The Map and Territory of Crime Fiction

This post contains spoilers for The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and HBO’s 2020 miniseries The Undoing.

A Balancing Act

My wife and I have played those Hunt a Killer activities. You know, the ones advertised on Facebook all the time. It is a monthly subscription where, with each installment, you receive a box of goodies detailing a grisly murder. With each box, you piece more and more hard evidence together, whether it be transcripts of witness statements, or photographs of “the scene of the crime” and by the sixth month you must describe who the murderer is and why.

Did You Know? The creator of the 'Hunt a Killer' subscription box lives in  Seattle | Seattle Refined

At first, the experience sounds promising. Finally, after all those crime podcasts you listened to, you get to live vicariously in a world of active police investigation, if somewhat abridged. But ultimately the truth begins to settle in: the Hunt a Killer project frontloads plenty of exciting content, only to run dry in the middle. By the end, usually the last two boxes, the suspects have been narrowed down to the point where the act of tying the bow on the case becomes inevitable, rather than any leap of faith by the players based on circumstantial evidence and faulty (or lucky) assumptions. What in the middle becomes a dry spell ends with players going through the motions. To make a long story short, the game is more like Clue than actual murder investigation.

Crime fiction is hard.

On the one hand, an author of a crime story has to devote plenty of time to characters who fit the three famous perspectives for a killer, which are means, motive, and opportunity. On the other hand, there is a real opportunity cost for investing plenty of time into a suspect who happens to be a red herring. The result being that an author must devote a significant but not substantial amount of hot air in a varied set of suspects, with the end result that only one can be the true murderer.

This has the irksome quality of a crime fiction story easy to predict! The character who gets the most words on the page (or screentime) is very likely to have done it. To not make this the killer is to surprise the viewer or reader with a twist that falls flat.

This is why a cast of characters who are cut off from the world ends up being an excellent way to bridge this gap. In the movie Clue, we are allowed to see the suspects interact with each other in such a way that, by the end of the film, it does not really matter who exactly did it. To hammer that point, as the credits roll we are surprised to find that there are three alternatives, based on the role that alibis had to play when the murders were committed. But the characters are funny enough, the writing wry enough, and the pace quick enough, that everyone gets to kill, and the audience can have a good time.

But what about the opposite effect? What if one happens to suspect a singular killer all along? How exactly does one find a way to keep a reader interested?

Career of Evil (A Cormoran Strike Novel) (9780316349895): Galbraith,  Robert: Books - Amazon.com

Like many things, crime fiction is both an art and a science. In Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (cough, JK Rowling, cough), the reader is privy to an unlikely scenario compared to the previous cases tackled by Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Instead of an open-ended murder investigation, Strike is being haunted by someone who initiates the chase by sending Robin a woman’s severed leg. Because of the details, Strike knows it is likely to be one of four possible people from his own past. From the start of the novel, the reader knows it is going to be one of these four candidates. In light of this inevitable case, Rowling must press the reader further than previous novels into a sense of fear and trepidation. As such, this is the only novel so far to feature a point-of-view switch to the killer himself. And as the investigation lingers on, the clues overlap in such a way that, in the final climactic struggle, it still has a chance to be two, three, or even all four of the suspected killers. Similar to Clue, even in a case of inevitable and limited suspects, there is a certain amount of noise in the proceedings, and the reader is not sure where the signals lurk.

So, we have the truly open-ended and monstrously difficult task of actual police investigation, and we have the more linear and suspenseful crime fiction of several (but not all) suspects. What happens when a novel attempts something even more limiting? What if the novel presents a singular, likely culprit?

Only She Could Do It/There is Nobody But Him

Inevitability can be a powerful force in fiction. The movie Five Feet Apart acts out (using the illness cystic fibrosis) what Romeo and Juliet does hundreds of years before. Young, forbidden love. The two characters cannot be together, therefore they must be together.

In Moby-Dick, revenge between Captain Ahab and his whale means that, before the novel is out, we know that he is predestined to return to the abyss that is the gaping maw of the whale’s tightly squeezing jaws.

In each of these cases, the arc of the story and the details leading to the conclusion matter less in the canvas, the plot that we are given, than in the paints, in how the story uses that inevitability to say something meaningful about existence.

Crime fiction with singular suspects has the same charge.

In the 2014 novel You Should Have Known, Grace Sachs is an extremely wealthy and highly sought after therapist who has recently published a book that has given her a strange reputation. The book (named after the title of the novel) presents Grace’s thesis that women oftentimes approach her with trepidation about their partners, and it becomes her annoying job to reveal to these clients the truth. What they suspect deep down and would rather not face turns out to be true. Their husband is cheating. Their chronic substance addiction will not go away. The problems they detect in holiday gatherings really are the sign of past abuse.

But for Grace, who knows so much, her toxic thesis could not possibly touch her. Her husband, Jonathan, is a reputable oncologist, charismatic and handsome. She has a son, a precocious violin-playing, private-school-attending boy named Henry. She can afford to live in New York! She’s part of committees! What could go wrong?

Everything, actually.

After a brutal killing of an acquaintance, Jonathan is not picking up his cell phone. And as Grace finds out, his supposed trip to Cleveland for an Oncology conference was not the only lie he told. Turns out, he has not been employed for several months. One thing leads to another and, Grace realizes, she should have heeded her own advice.

It is a classic morality tale with a twist. Only, the twist is not the plot of the murder itself. As the novel progresses, and as more of the case becomes clear to Grace, the layers peel away, and she realizes that it could be no one else but her husband. An affair? A pregnancy!? And he LEFT THE COUNTRY!?

The twist then is something different. When we fall in love, when we marry, instead of choosing what we love, we are instead choosing what we wish to avoid. When we say that we will “love and honor as long as we both shall live” we are taking the risk that the person we’ve chosen is a net gain. Sure they may be annoying, sure they may be abusive, and sure, they may be capable of murder. But we hope that these personality traits will not happen to us. In a sense, we pick our own blind spots.

It is strange, then, that Amazon currently lists the novel as an editor’s pick for the category of “mystery, thriller, and suspense,” when the truth hardly ever deviates from our first intuitions.

Another novel that features an inevitable suspect is The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda. Onda has been a longtime Japanese author, but The Aosawa Murders has garnered attention as being her debut English translation. In a horrifying turn of events, a formal house party ends with the poisoning of children and adults, some seventeen in all, and years later a book is written about it and the subsequent investigation. The deliverer of the poisoned drinks, a closeted schizophrenic, admits to the murders and hangs himself. At first glance, the case seems open and shut. Mental problems, combined with witness corroborations of the yellow raincoat and black baseball cap, not to mention the fingerprints that match those of the bottles, and the authorities seem to be satisfied.

Most of them, at least.

The novelization of the event, The Forgotten Festival, is not so clear. As we find ourselves reading interview after interview of those who had survived and had been a part of that case years ago, the author, an editor, the younger brother, the research assistant, there is the anxious feeling that the story is not as easy to interpret as the authorities would like you to believe. Barely 50 pages in and we seem to have a new suspect: Hisako Aosawa, the blind middle-school daughter.

Rather than remove barriers to convince you that it could not have been anyone else, like in You Should Have Known, Onda’s novel takes the opposite strategy. It’s the other side of the same coin. It must be her. The lines in that mysterious poem found at the crime scene? They relate more to sounds than sight, more to feelings than visuals. Which means that the killer is a person who “lives in darkness.” This person could be blind. The delivery boy earlier? Like Alice in Wonderland‘s Lewis Carroll, he is a savant mathematician who spends time with children, out of fear of adult presences. Hisako, like Jonathan in You Should Have Known, is an incredibly bright and charismatic being, more a force of nature than a typical little girl. She had to have convinced him to poison her own family. But why? Why would she do such a thing to her own family?

The answer to the novel lies in its theme, which is on the subject of noise. Hisako was not born blind, but by becoming so, she realizes that people who live in “society” often miss the incredible details of life because there is too much noise. This constant stream of sound is not unlike the plight of the schizophrenic delivery man. While he hears constant voices in his head, she is able to see how much the citizenry around her have tunnel vision only on what is apparent to them. And Hisako is tired of it. Quite frankly, Hisako would like some piece and fucking quiet.

Here, the structure of the novel and its theme mesh together rather well. The book is arranged in the characters involved in the event giving their own testimonies. At first, the novel’s jump between characters emulates this sense of noise. But slowly, our inevitable sense that Hisako is the murderer is not difficult, because the noise of the past has been reduced years later to the essential readings of the event that the characters willingly tell us now. Each character suspects the young girl, but none were able to follow through.

Until now.

If given the opportunity, people will tell you the most incredible things…as long as you keep your ear to the ground.

“The Undoing’s” Impossible Task

It seems that our own case for crime fiction has been solved. On either side of the balancing act we have suspense vs inevitability. Plot vs. theme.

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in adapting an inevitable plot into film.

HBO’s 2020 miniseries adaption of You Should Have Known is instead called The Undoing. Like the title change, the show has aimed to downplay the resolution of the novel on which it is based. In the opening credits, we see what appears to be a child lookalike to Nicole Kidman (who plays Grace Sachs) and is messing around with bubbles while Kidman sings “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” In a striking edit, the credits cut to a wall of blood. Is this suggesting that Grace sees blood in a similar crime of passion? The viewer experiences a sense of doubt right from the beginning.

The doubt continues. In a stark deviation from the novel, Jonathan (played by a delicious Hugh Grant), rather than running away to some Central American country, instead comes back. My God, he’s under arrest! And now there is going to be a trial.

Did he do it this time? Unlike the novel, it is not at all certain.

The husband of the victim has a thin alibi: his own son, alone, in the apartment.

The victim herself, Elena, was clearly not psychologically stable. In the first episode, we see examples of brazen openness, and a disturbing fascination with Grace (to the point of painting her without her permission).

There is even evidence against Grace in the form of CCTV cameras showing her walking across a New York street that happens to be the very street adjacent to Elena’s studio, where she was found dead the following morning.

And Grace’s doting son Henry? His violin case is holding the murder weapon!

Grace’s father, Franklin (played by an undelicious Donald Sutherland) has some time to chime in some particularly deadly and incriminating threats as well. Before you know it, you wonder if Jonathan’s defense lawyer might offer up some damning evidence against herself. It all reads like a reversal of The Crucible where everyone seems keen on implicating themselves. “I saw Goody Proctor with the devil!”

The show is a pivot from the book in every way. It attempts to bring back that suspense missing in the novel, but in doing so sacrifices the theme that the novel hoped to leave with the reader after the last page turns. Should we have known? After all this?

The show attempts to correct what the inherent problem of the novel could not foresee. What is so strange is that The Undoing both succeeds and fails simultaneously. Jonathan seems capable of forethought enough to clean his bloody tuxedo (and send it to the dry cleaners), but he seems stupid enough to hide the murder weapon at the beach house so that Henry could immediately find it. Once Jonathan attempts to turn the case onto their own son, Grace turns on him. The show wants so badly to continue the theme of predestination making victims out of all of us, but in a show where Nicole Kidman is the star, it was unwilling to go through with it. Grace calls her friend Sylvia and reveals a plan the viewer is not privy to, until Grace willingly takes the stand and is battered by information regarding Jonathan’s past family troubles.

The scene itself is brilliant. Nicole Kidman must play the role as a manipulator like Jonathan, as acting innocent to the revelation that news got out (which she herself leaked). The confidence of the defense shriveling after all the details are spent is splendid to watch. But in the immediate scene after, a veritable Sports Center-like post-game report about how Grace trapped Jonathan is explained to Henry (and so explained to the audience), and then Franklin comes over to Henry to explain it again. The show has so little faith in the viewer that it felt it necessary to explain to you just exactly why Grace is not a victim of confirmation bias, as the previous five episodes built up.

Nor do the makers of the series have faith in themselves. The show ends, not with this public courtroom showdown, but in a car chase where Jonathan flees with his captive son Henry and attempts to cross into the Canadian border. It is the kind of sensational flair only Hollywood can deliver. Flashbacks to the violent murder, Grace praying for mercy in a helicopter. One can hardly blame them for wanting to make good on the term “thriller,” but each attempt makes more apparent the difficulty of the text they chose. If the show strips everything away that worked to build on an author’s theme, what was the purpose of adapting the book in the first place?

The reversal in viewer and reader attitudes is uncanny. While someone watching The Undoing critiques the deeper meanings and themes, the opposite occurs with You Should Have Known. At 448 overwrought pages, the reader is unlikely to appreciate any sort of theme when it arrives. The problem with a thematic-but-inevitable crime case is that the reader begins to critique everything besides the plot. And why not? It’s not like the plot is going anywhere. I can easily point to the moments when I lost faith in the novel’s thematic grandeur. During my early time with Korelitz’s novel, I could not help but notice that almost all the women were assessed according to their breast size. Here are some examples:

Absolutely no one looked at Malaga, except—Grace saw—for Hilda, who had arrived in the doorway and was staring balefully at the half-naked woman. Malaga herself sat imperviously, her silk shirt flung back over her shoulders like a cape, her bra wedged below her unfurled breasts.

This hostess, this birthday party mother—Grace did not know very much about her, except that her first name was Linsey and she hailed from somewhere in the South. She was willowy and tall, with breasts disproportionately high and suspiciously spherical…

Certainly she had dressed this part, in a scary, tiger-patterned Roberto Cavalli that showed quite enough of her large (but at least natural) breasts, and teetery-tall heels.

“You want to…” He stopped and looked at Rebecca, who now stood with her arms crossed over her protruding bust.

She was wearing a tan skirt and a white shirt open far enough to reveal two items of note: a gold crucifix and a substantial cleavage.

I know what you’re thinking. This could all be solved with a sort of “eyes up here buddy” in the writing. After all, I am just a young man reading a book. For me to see nothing but breasts all the way down the pages is not so baffling. Can you imagine if every character in Moby Dick was described according to…well…their dick size?

I use these breasts, however, to bring up my final point.

The more obvious a plot is in crime fiction, the less we are inclined to believe it. With each turn of the page, our senses heighten. This can’t be how it ends, right? Our ears are perked to find even the most remote inkling of a coincidence, a mishap, a failed step by the investigators. I applaud the attempts by Riku Onda and Jean Hanff Korelitz, but by wagging their finger at the reader and chastising them for looking too closely, they are making a dangerous mistake.

The end result is cataclysmic for the author. For by the end of the story, we either have an exhausted and exasperated client, or we have plotholes that the editors (exhausted themselves from publishing so many mysteries) likely missed. Or, in my breast case, we have little to do but to deride the style of the writing, the most biting critique left.

And often when we bring our face closer to the text, the result is we are struck hard by the author’s desperation to be heard according to his or her own terms. Riku Onda is so invested in the theme, there is a final monologue that is far from subtle. In The Aosawa Murders, Hisako returns to Japan and essentially screams the theme into the reader’s ear in case she missed it. Talk about noise.

A crime fiction story that focuses more on theme, more on inevitability than on suspense, is making itself vulnerable. The suspenseful and more open-ended story presents options for entertainment and engagement; and sure, perhaps a theme will reveal itself by accident. But essentially, a whodunnit keeps us guessing for means and motive. A thematic novel is an uphill climb, and the less the author provides prescient material for the reader to chew on, the more the reader begins to pick the style apart with a vengeful skepticism.

Because they have to. Because the powers of deduction long to be used in books that claim to be mysteries. If 2020 is to be remembered for fake news and conspiracy theories, we have proven ourselves to make mysteries and thrillers out of nothing. Out of thin air. So is it any surprise that we do so even when the suspect was in front of us all along?

The upside (and downside) of being human is that we look for what we can (and cannot) see.

Did you know that there are at least eight reasons why the Roman Empire fell? Historians still debate which one mattered most.

At the end of the day, all we want is to play detective.

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