Just How Tricky Can You Be?

Christopher Fowler
Lately TV drama has been playing tricks on us. The peak so far probably came with 'Landscapers', a true crime story disturbingly redesigned around the protagonists' fantasy lives. It's something novelists did with some frequency until publishers decided to play it safe and revert to Victorian narrative - solid, straightforward, nothing too tricksy or clever. Which is how crime has ended up in its present parlous state. I love trickster books, starting with 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', going through surprise endings, POV switches, protagonists who don't exist, tales that aren't what you think they are, unreliable narrators, bodies that disappear, heroes who turn out to be villains and vice versa. The arch-trickster Edmund Crispin said, 'The fully evolved detective story is technically by far the trickiest form of fiction humanity has so far devised. For we have come to demand of it not only a mystery with a plausible solution, but over and above that a mystery with a surprise solution; and over and above that, a mystery with a surprise solution which by rights we ought not to have been surprised at all.' It's hard to pull off, and too many authors opt out of trying. One wants a brilliant crime and a fitting revenge, but we can get too Greek about this - there needs to be a dangerous carelessness that will allow the reader to think that nothing is to a plan and anything can happen. Do literary novels ever attempt this? I read Edward St Aubyn's superbly acerbic Patrick Melrose novels with a growing sense of unease. How was this unlikeable character to be redeemed? Then I realised he'd be saved by the oldest trick in the book; having someone even more horrible (his father) do something to him as a child that would transform him into the 'difficult' person he is in the present, so we may allow ourselves some sympathy. Perhaps I'm thick skinned, but I can't see that his traumatic childhood ordeal was any more of a reveal than the motivation of a murderer in any well-written popular novel. I thought at first that the difference was this; the literary novel lives on the side of the victims, taking us deep within their milieu - the difference between say, 'Thérèse Raquin' and Roger Ackroyd - but it's not. In a literary novel the tricks are set aside in favour of character depth. I prefer the popular novel. I like the tricks. But I demand good writing, and can tell within two pages whether I shall continue reading. I've just started 'Leech', a kind of gothic thriller (I think; it's too early to tell) but I'm already hooked. Not by the plot but the quirky writing. 'Look out,' I caught myself thinking, 'this one's a trickster.'  When language surprises and delights, I'll stay true to the end. Life is too short for lazily constructed sentences. By the way, watch 'How To With John Wilson' if you haven't already done so - it's on iPlayer in the UK. Watching some hillbilly trying to disprove the climate disaster and running out of available words to describe what he means was truly shocking.


E Bush (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 03:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'll have to start watching "How To With John Wilson". I appreciate your recommendations for TV shows since I watch so little television in recent years.

I love to read a well-written book, especially if it's a mystery. Some of my favorite writers include PD James, Ruth Rendell, Deborah Crombie, Susan Witting Albert, Val McDermid, Alan Baker, Kate Wilhelm, Jacqueline Winspear, and Pat Barker, who wrote a great WW1 trilogy of historical fiction.

Take care of yourself , Mr. Fowler,. Keep on reading and writing as long as you can. I'm starting to re-read your Bryant and May series from the beginning. I'm taking my time and enjoying them all over again.

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 11:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

... some hillbilly trying to disprove the climate disaster and running out of available words to describe what he means.. was truly shocking.... Sweetie, did you hugely miss the 45th presidency of US?

Christopher Fowler Tue, 13/09/2022 - 12:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Lacking the articulation to describe your own thinking is anathema to me. Our earliest English lessons at school involved an entire side-branch called 'Comprehension'. Presumably this is still taught?

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 12:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's called Critical Thinking" here and such lessons are not required here until your education is well-advanced and perhaps not then. Hence the state of discourse in the US. I studied agnotology for the past 2 years and scholars in the discipline connect this inability to articulate one's reasoning to politcal uses of ignorance, as the en vogue demogogue supplies the emotional buzz words--not reasoning required. Of course, the end play is violence.

Granny (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 13:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

When I was at school we also had precis exercises, so we had to understand an extract in order to effectively reduce to 50 words and still maintain the gist. My granddaughter (19) never had to do this.
Psychology, at A'level, is a subject that becomes easier when a student understands methods of research. Students used to get a endorphin buzz when it clicked. We are hard wired for learning, problem solving, making connections by this physiological buzz, get high on studying!
But ...
When SATS were introduced this ability began to lessen, weaken. The schools had resorted to "these are the questions,these are the answers, learn them". My students explained that no teacher had ever answered their question "Why?" but told them the 'why' did not matter, with the mandate "These are the questions ..."
The ability to think critically, to understand, to question gradually reduced over the years as the SATS tests rolled out.
In the later years my best students were the naughty ones, who did not take much notice of teachers and did not learn by rote. Also the home schooled ones who prepared for a reduced number of GCSEs with a parent who kept curiosity alive.
I am sorry to be so voluble on this but I think it was deliverate and based on the success of dumbing down the population in USA, there is evidence.
Finally there is no visible data to show that people have been deliberately "made dumb" in terms of A'level passes, etc. That's another story ...
Soooo, what reading there is amongst the young tends to circle around the formulaic and predictable. The pleasure of problem solving and making connections being long since cauterised.

Peter T (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 19:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would add a failure in teaching mathematics to the points above. I've noticed that the few politicians who should know some maths appear to forget it all when they achieve elected office. A little maths makes the solution to many problems much clearer: the Euro, Brexit, prohibition of drugs, the effectiveness of capital punishment ... .

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 13/09/2022 - 20:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Peter T: Forget maths...studying mathematics makes you gay (according to some of our politicians). And whyever would you want to solve problems?
Sorry to be so sarcastic. As chair of an organization that brought science studies into public schools, I've seen first hand the damage this political nonsense does to children.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 02:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I do like a good trick in a book, I thought Roger Ackroyd was cheating a little bit but liked the way it was done, the clues were there too.

Is Leech by Hiron Ennes? Which isn't out until the end of the month, described as SF gothic, us mere mortals must wait.

I've only seen the one How to With John Wilson, sadly not with the climate denier. I actually typed Denigher, as someone who does not think the end is nigh.

Comprehension is different from Critical Thinking, in English classes it was just working out what something meant and could be learnt by rote as many study guides proved. CT you have to formulate a judgement based on the evidence, more whys and therefores are needed. In the old days there was a lot of learning by wrote, Dickens's Gradgrind ids a good case in point. The 3 Rs are all we need, which is only one R so told me all I needed to know about them. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, or to put it another way, WAR what is it good for.... Sorry couldn't resist that old joke.

The answer to Why? from an old A ‘level philosophy exam is Why Not?

I think we under estimate the young, I look at the people we voted in the past and I'm not always that impressed. Just think of all the bloody wars that went on until about 1950 and then look at how many there has been after. this generation has seen declining living standards, the Thatcher generation was the first that was going to be worse off than their parents especially in the lower classes, which sadly came true. There has been a mass pandemic, a shutdown of society and the first big non-civil war in Europe for over 70 years (the Russo-Georgian War was a separatist state of less contention than what happened to Crimea.) Plus, the way a lot of the young people are backing green and climate changes is heartening.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 06:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I began to disbelieve in formal education when my next door neighbour sent her 15 yr. old daughter to me for English tutoring. I looked at the essay she had just had returned and realised how big my problem would be when she didn't understand what I meant by the word "tense". It made me some tense, I'll tell you. She'd met it in French class but didn't know it worked in English(!) I have heard since that it is a waste of time teaching grammar. Perhaps, but I don't know how else you're going to talk about the writing that's being produced. The last years I was teaching (before 2006) we gave awards for athletic achievement (but Sports Day was just silly games) and for citizenship and there was a special award with criteria for art but there mustn't be anything for scholarship or individual achievement because it just defeats other people before they even start. There must be a shock for them when they hit grade 8 (age 13) and learn that you can actually fail and have to repeat a subject or a whole grade. I start to froth at the mouth at this point so I'd better stop.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 11:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen, I'll lend you one of my broomsticks if you decide to take action.
We think the youngs will have great jobs in technology. Sorry people. You need an understanding of grammar to code; and a solid grounding in maths.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 13:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

‘ You need an understanding of grammar to code; and a solid grounding in maths.’

Exactly, Brooke.
As Mr. F (almost) said, there is no place for lazily constructed sentences.

Peter T (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 16:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

When you are delivering or recording your ideas in a formal or permanent way, correct grammar is important. When you are developing ideas or swapping thoughts with colleagues, worrying about perfect language is one of the greatest barriers to creative thought.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 14/09/2022 - 20:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Surely it'simpossible to teach "Critical Thinking" until you've taught "Comprehension".

Martin Tolley (not verified) Thu, 15/09/2022 - 00:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Synonym Rolls. Just like Grammar used to make.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Fri, 16/09/2022 - 09:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Martin. Your observation really made my day!

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 21/09/2022 - 11:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We did Comprehension at school too (in the 70s). Our teacher brought in an extract of Chandler's Big Sleep to analyse and even at the age of 11 I was blown away by the style. A landmark reading event for me.

Most of the set books at school were dull and inoffensive and seemed designed to turn kids off reading books. My niece and nephew (12 and 9) see reading as a chore for school. I can't get them interested at all. How sad........

Wayne Mook (not verified) Fri, 23/09/2022 - 08:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul with my 10 year old it's different, she usually goes off reading when she is meant to be doing something else, like getting ready for school, going to bed...etc.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 25/09/2022 - 21:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A colleague of mine got around the set book problem by telling his twelve year olds that they could respond to any book they liked as long as he had a chance to read it and set the questions first. That way they could read books the dept. of Ed. hadn't even considered yet. There were a number of ESL students (most of the school, actually) and some of them chose books from the (technically) picture book section but you should have seen some of the analytical questions he devised. An example for a few students was the book Black and White by David Macaulay (1991) which I didn't know until just now is a "post modern book". It is almost word free but it required a fair amount of critical as well as comprehensive analysis when read for Dale's class.