You know, I don’t really care about plot. I mean, I write fairly plot-heavy stories, because that is the expectation in the speculative fiction world, but it often seems a bit pointless to me. It’s a whole lot of running here and running there and inserting enough foreshadowing to earn your surprising, yet inevitable, ending. There’s some weird way in which plot just doesn’t feel fun. To me, the best plots are the ones that don’t call too much attention to themselves: they’re content to serve as a scaffolding for the good stuff—the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the funny bits.
And this extends to my reading. I don’t usually read stories in order to find out what happens next. In fact, if I feel like things are getting too suspenseful, I’ll sometimes go and look up the plot summary on Wikipedia just because I don’t actually value the experience of being kept in suspense.
But, lately, for some reason, I’ve been reading a number of suspense-type novels. And I’ve not only enjoyed them, but I’ve learned a lot from them. You hear so much about how “all the plots have been done before” and how “it’s about execution, not ideas,” but the truth is that a novel can get a lot of mileage off an idea that hasn’t been done before.
For instance, Silence of the Lambs found a clever way to solve the ur-problem of the mystery genre. Basically, criminals are sexy and cool. People read mystery novels, in part, because they want to hear about awesome and charismatic criminals. But, since the whole novel is about catching the criminal, there are a lot of logistical barriers to getting the criminal onscreen before the end of the novel. By necessity, the detective can’t really interact with the criminal very much, since they’re supposed to be trying to figure out who the criminal is. This is particularly problematic in serial killer stories, where a major part of the allure is the grotesque psychology of the killer—this person is supposedly utterly unlike regular people, but you never get to see him.
Some novels solve this by using a split-screen approach. You follow the criminal and the detective in alternating chapters. But this is still a bit unsatisfying, because your super-cool detective still never gets to interact with your super-cool criminal and because it destroys the mystery—now the audience knows exactly who the criminal is and, basically, how he’s going to get caught.
Silence of the Lambs is ingenious because it just throws in an extra serial killer. You have Hannibal Lecter, who is not really at all relevant to the plot, to flounce around and act all cool and scary and have witty exchanges with Clarice Starling. And then you have Buffalo Bill, to provide the actual mystery. Although it makes the plot super messy (you could lift out every Hannibal-related section without materially affecting the rest of the book), it also makes for a very enjoyable story. In terms of reading experience, neither half of the book could work without the other. Without Hannibal, there’d be no fun. And without Buffalo Bill, there’d be no suspense.
Also, it's worth noting that Silence of the Lambs is very well-written. It has a stripped-down style that feels effortless, but must've been a lot of work to achieve.
Another one that I recently read was A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith. A student in the MFA program recommended it to me. I could not believe that I’d never heard of this book before. It is amazing. It’s a very typical noir story: three guys in rural Ohio find $4 million in a crashed plane in the woods and they find themselves doing increasingly desperate things to keep it. It’s weird. This novel is so utterly simple, and even predictable, but a few simple modifications to the model were all it needed in order to feel fresh. Somehow, this story dispenses with the noir affectations. There is nothing cool about the hero. He’s a dope: an accountant at the feed store. At some point, he even says, “We’re not smart enough to get away with this.” But he tries so hard. At every stage, he sits down and he thinks and he plans and you can feel his mind struggling to make everything come out right. There’s something so real about the protagonist. Oh, and his wife. His wife is amazing. I guess she’s a femme fatale? But she’s not sexy. She’s cold and calculating but still never human. I’ve never read another character like her in a crime novel.
Agatha Christie’s novels tend to not have much personality, and Murder On The Orient Express is no different. Hercule Poirot is kind of a null as a detective. He’s nothing more than a funny accent. And her characters are just sketches. They’re backgrounds: they have no voice; no realness. Only her settings sometimes escape the general lividity. At times, the snowbound Orient Express started to feel a tiny bit alive. But, you know what, none of that matters. Because Christie really is a genius. She somehow managed to do stories that had never been done before (and, once done by her, can never really be done again). This one had a jaw-dropped ending that I came to almost unspoiled. An extremely successful novel.