Sunday, September 2, 2012

No-Frills Mystery

Mystery novels generally fall under what is called “genre” fiction, a type of writing that has special rules. Cozy mysteries, for instance, mostly involve an amateur sleuth (usually a woman), take place in a small town or village, have likeable characters, and don’t contain graphic violence, explicit sex, or profanity. They tend to have several suspects and red herrings, and the sleuth solves the crime based on her brains rather than her brawn. (See the Cozy Mystery website for more on this.)

Rules are a good thing: The reader knows what he or she is going to get in the book, and is never unpleasantly surprised by a grisly death in a romance, a mushy love-scene in a western, or a descriptive passage about how to cook vol-au-vent in a hard-boiled detective novel. The trick for the author, then, is to write an original story within the rules, so that the reader doesn’t notice that there are any rules.

My mom, a big fan of mysteries, gave me a few of hers a few weeks ago. Among the Elizabeth Peters and Dick Francis books she had for me was this one:

Published in 1981, this “No-Frills” series also includes a romance, science fiction, and western (too bad Mom didn’t have those, too). The page before the title page of the Mystery has this to say:
Welcome to the satisfactory world of no-frills books.

This sensible NO-FRILLS BOOK is compete with everything Mystery lovers look for.

The adequate gift for every occasion, NO-FRILLS BOOKS bring the latest in economy and convenience to today’s readers. Why pay more? Why shop around? After you’ve read one, you won’t mind the others.
Amused, I sat down to read it the other day (it’s all of 58 pages long). The book starts out like a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett parody: broke P.I. gets phone call about a case; agrees to meet prospective client outside the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar in NYC; prospective client gets shot and dies before he can say anything; P.I. takes control of briefcase dead guy had. This all takes place, mind you, in the first two-and-a-half pages.

I was about to put the book down, assuming it would continue in the same humorous-but-predictable vein until the end, when I was caught up by the plot twist—a tape recording that put the listener in a complete trance.

Wait. Hadn’t I read that somewhere before?

And then I remembered where. It was the same idea—okay, not exactly the same, but certainly very similar—employed by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, a 1079-page novel (which contains 388 endnotes) published in 1996. Here’s a description of Infinite Jest from a website entitled “The Top 10 Works of Postmodern Literature”:
The recently-departed Wallace left behind the most intriguing, in-depth, comedic, sorrowful, apprehensive and overall sagaciously maximalistic read in the postmodern canon. The parallelism between the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House using alternating esoteric and colloquial words (and his trademark endnotes) creates the most epic and exhausting novel of modern times.
In other words, Wallace’s opus could not be any more different than the No-Frills Mystery.

Yet, get this: The central plot of Infinite Jest involves a film (“the Entertainment”) which is so enthralling that it causes its viewers to lose all interest in anything other than watching the movie over and over again, becoming essentially comatose.

Could it be that David Foster Wallace got his idea from the No-Frills Mystery?


  1. This could be a master's thesis topic for Charlie!

  2. Ha! I must admit, I did think of him...

  3. Curious! I think hypnotic technology has probably had more of a history than just these two books. The fear of mass hypnosis, especially through, say, television, was a common fear in the 50s and 60s, wasn't it? I'm imagining old episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek where everyone was suddenly hypnotized by seeing or watching something, though I can't seem to find anything doing a quick google search. A first-season episode of Fringe (obviously much more recent) centered around a "program" on people's computers that was so addicting it liquified their brains. This *would* make an interesting research topic, for an essay or a thesis.

  4. Even though my rhetorical question was tongue-in-cheek, one never can know with DFW; I wouldn't put it past him to have been aware the No Frills Mystery, or any other bizarre published work out there. The idea is very Twilight Zone, though, as you point out Chris.