the throwaway lines about how the central character has made everyday deals with his wife are enormously revealing--but the cut-away shots to the killer's perspective seem forced, generic, and tremendously manipulative.

Here's an example. I present to you the entirety of chapter fourteen:
The morning papers had gone bananas about human remains found in a cellar they called Frankenstein's vault. Here, in Bath.

He read every word with grim fascination. The press cynically mixed fact and fiction, severed hands, decapitation and Frankenstein. There was stuff about the miles of vault under the city. No one with a cellar would sleep easy until the killer was arrested, his paper said--as if Mary Shelley's monster was alive and out for blood, living the life of a rat and coming up to kill at nights.

They had no conception.
And the reason they had no conception? Because the solution to this mystery tends to follow the more English mystery-thriller conventions of cui bono and because the ominous speaker of those lines turns out to be somewhat eccentric, criminal in a number of ways, but not crazy. I'm assuming, by the way, that the weirder of the culprits is the speaker of the thriller-killer chapters; the novel never gives an explanation for its conceit.

I'm sick of this technique of heightening suspense. It has almost always felt manipulative to me: the authorial eye can give you access to the innermost workings of the killing mind, but it will then shift to the point-of-view of someone who is desperately trying to locate that killer? Thanks for jerking me around and pointing out exactly how you're doing it. The more I read attempts to expose the inner thought patterns of killers, however, the more I skim, the more I think authors are cribbing from some How To Write The Internal Monologue Of Psychos handbook, the less jerked around I am susceptible to.

So, from one reader: unless you can really do something interesting from an unidentified killer's point of view, please, oh pretty please, stop.


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