Friday, January 29, 2016

"A Game of Clue"

In an earlier post on “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (March 25, 2015), I explored the theme of “all may not be as it seems.”  Appearances can be deceiving.  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” deception is shown to be at the heart, not only of the magician’s art, but of life itself.   

In Millhauser’s “A Game of Clue,” two brothers, their sister, and the older brother’s girlfriend sit around a table playing the famous board game.  What could be more mundane? But, “all may not be as it seems.”  While appearing to be simply playing the game, all four characters are caught up in their own private psychological dramas.  Jacob is angry about his failing career and rocky relationship; Marion is angry at Jacob for being late to the family gathering to celebrate their brother’s birthday and for bringing his girlfriend unannounced; David, turning 15 and preoccupied with sexual fantasies, secretly wants time alone with his big brother; and Susan simply wants to be accepted by Jacob’s family. 

Meanwhile, on the game board, as they move from room to room, the suspects play out their own private dramas.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are engaged in a game of seduction; Professor Plum is getting lost in the secret passageways; Mr. Green is paralyzed with social anxiety; Mrs. White is mourning the death of her murdered lover; and Mrs. Peacock, while pretending to console her friend, is harboring a dark secret. 

The murder mystery is popular entertainment, in fiction and film, on stage and television, as well as in puzzles and games.  Perhaps our attraction to this genre is a displacement of our own anxiety about death.  Though there is no real life murder mystery in the lives of the players, the brothers and sister are worried about their father’s health, though they avoid discussing it.  After all “It’s David’s birthday.” It’s fine to play a murder mystery game, but heaven forbid that the shadow of actual death should spoil the occasion.

Similarly, while a murder has occurred just the night before, only Mrs. White seems to have it on her mind.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are preoccupied with their own sexual game, just as David cannot stop thinking about women’s bodies as he plays the game of Clue; Professor Plum is lost in his own world of secret passageways, just as Jacob is faraway in his own private world of personal failure; Mr. Green is stuck in a social situation in which he seems unable to act, just as Susan is trying to navigate the social dynamics of Jacob’s unfamiliar family; and Mrs. Peacock is guarding her secret, just as Marion (and the rest) put on their public “game” faces while harboring their secret attractions, resentments, fears, frustrations, jealousies, hostilities, even homicidal thoughts.

Just as the secret passageways are not visible on the game board, so a dark, psychic labyrinth lurks beneath the surface of both the players and the suspects.

The whole story is a multi-layered representation of a Freudian drama in which characters disguise and deny their id-driven pursuits of pleasure and power, their ego-driven rationalizations, and their superego-driven repressions and avoidance.  The surface may appear innocent, but the depths reveal our conflicted, ambiguous, chaotic psychic realities.

At another level, Millhauser inserts periodic descriptions of the bare, physical facts of the room, the table, and the game board, as if to suggest how facts merely scratch the surface of truth. Just as appearances can be mere illusions that hide reality, so observable facts can be irrelevant to hidden truths. 

The story seems to move toward a redemptive conclusion, as the game moves closer to its end, the mystery is about to be solved, and the players join together in a mutual sharing of birthday wishes for David, but in the Freudian world there is no redemption.  The ongoing psychic conflict is never-ending, mysteries persist, and the sense of redemption is just another illusion, perhaps the greatest of all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Makes a Good Potboiler?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (see blog post March 12, 2015) is still at the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list.  Recently, I saw that some folks got it mixed up with another mystery/thriller published around the same time with a similar title, Girl on a Train by A. J. Waines, which attained bestseller status on the UK and Australia Kindle charts (

Curious, I read the Waines novel for comparison’s sake, and shortly after I read Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, which I had seen on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, but really couldn’t remember very well.

Comparisons among the three got me thinking about what makes a good potboiler.

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

It struck me that all three of these novels raise questions about the power of disinterested logic and rationality as means to truth, and show how observation, intuition and, in the case of both Train novels, irrational passion and even neurosis can serve as means to truth.

As in the typical detective story, Girl on a Train begins with familiar reality, a young woman on a commuter train.  Her seatmate, however, is nervous and agitated enough to draw attention to herself.  Anna tries to work, but is continually distracted by the behavior of her nervous seatmate.  At one point they engage in brief conversation in which the seatmate discovers Anna is a freelance journalist who has done investigative reporting.  No doubt that is why, when she suddenly deboards the train, she gives Anna a desperate look, which the reporter interprets as a plea for help. 

Shortly afterwards, the train unexpectedly halts.  It turns out the young seatmate has presumably committed suicide by stepping in front of the train as it departs the station, and, later, it turns out she has left a clue in Anna’s purse.  ‘The reporter doesn’t believe it’s suicide and sets out to follow a trail of clues to unravel the mystery of her seatmate’s death.

Amazingly, both The Girl on the Train and Girl on a Train feature a character named Anna and use a shifting point of view, among Rachel, Megan and Anna in The Girl on the Train; and between Anna and Elly in Girl on a Train.

As in The Girl on the Train, the “detective” in Girl on a Train (Anna) is a female witness rather than an official detective.  Her experience as a freelance investigative journalist lends her some plausibility as a “detective”; however, as in The Girl on the Train, she seems irrationally driven to solve the mystery and takes some bizarre risks in the process. 

In Dead Man’s Folly, the detective is the renowned Hercule Poirot, who receives a strange call from a friend (who is also a murder mystery novelist) to attend an event at an estate because the novelist believes something is not right, though she can’t put her finger on anything definite.  The familiar Agatha Christie pattern unfolds, as a murder occurs and Poirot must rely on his unusual powers of observation and ability to put seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces together to make sense of what seems to be an impenetrable mystery involving numerous suspects.

Unlike the witnesses in the two Train novels Hercule Poirot is an experienced private detective who is driven more by intellectual curiosity than irrational compulsions. (It is notable that the “irrational” witnesses are women whereas the disinterested detective is a man.) However, Poirot does not follow a strict path of ratiocination.  He relies as much on observation of minute details and intuition as on logic and rationality.

Thus, unlike the formulaic detective story in which irrational disorder is defeated by the power of reason alone, all three of these novels show how less rational, even irrational, processes can lead to truth.

Regardless, a good detective potboiler relies heavily on, first, mystery, suspense, and the sense of an ominous threat in the world; second, a relentless “detective,” who leaves no stone unturned in his or her pursuit of truth; and, third, compelling characters with their own personal dramas.  In The Girl on the Train the female witness is driven by her own personal drama; in Girl on a Train the female reporter is sucked in to the victim’s personal drama; and in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot himself is compelling in his eccentricity and all the suspects have their own personal dramas, which make them suspicious, and which makes one of them commit murder.

All three of these novels also rely on far-fetched situations, unlikely coincidences (not to mention behaviors), and highly implausible circumstances.   The Girl on the Train and Dead Man’s Folly are well crafted enough to engage the reader in a “suspension of disbelief,” whereas Girl on a Train is clumsily written in places and leaves too many loose ends to keep the reader from frequent eye rolls.  It’s entertaining enough, but doesn’t display the artistry that draws the reader in and makes us believe an unlikely plot.

So, in addition to mystery, suspense, a relentless detective, and compelling characters, a good detective potboiler needs to vary the traditional formula, make us believe the unbelievable, and offer some serious philosophical, psychological, or social issues for us to chew on.