DECONSTRUCTION – FRIEND OR FOE?
This post may be a bit all over the place because I’ve been inundated with students’ concerns lately – and spare rumination time keeps leading me to the news on the Ukraine crisis. But, also, I’m feeling wishy-washy about exploring my feelings on the use of the deconstruction in storytelling. Do I enjoy it? Do I feel as if the author (sometimes) becomes too self-aware while appropriating another writer’s material? Does a certain level of deconstruction prevent me from getting fully connected to character and story?
*** I first heard the term in some college English classroom, from the mouth of an over-anxious, dandruffed prof. Sometimes she would say Deconstructivism, sometimes Deconstructist, but mostly she’d say Deconstruction and that’s the term I liked best. She told us it was when a writer referred to, or commented on, the tropes and tricks or over-used story elements of a specific genre while presenting an original narrative.
I immediately think of film examples when I think of deconstructed stories, because, as a screenwriting professor these many years later, I find my students are attracted to the style. They think adding deconstruction elements makes them look more informed, smarter, and coolly cynical (most of them are in their twenties, so they totally embrace the latter). One of the most famous is the 1996 horror/slasher movie, Scream, penned by Kevin Williamson and directed by the late, great Wes Craven. As the horror/slasher movie plays out, the characters verbally analyze and dissect well-known, previous horror flicks. Another favorite of mine is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a crime/mystery/noir based on a book by Brett Halliday and written for the screen and directed by Shane Black. This movie does a double deconstruct, looks at crime tropes as well as old myths of “making it in Hollywood”. I’m a fan of both movies – absolutely appreciate the cleverness of the authors playing with the conceits and familiar devices of the genres, but for me, one of the films is more successful that the other. Which one and why?
Why/When Did This Topic Fill My Mind?
I finished reading Peter Lovesey’s novel Bloodhounds (1996) about a month ago and enjoyed – but also became wary – as he deconstructed the detective story in multiple ways. Quick synopsis: An odd, quirky riddle-poem is delivered to the local newspaper in Bath (where the Detective Superintendent Diamond book series takes place) to announce a crime is about to be committed. The police misinterpret the riddle-poem and fail to thwart the robbery and the town is distressed that the police force have been proven inept. Diamond is introduced to a small, idiosyncratic group of crime/mystery aficionados (self-named the Bloodhounds) who decide they, because of their extensive reading in the genre, will be able to deduce the identity of the perp. Each of the half-dozen members is a super fan of a specific sub-genre; one defines for the reader the joys of the cozy, one prefers the Sherlock Holmes style, one gets rhapsodic about why the spy thriller is superior and so on. Because of how the first crime was committed (the robbery), and the subsequent crimes (murders) that follow, the group decides they must focus on examining the detective series of John Dickson Carr because of his exceptional use of, and discourse on, the rules of the “locked room” mystery.
***I can hear my nervous, Head and Shoulders shampoo-challenged English prof explaining, in her high, nasal voice: The term ‘locked-room’ is self-explanatory but for those who need it spelled out, it stems from the circumstances of the crime (murder or whatever) taking place in a sealed room, locked from the inside. The catch is that there is no indication of forced-entry, so the reader has to determine how the criminal succeeded in carrying out a crime without leaving a trace. (Website: CrimeReads and a twitchy teacher who gave me a ‘C’.)
I Had To Look Him Up (shame on me)
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) – who also published under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn – is on the list of noted authors of the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”. This is a register of the most widely-read crime mystery writers in the 1920s and 30s, and included Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Gladys Mitchell, Anne Hocking, Earl Stanley Gardner and more. Howard Haycraft (historian and editor focusing on the detective genre, and known for his book of essays Murder for Pleasure (1941), coined the “Golden Age” moniker. It refers to the raft of soft-boiled detective stories (usually put into the cozy sub-genre) written between WW I and WWII.
**After WWII, according to the website “Novel Suspects”, readers became tired of “clean, neat, intellectually challenging” puzzle-solving crime fiction, they wanted “more real and physical” stories to go along with recent experiences with the horrors of war, displacement of lives and fear of “the other”; they wanted stories that examined man’s inclinations towards evil and corruption. So, after WW II, the hard-boiled detective/noir fiction gained popularity… sorry, veering off the path…
Back to Carr and Lovesey’s Approaches:
John Dickson Carr, the novelist, was analytical in his approach. He wanted his stories to hold up as authentic, well-executed puzzles – so that when all was revealed, no reader could find holes in the logic or action. He was a stickler, a man who studied the genre and held himself to a high mark.
Lovesey is also a dedicated student of detective fiction. In Bloodhounds, he reveals that his protagonist, Detective Superintendent Diamond, does not appreciate crime fiction. Diamond is more of a grouchy plodder, likes “old-fashioned” detecting – sweat and smarts – definitely a man who would not be familiar with Carr’s work. The local Bloodhound group informs him of Carr’s love of complex, plot-driven “puzzlers” and especially the “locked room” mysteries because the case at hand involves a dead body found in a boat (one used as a residence and parked on the river in Bath). The boat is locked from the outside with a one-of-a-kind padlock with only one key issued (and the key has been constantly in the possession of one of Bloodhounds – before, during and after the crime). All other possible entries to the boat’s interior are locked from the inside or nailed shut, no murder weapon is evident and there are no clues to anyone else’s presence (fingerprints, shoe prints, hair etc.). Diamond (being a dogged detective) is soon frustrated, so he starts to read Carr with the hopes that the man’s novels, as well as Carr’s obsession with locked-room puzzlers, and the added insights of the Bloodhound group who have put Carr on a pedestal, will shine light on the crimes that are dampening the trust of the people in small town Bath, England.
I won’t go more into the plot, but Detective Diamond reads one of Carr’s most famous novels, The Hollow Man (1935).
In it, Carr’s own investigator, Dr. Gideon Fell, is facing a “locked-room mystery”. Carr deconstructs the dilemma, even has Fell give a lecture on the do’s and don’ts of solving “locked room” mysteries, including an analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders at the Rue Morgue (1841, maybe the first acclaimed “locked-room” mystery?) while actively trying to solve the crime currently facing him.
Is this nod by Carr to Poe (and a few others who have written locked-room mysteries) necessary? Is it good manners? Are authors attempting to make readers aware that there may be a limited number of plots and ways to thwart the investigator? Are they letting the audience know that reader and writer are in this dilemma together, both wanting to find “fresh takes” and surprises in old tropes? Are authors assuring their readers that writers also have a deep knowledge of crime/mystery history?
Big Question: Did I Enjoy It?
Did Lovesey’s use of deconstruction and his veering off the “A” story to give academic-ish information deter me from enjoying the book? Not sure. Maybe a little. It stalled my investment in the “whodunit” engine, one of most fun elements of a crime-mystery. At the same time, did I appreciate his giving Carr some kudos? Yes.
My musings also went in another direction as I thought further the subject (sorry). Why did Kevin Williamson want to point out certain cliches and over-used plot points and skewed logic of previous horror/slasher movies? In a wide array of interviews, he makes it clear he didn’t set out to write a satire (think of 1980’s Airplane, a spoof of the classic 1970 Airport and other movie parodies). In fact, in pre-production talks with director, Williamson stressed that he hoped Craven would attack his script as a “drama” and with “true horror” directorial decisions. Craven (reportedly) had originally planned a lighter, more comedic approach, but Williamson convinced him. Williamson wanted the characters in the movie to be facing life and death decisions about their lives, their futures and their identities. He insisted that the fact that the teenagers were horror/slasher film buffs could add to the scariness. Williamson wanted to highlight the fact that even if the targets knew they are being targeted and knew not to run up the stairs to the attic to hide – humans (especially when panicked) made mistakes – and that’s when psychopaths can triumph. While watching Scream, I worried for the characters, and I was terrified of the killer. The deconstruction did add to my intellectual enjoyment, and my visceral reaction. For me, the movie asked: “Have these young villains been so influenced by horror/slasher movies to think it’s cool to be evil? Have these kinds of movies contributed to their loss of humanity?” For me, it added another layer. Just a bit of dialogue from the film:
STU: Then why’d the police let him go?
RANDY: Because, obviously they don’t watch enough movies. This is standard horror movie stuff. PROM NIGHT revisited.
Randy moves down the aisle, re-shelving videos.
STU: Why would he want to kill his own girlfriend?
RANDY: There’s always some stupid bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend. That’s the beauty of it all. Simplicity. Besides, if it is too complicated, you lose your target audience.
Williamson, SCREAM, 1986
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, my other favorite, is, as I previously mentioned, deconstruction on top of deconstruction. The film website, AV Club, published an article “Lights. Camera. Deconstruction.” (Six writers contributed to the article and I don’t know who wrote what, so I won’t list them all.) There’s a quote from the piece that hit me: “Black pulls off a remarkable act of cinematic cannibalism: By the time it’s over, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has eaten itself alive.” I have to agree. In the film script, Black makes up a crime fiction writer, Johnny Gossamer, and allows quite a few characters to be knowledgeable fans of Gossamer mystery plots. Some of the deductive steps taken by the amateur investigators (trying to stay alive) are inspired by the plots of the novels. It’s illuminated for fun and to facilitate plot shortcuts (I assume) and to share Black’s appreciation of pulp-ish detective potboilers. Black is also taking a deconstructive jab at Hollywood movie making (Black wrote the hit Lethal Weapon (1987), the bomb Last Boy Scout (1991), and other hits and misses, so he knows the ups and downs of Hollywood).
I love this movie, but did I connect with the characters and situation? Not really – it was too arch, too self-aware and “too much deconstruction” for me. And as I write this, I’m thinking this feeling might be why, ultimately, I did not get involved (as I did in Scream) in rooting for the characters and their goals – why the movie doesn’t reach the highest mark for me. The “too much” aspect pushed the movie closer to satire and thus lacked an emotional, universal message. For me, the movie remains a delicious piece of cotton candy – pretty, fun – and quickly consumed and forgotten.
I’ll still watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang once a year and laugh and catcall at the screen, even though it doesn’t hold that bit of extra thematic resonance. And I’ll re-watch Scream and appreciate its cleverness – and its ability to comment on humanity.
That’s it. Thanks to the beautiful Maine winter snowfall happening right now as I finish this up – and that blogs are for musings and not full-blown, provable assertions. More about the writers mentioned:
John Dickson Carr wrote over 70 novels and won many awards, including the Mystery Writers of America, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the Ellery Queen Prize for short stories). Peter Lovesey (born in 1936 and still going strong) has written more than thirty detective novels and lots of short stories. The most recent was released in 2021. How did he move from being a poor sportswriter to crime novelist? He saw an advertisement for a mystery writing contest. The prize was 1,000 pounds. Lovesey wrote, for the contest, a crime novel in four months. He won, and stayed in the genre. Some of his awards: the Edgar Grand Master, the Anthony Award, the CWA Cartier Diamond, the Gold and the Silver Dagger Awards, the Leo Harris Award… it goes on and on.
Kevin Williamson wrote Scream, Scream 2 and Scream 4. He also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997 – another story that uses deconstructivism) and Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). His television credits are vast, he created as well as wrote many scripts for the television series including Dawson’s Creek, Vampire Diaries, Time After Time, Scream (the TV series), Glory Days and Wasteland. Shane Black (according to IMDB) has two new movies about to go into production.
The list of films that use deconstructivism is quite long, and I think I may know a good number of them. But I’d be interested if anyone’s got any crime-mystery novels they recommend that use this device. Always up for a fun read.