by James Lincoln Warren
“Medio tutissimus ibis,” the Roman comic poet Terence advises: “You will go safest in the middle.”
This, of course, is a paraphrase of the Golden Mean, the concept that the best path in life is somewhere between austerity and excess, “Moderation in all things.” The idea itself extends beyond the horizon of recorded history. A version of it was inscribed on the temple of the Delphic Oracle. The Greek philosopher Phocylides expressed the sentiment in the 6th century B.C., and he was probably quoting someone else. But I quote Terence because Terence was a storyteller, which I consider a higher calling than philosopher, and he knew that the Golden Mean doesn’t apply exclusively to such things as asceticism and sybarism.
Sometimes it seems to me that life is a constant tug of war between comfortable familiarity and stimulating novelty. Your favorite pair of cowboy boots were broken in long ago, but there are times (for many women, at least) when circumstances flatly demand a brand new pair of shoes. That new HDTV is best viewed from the trusty old recliner. Your favorite restaurant will always hold a special place in your heart, especially for the fabulous escallopes de veau à la crême you first ordered twenty years ago and which is still utter perfection, but that doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the occasional California fusion cuisine offered at the hip new watering hole when the opportunity presents itself.
Terence wrote comedies, but he dealt with the same tension. He had to conform to the Aristotelian unities, but he also had to surprise and delight his audience. Comedy is well-suited to work from both ends.
Sometimes you can see a gag coming and the humor is in seeing your expectations fulfilled, as when Ollie and Stan are standing next to a puddle as a flivver scoots by. Of course, Ollie gets drenched by the resultant splash while Stan is as dry as an August afternoon in Death Valley. Ollie then elaborately changes stations with Stan as another auto approaches the puddle—and Ollie is again drenched from head to toe by a veritable tidal wave that completely misses Stan. Hardly a surprise, but I dare you not to laugh.
On the other hand, there is the lightning-quick and completely surprising wit of a Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams, rapid-fire quipping and tripping that doesn’t even give you time to form expectations before the next punch line.
And then, of course, there are detective stories.
There are certain expectations you probably have of everything you read in the crime genre. You pick up an Agatha Christie or a Dashiell Hammett, and you know what to expect. You probably even demand that certain literary itches be scratched, or you’re likely to toss the book like a split- finger fastball at the opposite wall before you’re halfway through it. But you also want to be surprised, don’t you?
Of course you do.
I read a review the other day of Swedish detective author Henning Mankell‘s newest book. The reviewer praised Mankell for maintaining his trademark oppressive atmosphere and eschewing such trifles as clever private detective repartee. Well, I agree, when I read a Kurt Wallander story, I don’t want Elvis Cole. But you know, I like smartass private eyes, and when I pick up a new Robert Crais novel, I expect—no, I demand—to get my fix of irreverent wit.
But I don’t want to know how the story ends before I get there—other than having justice served, that is. I want to be surprised when I find out where Rusty Regan really went, who actually murdered Mr. Ratchett in the Calais coach, and in whose possession the elusive bejewelled falcon might now be found. For that matter, I want to be taken back to ancient Rome by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, especially to see a world with which I am unfamiliar, but I expect Falco to get his man and Gordianus to dissect the convoluted crime. I want Travis McGee’s heart to be broken, yet again—and I want to be present at the violent combat he has with the brutal sociopath who murdered his friend. I want Lew Archer to find another reason to be disillusioned. I want Harry Bosch to burn with the frightening righteousness of the just. I want Miss Marple to tell me about Miss Hartnell’s cousin’s maid who walked out with the butcher’s boy from Melchester.
But whatever the author does, he better not let me see the plot twist coming.
Crime stories, like life itself, are balancing acts between convention and invention.
Medio tutissimus ibis.