22 January 2009

Narrating The London Eye Mystery

On her website, the late Siobhan Dowd wrote this about the release of The London Eye Mystery:

Things got just a tad delayed when Mark Haddon's (wonderful) Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time came out. I was halfway through my own story of a boy with Asperger Syndrome who turns sleuth when Mark's book hit the stands and went instantly stratospheric (to use a Ted-ism). Not that I was jealous or anything...

But it is thrilling to see my own story finally make the light of day and with the same (and much beloved) publisher. How odd life is. But the two books, despite some similarities, are really very different.
Both books face the same narrative challenge, though. Their narrators are also the main detectives in their plots. Each young protagonist consciously tries to reason out a mystery in his life like Sherlock Holmes (another candidate for an Aspergers diagnosis).

Which brings me back to a point about mysteries that I identified as "Reason for Robin #2." (And you thought you could get away with skimming those weekly posts.) When detectives narrate their own stories, often their narrative voices must either skip the moments or their brilliant deductive breakthroughs or risk boring the readership by revealing the solution to the mystery well before the resolution of the plot.

Of course, Raymond Chandler had Philip Marlowe narrate his own cases, but since they don't make sense as puzzles--have you ever tried to fit the pieces of the The Big Sleep together?--that's not a problem. Plus, withholding information fits Marlowe's wise-guy character.

Christopher in Curious Incident and Ted in The London Eye Mystery are different. They have trouble lying, they're attuned to details, and they struggle to understand emotions. It doesn't make sense for their characters to conceal their deductions from readers, either for their ego or for entertainment's sake.

I don't recall noticing Christopher do that in Curious Incident because basic facts about the mystery he's investigating are beyond his comprehension. They involve emotions, and they completely upend his understanding of the world. He can't reveal what he can't understand to begin with.

In contrast, Ted faces a more classical puzzle involving a cousin's disappearance at the London Eye. Early on I noticed how often The London Eye Mystery ended chapters on cliff-hangers. Later its narrative voice skips over Ted's deductions and his explanation to the police. Those artifices in the narration, which would be unremarkable in some mysteries, stood out for me because Ted himself is the narrator. However, that compromise might have been necessary for the book to work.

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