Knowing What We Don’t Know, and Liking It

Dick Cass: As some of you may know, I had a little medical extravaganza perpetrated on my corpus earlier in the month (gory details definitely NOT on offer) and beyond the sudden deceleration of the fast-paced life here on Trout Brook to a pace Dennis Eckersley might call “the speed of stink,” I was moved to meditate a little on the idea of uncertainty.

eckHumans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty makes us nervous and queasy and we spend much more of our time than we need to trying to convince ourselves of verities, things we can be sure of. We want things resolved, our answers straight, our states unambiguous, our diagnoses clear. Which, is, as they say, a mug’s game. We pursue the idea of certainty far more than is healthy, anxiously searching for what isn’t there.

Which, I think, is part of the popularity of crime fiction. There is a very tight connection between uncertainty and a good crime yarn. Uncertainty drives the story forward. Something terrible happens, the universe is rent, and through the actions of the characters and their psychologies, eventually, the causes and actors of the terrible thing are revealed and the world is made whole. The outcome is made certain.

But keeping the energy of the trek through such a story high requires that the writer maintain an air of uncertainty for the reader the whole time, via subtle clues, false information, diversions, red herrings, and so forth. If you are certain what’s going to happen, why on earth would you want to read on?

red herringAnother lovely thing about uncertainty is that accompanying the pain of not knowing what’s happening can come hope. In the uncertainty of a novel, the reader can look at a clue and, without knowing, hope that it is relevant, that it marks a step toward the solution of the crime, the certainty here or she is after. As we can, if we choose, look at uncertainties in our lives and instead of assuming poor outcomes, hope for the best. Or at least something better.

In fact, keeping the various balls of uncertain information in the air and only slowly resolving them is one of the great acrobatic performances available to a writer and, not incidentally, hella lot of fun. In a good book, the writer drags the reader deeper and SweetieBogansSorrow_Front_Finaldeeper into uncertainty, farther into the unknown, with the promise that, at the end, there will be certainty. Unlike, much as we try to convince ourselves, our own lives.

Quick note: Thanks to all who attended the launch of Sweetie Bogan’s Sorrow on October 2. Lovely to see you, even in upper-body Zoom costume. And many thanks to the Rogue Women Writers blog for hosting four Maine crime writers a couple weeks ago. Here’s the link, if you’re interested. These ladies know how to get books sold. Believe me.


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5 Responses to Knowing What We Don’t Know, and Liking It

  1. Brenda Buchanan says:

    This is a nice and welcome meditation this morning, Dick. You do such a good job tying crime writing to real life. I hope your mending is proceeding apace, my friend.

  2. Two thoughts.
    1-Life is what happens in between your plans.
    2-If you want to hear God laugh, tell her your plans for the future.

  3. Amber Foxx says:

    Thanks for quoting Dennis Eckersly. Great line. And a good post.

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