China Miéville on Crime Novels as Quantum Narratives

China Miéville on why crime novels end badly. This has particular resonance for me, because both my I and my wife are in-progress on crime novels. One reason is that...

... crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters, but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh’s irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman’s unhappy lot. Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.

Of course this is even more true of speculative fiction as it is of crime novels (and of course Miéville knows this, in this context that's obviously part of his point).

Miéville goes on to say something else that's very interesting:

Secondly, detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. 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. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. 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. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

And yet, and yet, the crime novels that end without a solution -- that let us stay in our 'Eden of oscillation' -- are almost universally reviled. As are the ones that mess too much with the conventions. I wonder if we feel a need to retreat from candyland; or perhaps it's the driving force of the deeper quest narrative that Miéville alludes to above.

When I first encountered Sherlock Holmes as a child, I took lovers of Holmes at their word and took it seriously as 'scientific detection.' But even at the age of 10 or 11 I could see how ridiculous it was at that level. All you have to do to turn it into parody is change the name of the protagonist to, say, Herlock Sholmes, and the very idea of somone publishing monographs on the taxonomy of cigar ash instantly acquires enormous comic potential.

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