SUSPENDING DISBELIEF . . . BY A THREAD
by Rob Lopresti
Adapted from my column in Murderous Intent, Winter 1997. Alas, some things don’t change.
Happy Halloween to you and yours and the broomstick you rode in on.
I had a spooky experience today on the subject of . . . well, spookiness. Mystery writer Jane Haddam had an article in Skeptical Inquirer on the very topic I had been planning to write about.
What an astounding coincidence!
Not really. If you assume that even one fifth of our population reads or watches some news source on a given day, that’s fifty million people with a chance of coming across something they were just thinking about.
Put it that way, it would be a miracle if one day passed without anyone having that experience. The cool part would be if you could predict who would have the experience on a given day; then we’d be talking surprising.
I bring this up because Haddam was lamenting magical thinking, which is what makes people think coincidences are miraculous (well, that and the fact that most of us are bad at math).
She was complaining that “literary” novelists are throwing supernatural events into their books as casually as brand names. “At what point,” she asks, “did we become a society… in which even highly educated people were willing to accept telepathy and spells as easily as they accept Big Macs and fries?”
Haddam argues that authors of mystery and even horror fiction feel obliged to offer a “vigorous defense” of supernatural elements if they use them, while elite novelists have started including these things “simply because they do.”
I applaud Haddam’s sentiment but I think she is too generous to our field. Many of us are guilty of what I call the “ooh . . . spooky” phenomenon, in which the paranormal is introduced casually, for effect.
Let me be clear. I am not saying (and I don’t think Haddam is either) that authors shouldn’t use the supernatural or fantastic. Go ahead and write about Santa Claus’s chief security elf, or about an armchair detective who happens to be an armchair, as long as you have the talent of James Powell, who carried both of those ideas off brilliantly.
But—and this is my point—if your private eye happens to be a centaur, I want to know from the start that the gumshoe wears horseshoes.
In Barbara Paul’s mystery Liars, Tyrants, and People That Turn Blue, we learn in the first chapter that the main character can see people’s auras. I don’t believe that such things exist, but I was happy to suspend my belief and keep reading, because Paul told me from the start what was coming. As the comedians say, if you buy the premise you buy the bit.
Elmore Leonard provides both good and bad examples. His non-mystery Touch is about a man who can heal injuries through touch. Fine and dandy; accept the premise or don’t read find a different book. But in another novel which I won’t identify Leonard creates a character whose supposed communication with the dead is treated as one of many examples of the character’s quirkiness—until the spook suddenly turns out to be real.
Now, if the reality of the spirit was the surprise twist, the point of the book, I might not like it but I wouldn’t complain. (And full disclosure: I published a story decades ago in which the surprise ending was that the hero was a witch.) But in this book it wasn’t the main point. It was just thrown in to produce a shiver. “Ooh… spooky.”
For some reason TV movies seem to be particularly culpable in this regard. I can’t count how many shows I have seen in which a supposedly paranormal event is explained materialistically and then at the last moment – but wait! Where was that mysterious light coming from? It must have been a real ghost! Ooh . . . spooky!
Ooh . . . yuck.
Most mysteries are to some degree unreal. Private investigators seldom get near murder cases. Cops don’t work on one case at a time. Elderly women don’t find corpses behind every rose bush.
But early on the author must indicate what type of unreality the reader is expected to accept. If you break that contract the results can be scary.