(This is Meriel again, still deputizing for Lynne: Icelandic ash clouds permitting, my mum'll be back next week.)
I’m currently thoroughly enjoying a radio adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Clouds of Witness (available to UK listeners via BBC iPlayer). Faced with the prospect of having to wait a whole twenty-four hours for the next episode, it’s been very tempting to dig out the book so I can read on straightaway. This wouldn’t be the first (or the second) time I’ve read the novel, so it’s not a matter of needing to find out what happens in the end – I remember perfectly well whodunit, and most of what led up to it being dun. This got me thinking about why some crime novel stand up to repeated rereading, while others are best left as a one-off experience.
I suspect some people would say that this is simply down to the non-mystery elements of the novel: the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterization, the evocation of a sense of place, and so on. And it’s certainly true that these make a big difference – I’m sure I wouldn’t be enjoying Clouds of Witness anywhere near as much if it weren’t for the skilful conjuring up of the world of the aristocracy in post-WWI Britain and the delightful interaction between Lord Peter and Inspector Parker. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
To my mind, the perfect mystery is one where on the first reading I have no idea how it’s going to end, but when the denouement comes, find myself thinking ‘Of course!’ The clues were there all along, but the author managed to keep me distracted, so I didn’t see the whole pattern until he or she was ready to reveal it. I’m always disappointed if I feel that that the author withheld key information (or worse still, if the murderer turns out to be a character who barely appears in most of the book). On rereading, the element of surprise is no longer there, but instead there’s a new pleasure: I can watch as the clues are gradually put in place, and even appreciate all the distraction techniques – which I couldn’t do the first time round because, well, I was too busy being distracted by them.
There’s a lovely quotation about this phenomenon in C. S. Lewis’s essay ‘On Stories’* – he’s talking chiefly about adventure and fantasy novels, but I think the same thing applies to crime fiction:
“The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. The man in Peacock thought that he had disposed of ‘surprise’ as an element in landscape gardening when he asked what happened if you walked through the garden for the second time. Wiseacre! In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.” (pp. 17-18)
For me, Sayers is the queen of that quality of unexpectedness – even when I know perfectly well what’s coming next, it’s still a joy to watch her expertly assembling the pieces of the puzzle before my eyes.
What about you? Who keeps you turning the pages, even when you’ve already turned the very same pages several times before?
While you’re pondering that, then if you’ll excuse me, the next episode should be up on iPlayer by now...
* Available in (among other collections) the anthology Of Other Worlds, reprinted by Mariner Books in 2002.