Too Many Clues

This week I’ve been reading the better sort of murder mysteries — Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, P. D. James, Lawrence Block. Good stories, all of them, and expertly told. Yet in each case, there has been something that was jarringly not quite right. But only if you pause after you finish reading and think about what you’ve read. I find myself wondering, don’t these writers know that they’ve blundered?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones is about a pair of sex killers who decide to spice up their action by kidnapping women, collecting fat cash ransom payments, and then returning the women’s dismembered bodies. At first the detective thinks there may have been three killers, the third driving the panel truck while the other two snatch the women and bundle them into the back of the truck. Eventually he decides that the witnesses who saw the truck just assumed there was a third man driving, that in fact there were only two men, one of whom hopped into the driver’s seat before the van sped away. And indeed, at the end of the book it’s very clear there were only two men.

What, then, are we to make of this passage from Chapter 1: “The back doors of the panel truck were open, and the two men who had gotten out of it earlier were on the sidewalk once again. When Francine emerged from the store, they moved up on either side of her. At the same time, a third man, the driver of the truck, started his engine.”

There it is, in black and white. Block changed his mind about the plot after drafting the opening chapter, and never got around to revising it.

In P. D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, much is made of a white lab coat that has been stained with the victim’s blood earlier in the day (owing to a fist fight). It has mysteriously vanished, and the assumption is that the murderer donned it in order to protect his own clothing against blood spatters before bashing his victim over the head with a mallet. The coat is a bit of a red herring, as the man who hit the victim in the nose earlier in the day is not the murderer. But a couple of problems lurk very near the surface. In the end, we learn that the murderer took the coat home and burnt it in his incinerator. But why should he have done that, when it wasn’t his coat and didn’t incriminate him? Worse, we’re told that he struck down his victim in a moment of blind emotional frenzy, whereas finding and putting on the coat would have required premeditation — and when he describes the murder scene to Inspector Dalgleish, he never mentions the white lab coat at all.

Obviously, by that point in the book, James had realized that there was no logical way to work the coat into the murder scene. She was hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.

In The Lady in the Lake, Chandler clearly wants to set up a certain climactic scene involving a gunfight. So he has to get his bad guy up to the cabin by the lake. The bad guy, who happens to be a cop, has just strangled his girlfriend and has staged a scene so as to frame the detective for the murder. But rather than haul the detective down to the station, he lets the detective convince him that the owner of the cabin must be the murderer, and that they should drive up to the cabin and arrest the guy. The difficulty with this scenario is that the murdering cop has to know perfectly well that the evidence the detective shows him, which apparently implicates the owner of the cabin, is bogus. He must know it’s bogus, because he murdered the woman himself! So he’s tossing out a very viable frame-up in favor of a red herring that implicates a man who quite possibly has an ironclad alibi for the time of the murder.

And these are only the big, obvious problems in these books. I could mention other, less glaring defects. I’m not trying to criticize these fine writers, not really. Rather, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s even possible to write a solid, suspenseful crime novel whose story actually makes sense when looked at in the cold light of day.

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