Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Long Overdue Post #1: Mystery 101

I started to write this post quite a while ago, and for some reason never got around to finishing.

By coincidence, the same night I watched To Catch a Thief (1955, Alfred Hitchcock), I also happened to finish Lisa Scottoline's Dirty Blonde. At first glance these two works, one of Hitchcock's most famous movies and a better-than-average paperback thriller, would seem to have very little in common. But actually they share a very important characteristic. They both violate the principles of good mysteries in not playing fair with the audience.

To Catch a Thief is the story of former jewel thief John Robie the Cat (aging though he is, Cary Grant is still one terrific hunk, although he's never looked less sexy than in the striped shirt and red bandana he wears at the beginning of the movie). At the start of World War II, he escaped from a French prison when the Germans bombed it, and he and his fellow prisoners became heroes of the Resistance. Now, 10 years after the end of the war, Robie lives in a huge villa on the Riviera where he raises flowers and grapes, and his cohorts toil away in a restaurant one of them owns. Suddenly, somebody begins duplicating Robie's crimes, and both the police and his old buddies think he is responsible. He must catch the real thief to clear his name, before the police lock him up or one of his pals decides to kill him.

One of the old gang, the wine steward Foussard, has a daughter, Danielle. Her age is never exactly made clear, although from dialog it appears she's supposed to be under 20. We meet her several times: first, she drives Robie away from the restaurant in a boat. She flirts with him, exposits the whole story of the prison and the Resistance, and taunts him with his wealth and the comrades' poverty. Next we see her at the beach at Cannes, where she flirts with him and taunts him some more. The third time is at the funeral of her father, who has been killed in a trap set for Robie; Danielle blames Robie for his death. But Foussard can't, as the police want people to think, have been the cat burglar himself, because he had a wooden leg.

At the climax of a dramatic rooftop chase, we see Danielle for the last time, when Robie rips off the mask of the burglar to reveal her. He shouts: "I figured it was you the night your father died! He always got you to do his legwork, even during the war when you were a kid."

And that, my friend, is cheating. Robie knew something that the audience was never told. Nowhere in her three prior scenes did we ever get a hint that Danielle was part of the wartime gang. Indeed, the scene on the boat is clearly played as though the whole thing is a story she has heard, not something she lived herself. It would have taken only a line of establishing dialog to make it clear. Even a bit of business at the restaurant, where Foussard sends her to fetch something from a high shelf, would have laid the groundwork. But Hitchcock (and screenwriter John Michael Hayes) didn't want to chance spoiling the surprise ending: in opting for the cheap twist over the carefully hidden clue, Hitchcock robs the audience of its satisfaction in the solution of the mystery.

Dirty Blonde, a mostly successful return to form after a couple of disappointments from Scottoline, tells the story of Cate Fante, a newly appointed federal judge with a penchant for picking up guys in sleazy bars. After ruling against Richard Marz, a writer who has sued Hollywood producer Art Simone, Cate is shocked to learn that Marz has apparently killed Simone and then shot himself. Marz's friend Detective Russo, however, believes Cate is responsible, and soon he has leaked her secret sex life to the press. Dumped by her boyfriend, made a citywide laughingstock, and with her job in jeopardy, Cate begins to search for the truth. She's supported only by her loyal secretary Val, her oddball clerks Emily and Sam, her best friend Gina, and new love interest Det. Nesbitt.

I've always liked Scottoline's books, but she has a habit of telegraphing the bad guys very early. I thought she had done it this time too -- a fellow judge called Meriden. I sat confidently through Cate's determination that the killer was Simone's former assistant (for a lawyer, Cate has apparently very little acquaintance with what constitutes evidence). Sure enough, right on cue, there is Cate in her deserted office at night when in walks Meriden. But no, he isn't the nut with the gun -- it's Cate's Goth chick clerk, Emily.

Emily who? you may be asking yourself. We haven't seen nearly as much of her as we saw of Danielle. Our only real view of her is way back in Chapter 5, when she and Cate talk about the case. Cate says something about Marz's dream and Emily responds, "My dream is to pay off my student loans. I have trailer trash dreams." Then we get a few fleeting glimpses of her being worried how Cate's troubles are going to affect her job. That's it until the final confrontation, when she confesses that she was being paid to pass information on to Simone. She shot him because he threatened to tell Cate about it, then set up Marz's suicide to make it look like he'd done it. She says, "I followed him to dinner and I shot him. I had to. My family depends on me. You remember that day, when we talked about people and their dreams? This is their dream. I am their dream."

Now, I don't mind having my expectations confounded. I like it when I pit all my cunning against an author and she still outwits me. That's the intellectual pleasure a good mystery provides, the tingle you get when you look back and say to yourself, "Of course! THAT's what that meant." But that kind of challenge depends on the author's bravely hiding all the clues in plain sight, not burying them by the dark of the moon in a cave on the far side of forever. No strike that: it involves actually PROVIDING clues, which Scottoline has signally failed to do.

As with Danielle, even a very little more information would have been sufficient to set the stage. Scottoline could have given us even a hint of the pathetic pride Emily's parents have in her, just the suggestion that Emily is so desperate for money she'll do anything to get it. But no, there's nothing like that, and without it, the girl's exposure as the murderer is completely random -- it could just as easily have been some bum off the street for all the sense it makes. It's as though we see the Man Behind the Curtain unmasked without ever seeing the great and powerful Wizard of Oz at all. And that's not just cheating, my friend. That's bullshit.

1 comment:

jean said...

Interesting review and intersection of these two mysteries. I loved Dirty Blond, maybe my favorite of LS's books