BY NICO VREELAND
A mystery writer using dramatic irony to create suspense is a bit like an exterminator using napalm because somebody saw a cockroach: it works, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. Dramatic irony is especially detrimental to mystery novels, but I hate it in almost all types of fiction.
I don’t even like Jeffrey Eugenides, a talented literary author, because he’s the modern king of dramatic irony. He’s so eager to give away the plots of his novels—and the fates of his characters—that sometimes he does it in his titles, like The Virgin Suicides. I hate knowing more than the characters do about their future because it robs their decisions of risk and it makes them feel doomed, trudging unknowingly through the actions that will eventually make, say, the virgins kill themselves.
In mysteries, dramatic irony is often executed in more gimmicky, less careful ways. In a movie, it might be a panning shot that reveals, unbeknownst to the hero, an ominous goon watching him. In a book, it might be a chapter-closing zinger like, “Little did he know, he would never see his wife alive again.”
For one thing, this is a cheap way to ratchet up the suspense. More importantly, dramatic irony warps the reading experience: it tips the balance of knowledge, and creates an emotional gulf between the hero and the reader. In a mystery, that is something I never want. I want to experience everything as the character does, and that includes epiphanies, solutions to cases, and all the suspense along the way.
In certain other genres, there’s more room for dramatic irony. For instance, in horror movies, you often see a flash of the killer in the background, while the main character is entirely oblivious. The characters in horror movies are doomed, and you’re supposed to feel a gulf between yourself and them. After all, the dramatic irony of a horror movie is inescapable: the characters think it’s another day like any other, but you know, from the moment you see the poster, that most of them will die.
Similarly, when you have a child narrator, there’s often room for dramatic irony, because you’re both getting the same information, but the reader, as an adult, is able to understand it on a different level. The child brings blunt honesty and a naive perspective to complex adult issues, and often doesn’t understand the implications as the author addresses the reader through them (the last book I read like this was Salvation City).
However, in a mystery, there’s the solution to contend with. Both the reader and the hero have to reach it, and it’s no fun if either one gets there long before the other. A big reason I don’t like the Stieg Larsson books (especially the second one) is that Larsson uses what I call “reverse dramatic irony.” In Eugenides novels, the reader knows more than the characters, in The Girl Who Played With Fire, the character knows more than the reader. The solution to the mystery in Fire hinges on an episode from the dragon tattoo girl’s childhood. She knows the answer to the mystery the entire time, but simply refrains from letting us, or anyone else, know.
That spoils the mystery because it means there never was a mystery, only a character withholding information from the reader. It’s doubly unsatisfying because part of the story is told from the tattoo girl’s perspective, which means she has to dance around the secret solution even in her own mind. I like unreliable narrators (I’m a Pale Fire Nabokov fan), but there’s a difference between unreliable and withholding. An unreliable narrator intentionally holds back information to further their own aims, they’re performing, and conscious of the audience; a withholding narrator refrains from mentioning something by the will of the author, in order to further the author’s aims (usually the artificial creation of mystery), they are unaware of the audience.
The experience of reading a mystery should not be merely the laying out of clues like a set of puzzle pieces, and a poorly fleshed out detective character carrying the author’s luggage, guiding us along pedantically so we, like children, can feel like we’ve accomplished what we haven’t.
Reading a mystery should communicate emotion as well as solution. I want not only the facts of the case, but, especially in detective-centric mysteries, the subjective emotional experience of hunting down the criminal. That subjectivity, in fact, often provides more suspense than Stieg Larsson’s authorial game of find-the-red-queen.
Take Millard Kaufman’s Misadventure, one of my favorite books of last year. Misadventure is a well-plotted book (until, admittedly, the ending—a topic for another column), and it’s told in first person, rigorously sticking to the main character’s perspective and knowledge. The plot starts with a married couple: our hero, Jack, sleeps with a rival’s wife. Then she asks him to kill her husband because he beats her savagely and she can’t escape. Jack considers it, but then, after he meets her husband:
One minute with Tod Hunt told me his wife was a mythmaker.
So here, instead of zooming out to reveal the woman plotting to manipulate our hero, we zoom in, and watch him try to suss out the situation. Is Mrs. Hunt really lying to him, or is Mr. Hunt just good at appearances? Much of the substance of a mystery is doubt, and whether you can trust your instincts. Can we trust Jack’s assessment of the situation? Does Jack trust his own assessment?
While reading Misadventure, I did not always trust Jack’s judgment; I found him at times annoying, and at times dense. But—I never thought of him as a pawn in the author’s game, like all of Stieg Larsson’s characters so painfully, painfully are. Jack was never hiding anything, and I never knew his future, and so there was always a sense of camaraderie, and a sense of risk.
Locking into the hero’s perspective makes the mystery feel more vibrant and real, it makes me worry about what’s around the next corner, and it makes me root for that hero, even when I don’t like him very much. All of that is what I’m looking for when I read mysteries. Dramatic irony of any flavor is a debatable issue in literary novels like Eugenides’s, but it just doesn’t belong in mysteries.