In Harold and the Purple Crayon, that beloved children’s book by Crockett Johnson, the moon that Harold draws at the beginning of the story is what allows him to return to his bedroom at the end of the story. In fact, once Harold draws his purple moon, it appears on every page. It has to–it’s lighting his way. Not that a reader, young or old, would necessarily notice its ubiquity on first read. It’s not until afterward, or on subsequent readings, that Johnson’s superb and simple plotting reveals itself. The moon was there, all along, waiting for the climax. Its purpose in the story is, as Aristotle put it, surprising and inevitable.
I was reading (and re-reading) Harold and the Purple Crayon soon after I’d discovered the work of Tana French, the Irish crime writer of prodigious talents who has published a trio of novels about detectives in Dublin. French got me thinking a lot about plot precisely because she writes mysteries, a genre that requires the most tightly-constructed stories: the moon must be gracefully and subtly placed, or you risk losing your reader. I write this with confidence, even though I’ve read very little crime fiction in my life. I’m the kind of reader who devours episode after episode of Law and Order: SVU and then repairs to the bath (the bawth) to read a novel free of blood, murder, and so on.
I was excited to tear into French’s first novel, In the Woods. I imagined myself staying up all night, rushing to the story’s end. I figured that homicide Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, investigating the murder of a young girl, would be literary versions of Detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. I moronically told anyone who would listen what I was planning to read. “A whodunit!” I cried. “A police procedural!” I wanted blood, and detectives with latex gloves.
What I got was a few lessons on plot.
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.) It’s the moon planted at the beginning of the story, paying off at the end.
But there’s more. Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.
So how did French’s books help and influence my thoughts on plot? Here it goes:
1. Call me ignorant, but I was surprised that In the Woods didn’t move as swiftly as my favorite hour-long network cop dramas. There was air around the clue-finding, and the mystery didn’t unravel as cleanly as I expected. It might have if the story’s protagonist, Detective Ryan, weren’t so damaged, haunted as he is by a second (and unsolved) crime that happened when he was a boy. The thing is, were Detective Ryan not haunted, the story would lack not only emotional weight, but its narrative engine, too. Ryan’s internal conflict feeds the external one. As with all good stories, character nurtures plot, emerges from it. The most dramatic element of the narrative is the relationship between Detectives Ryan and Maddox, and how the murder case they’re investigating strengthens and then threatens that relationship. The scenes of them drinking wine in Maddox’s attic flat, and the passages about their partnership and the shared understanding between them, feed the thrill of the crime-solving, even as they divert from it.
Lesson: Although the reader wants to find out what happens, longs to have the mystery revealed, the mysteries of existence, of human interaction, which aren’t so easy to solve, are often the most pleasurable to experience on the page. A writer need not move inexorably toward the finish line. The asides, the exhales, are allowed. They are required.
2. I often hear people say that with genre fiction (and addictive young adult fiction), plot trumps prose. The writing needs to be invisible, they say, so that story can take center stage. But with French’s work that isn’t the case. Her prose is sharp and beautiful, and it draws attention to itself. French isn’t a sentence acrobat like Sam Lipsyte, but her prose is certainly visible. In The Likeness, French’s second novel, narrated by Detective Cassie Maddox, we get fun phrases like, “I hate nostalgia, it’s laziness with prettier accessories,” and “The lights of the house spun blurred and magic as the lights of a carousel.” This kind of writing calls to mind what John Gardner dubbed the “foreplay paragraph,” one that makes you want to read faster, to find out what happens, but which nevertheless keeps you anchored to it because the sentences are so well-constructed, so…sexy. It’s the writing that makes you not skip ahead: to the dead body, the nudity, the climax.
Now, I admit, The Likeness, my favorite of French’s novels, has a pretty unbelievable premise: a dead woman is discovered who looks just like Cassie…and this corpse also happens to be carrying identification that claims she’s Lexie Madison, Cassie’s former undercover alias. From there, Cassie infiltrates the victim’s tight-knit group of friends, posing as Lexie (the survived version). It’s a Gothic The Secret History, with more secrets and more police.
The absurd doppelganger premise is saved, I think, by Cassie’s voice. That is, by the prose. Who cares if what brings Cassie back to her undercover identity is a touch far-fetched if the descriptions are so right on? What French really wants us to focus on is the delicious and dangerous pull Cassie feels toward this isolated group of friends in their big, crumbling house. And our narrator describes the seduction of belonging so, so well.
Lesson: What Gary Lutz calls “page-hugging” prose isn’t necessarily anathema to plot. The descriptions in The Likeness may force the reader to slow down to savor the imagery and the sense of place (that plot of land), but they also serve to emphasize Cassie’s growing attachment to the crime’s possible suspects. As with In the Woods, what threatens the investigation magnifies the relationship between its players and its deeper meanings, and it makes solving the investigation that much more fun for the reader. Beautiful prose begets a beautiful plot.
3. By the time I got to French’s third novel, Faithful Place, I was able to figure out who the killer was fairly quickly. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d gotten more adept at reading crime novels, or if French made it easy. The thing is, it didn’t matter; I was still hooked to the story.
At the beginning of Faithful Place, undercover cop Frank Mackey is drawn back to the working class neighborhood he left at age nineteen, vowing never to return. He’d planned to go to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, but she took off without him–or so he assumed. 22 years later, when Rosie’s packed suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on his old street, Frank must not only reckon with what really happened to his first love, he must also face the dysfunctional family he’s tried so hard to leave behind. Juicy, right? But what happened to Rosie becomes secondary to Frank’s conflicts with his family, to his (impossible?) desire to escape his past and class.
What I love about French’s work is how she refuses to answer every question the story raises; in fact, sometimes the ones she does answer feel a little too easy, as if borrowed from a lesser, more simplistic narrative (see the less-than-stellar conclusion of In the Woods). She is better at vague, I think, more comfortable with loose ends. As Laura Miller points out in Salon:
French herself doesn’t play by the rules, and the prime rule of crime fiction, no matter how grisly, cynical or edgy, is that the plot begins with a disruption of order (the crime itself) and ends with the restoration of it, albeit in some slightly battered form. The guilty parties are identified and usually punished, secrets are unearthed and, above all, the world returns to intelligibility, however bitter the message it has to tell.
The crime is solved in The Faithful Place, but it isn’t until after the killer is revealed that the book’s grace becomes apparent. With the crime figured out, Frank and the reader must wrestle with bigger questions, discomforts and difficulties. There’s a darkness to the ending that’s deeply moving.
Lesson: A scene should raise multiple questions, but the scene that follows isn’t required to answer everything. Some questions can be carried from scene to scene, through an entire book, teasing the reader, or they can be posed in the final pages. The burlesque dancer might want to leave her brassiere on, and it can still be a damn fine show. Or: she can show you her tits, and you might be up all night thinking about her wrists, which had been covered all along.
4. In the Woods teaches us how to solve a murder, and, more importantly, how to work a case with a partner. (Or, maybe, how to botch that partnership.)
Detective Ryan says:
I wish I could tell you how an interrogation can have its own beauty, shining and cruel as that of a bullfight; how in defiance of the crudest topic or the most moronic suspect it keeps inviolate its own taut, honed grace, its own irresistible and blood-stirring rhythms; how the great pairs of detectives know each other’s every thought as surely as lifelong ballet partners in a pas de deux…
The Likeness teaches us how to go undercover. As Cassie tells us:
“…bad stuff happens to undercovers. A few of them get killed. More lose friends, marriages, relationships. A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening till it’s too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans. Some, and never the ones you’d think, lose their nerve–no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they’re doing, and they freeze like tightrope walkers who’ve looked down…And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it’s not their nerve that breaks, it’s their fear. They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be.”
Faithful Place teaches how to lead your own private investigation, how to take your work home with you; Frank isn’t supposed to be on the Rosie investigation, but he must figure out what happened. As with the other two books, there are also nuggets of professional wisdom throughout. For instance, we learn that an undercover cop learns to flick a switch in his mind so that “the whole scene unfolds at a distance on a pretty little screen, while you watch and plan your strategies and give the characters a nudge now and then, alert and absorbed and safe as a general.”
What Faithful Place taught me best, though, is how to be working class Irish. What to eat and drink, how to say “Jaysus” instead of “Jesus,” and what to call the new middle class neighbors: “epidural yuppies.”
Lesson: Mysteries, and detective novels in particular, are how-to manuals in a sense. Part of their magnetism is that they teach readers how to be bad-ass cops: brave, sharp, maybe even crooked. But, really, there’s an instructional aspect to every story. The reader is learning the world of the characters, and the rules therein, and it’s pleasurable to be immersed in that day-to-day experience, in the expertise of others. The writer is teaching you how to live as someone else. She is also teaching you how to read her narrative. The writer guides your expectations. This is how plot works in this unique narrative.
You see, Tana French taught me that plot is a strange and amorphous aspect of craft, never a one-formula-fits-all kind of thing. (What in fiction is?) Sometimes the moon’s on page two, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you’re reading for the moon, and sometimes you’re reading because you like the color purple, or Harold’s little jumpsuit, or Harold himself. Will he make it home safe? What does his journey even mean, anyway?