commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on spoilers

Readers on the internet notoriously hate spoilers. Heck, I hate spoilers. I even hate Game of Thrones spoilers, and I've read about a paragraph of Game of Thrones and seen none of the TV show.

That said, and as the green line above every essay at cid warns, these pages are loaded with spoilers.

It is impossible to write seriously about detective fiction without resorting to spoilers. I learned this lesson in a decade and more of writing about mystery novels for my website lection. I'd get just so far into what I thought would be an interesting analysis of a book … and then have to shy away from continuing my thoughts, because to do so would reveal so much about the novel in question that no reader would want to read it afterwards.

It's an axiom of mystery fandom that knowing the ending (the killer, the motive, the twist) ruins one's interest in a detective story. Closely related is the principle that mystery novels are never worth re-reading. I actually don't buy either argument – not as a reader, and certainly not as someone who wants to write seriously about detective fiction.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the sense that a story can be "spoiled" is an argument that the story isn't even worth experiencing once. Fans who abhor spoilers are basically saying that their aesthetic is one of continual low-level jolts of surprise, which are worthless if disconnected from the shock supply. In that sense, mystery stories become like live sports (also notoriously "spoiled" if someone tells you the score before you get to watch a DVR'd game). The entertainment is ephemeral, fundamentally unserious – and in the bargain, an experience not worth having on any other level than the momentary sugar rush that accompanies "brain candy."

Of course, much of one's aesthetic may depend on other cognitive factors, like the size and consistency of one's memory. One reason I may not worry about spoilers is that I chronically forget a story after I've read, heard, or seen it. I had a college roommate who could tell you the plots, in almost minute-by-minute detail, of hours of television he'd seen once back in the 1960s. I can't tell you the plots of Shakespeare plays I've read and taught many times. Everything's new to me. Closing a book, finishing a movie, is like hitting the reset button on my brain: I'm just as happy to start over. This bodes well for my coping with potential Alzheimer's someday, but it may not be representative of a large sector of the reading or viewing public.

Robert Rushing discusses the dynamics of following detective series in terms of craving repetition. "No one is satisfied by the solution," says Rushing (9), because as soon as one case is solved, one episode wrapped, we want to forge ahead to the next and experience the same-only-different right over again.

But it's got to be different. If reading is a kind of addiction, as Rushing suggests, it is not to be satisfied by reading the same thing. You don't necessarily crave stronger and stronger stuff, but you crave a steady supply of (sometimes only nominally) new experiences in the same vein.

One implication of this addiction to turnover is that the once-read is disposable, ephemeral. Another is that the never-read can be spoiled by exposure to light and air. If too much is known about a virgin text, it's as good as already-read and thus valueless.

Or, indeed, valueless to start with, which is a problem with taking detective fiction carefully. Nobody writing seriously about Anna Karenina is reluctant to reveal the ending. We assume that great narrative, from Oedipus to Beloved, is better if you know the ending; it's only potboilers like The Sixth Sense that you're supposed not to spoil (though everybody seems to spoil them anyway).

Fear of spoilers sets up what we might call the Mousetrap problem. In Agatha Christie's 1952 play The Mousetrap (still running in the West End), the killer turns out to be the detective himself. As was Oedipus, for that matter; as is Tschanz in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Der Richter und sein Henker, as is Wallas in Alain Robbe-Grillet's Les gommes; the device of the detective as criminal seems inherent to the genre as the ne plus ultra of the suspect you'd least suspect.

Because the ending of The Mousetrap is the ultimate twist ending, the cast beseeches you at the end of the play not to tell anyone about it (a trust I've just violated, and one I've violated several times since I saw the play in the 1980s, about halfway through its current run). But because the first rule of The Mousetrap is "You do not talk about The Mousetrap," the play rules itself out of serious consideration before the curtain is properly down.

Though as always there's probably a bit more going in Agatha Christie than first seems. The corny plea to the audience, with its breaking of the fourth wall, its stern invocation to take the ending over-seriously, its tongue-in-cheek quality – all these add to the fun. But they do something more. They outline, very self-consciously, a potential world in which we take a potboiler more seriously than great literature. After all, we are so cavalier about Oedipus or Hamlet that we routinely spoil them: perhaps those are the worthless plays in the topsy-turvy dramatic universe, and The Mousetrap a precious commodity to be treasured up by its initiates. The most famous spoiler warning is a parody of spoiler warnings and of the high seriousness that picks and chooses when to deploy or to ignore them.

I experienced the Mousetrap problem at the wonderful Crime Fiction Here and There conference in Gdansk in September 2016. Leading crime-fiction scholar Fiona Peters gave the initial talk of the meeting, on the fiction of Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), and expressed reluctance to say much about the plots of the novels she discussed because to do so would spoil them. Others picked up her keynote and tuned their talks the same way (or, naturally, had long planned to). As a result we discussed fiction in a curious manner that mixed intensity with tentativeness.

Of course, it's a matter of balancing pleasures. The pleasure of analysis is not inherently higher or lower than the pleasure of surprise. Analysis comes later than surprise (somebody had to see the opening night of The Mousetrap, after all), but that does not mean that it's superior to surprise. Indeed, even in this essay, where I seem to sort reading into serious and unserious, I'm talking less about inherent values than about attitudes toward those values. There is a deep-seated defensiveness in talking about popular culture, for all its entrenchment in the academy, for all the highbrow associations that now cling to pulp fiction and comic books and escapist movies. But one can analyze an episode of Monk, and one can be surprised by the ending of Citizen Kane; it's only the social anxiety, in a sense, about opting for certain approaches instead of others that separates the high from the low.

Or to put it more schematically: I enjoy rereading texts that others prefer to read only once. My essays here are for rereaders like myself, and since your mileage may vary, you should follow your pleasure and participate or not as you please.

Rushing, Robert A. Resisting Arrest: Detective fiction and popular culture. New York: Other Press, 2007.