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She woke with a sudden start.  How much time had passed she did not know.  Glancing at her watch, she found that it had stopped.  Afeeling of intense uneasiness pervaded her, and grew stronger moment by moment.

                                                                                                                            The Mystery of the Blue Train

Clocks are a constant feature of detective fiction.  Whether breaking during a struggle, chiming out the hours in a dark room, or having their hands altered in either direction, they remain at the heart of the genre, as both a plot device and a source of imagery.  They have an obvious practical function, used to navigate the times of death, alibis, train times and dinner gongs from which the plots are constructed.  In the classic “golden age” works of writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, they seem curiously fragile objects, prone to breaking at moments of high tension, and providing convenient certainty as to when an act was committed.  (Of course, as soon as murderers discovered this tendency, they turned it t their own advantage in the “arms race” of fiction; breaking them at other times, or altering the hands and then stamping on them.)  This obviously serves the whodunnit’s need for parameters within which the detective can get to grips with the mystery, but the recurring image of a broken clock has a powerful resonance for the genre.  It represents the attempt by mystery novels to halt time for the reader, to freeze the relentless flow of events within the confines of a book, so that they can be analysed, explored and understood.  The frequent accusation that detective novels are “escapist” is true in this sense at least; they offer the reader a chance to step outside time for a few hours, in order to see how it works more clearly.

This does not mean, however, that mystery novels are not concerned with the complexities and confusions of time.  Quite the reverse; time and causality are the basic tools they work with, and literary theorists often use mystery novels to illustrate the operations of time within literature.  In his classic essay “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, the magnificently named Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes between two separate time-schemes that operate in all novels: sjuzet and fabula, usually translated as “narrative” and “plot”.  The first is the events which make up the original story (the crime), and the second is the order in which they are related in the novel (the detection.)  In mainstream novels these two schemes are often pretty similar, but the classic detective novel, for obvious reasons, separates them completely.

Literary critics often employ the mystery genre to prove this point, and then move on to more “subtle” works (rather as a naturalist might use a sabre-toothed tiger to start a discussion on incisor development in the domestic cat) but I think the form’s treatment of time merits further consideration.  Whodunnits usually start with a murder, and as the story of the novel moves forward, the attention of the audience is focussed resolutely backwards, burrowing in the opposite direction to discover what events preceded the murder.  This mirror-image time scheme is completed when the last few pages of the book elucidate the murder, explain the events which led to its discovery, and often reach far into the past to present the original causes of the crime.

The crime and detection are hardly ever a perfect mirror image, however: mystery novels do not simply write the plot of a murder backwards, each chapter laying out a logical step towards the solution.  On the contrary, the further into a detective novel one reads, the more confusing it usually becomes.  (I defy anyone to read Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and say that before they reached the explanation they were only one definite step away from knowing the solution.)  In order to increase suspense, and the drama of the final dénouement, the detective’s thought processes are kept secret from the reader, and their actions often appear increasingly bizarre and nonsensical as the novel progresses.  Hastings’ confidence to the reader in Lord Edgware Dies , is typical: “I could not understand Poirot’s attitude.  If not touched he was, at any rate, suspiciously changeable.”  The final pages often have to explain not only how the criminal committed the crime, but how the detective solved it, therefore we have two plots nested inside the novel’s storyline: the plot of the murder, and the plot of its unravelling, both of which are only shown to the audience in cryptic flashes during the narration, until the final unveiling.

These two plots, those of the criminal and the detective, are camouflaged and distorted during the novel itself. To prevent the whodunnit becoming a simple verbal diagram, with a puzzle on one page and the solution on the next, the novels create suspense and drama by masking the real operations of the plot behind a story, provided by the narrator.  This narrator is often a slightly dim friend of the detective, (Dr. Watson, Captain Hastings, etc) who often believes he is on the right track and manages to foist his misconceptions onto the readers, throwing the detective’s brilliance into sharper relief when it is revealed.  When the detective has no side-kick, like Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, the story is provided by a one-off character, or an anonymous narrator who relates events, but refuses us complete access to the detective’s mind, and often disappears frustratingly at important moments in the detection process, protecting the detective’s plot from too much scrutiny by the readership.

The whodunnit therefore actually has three time-schemes operating within one novel.  However, they aren’t separate; the narrator’s time-scheme runs parallel to that of the detective, swerving into it and away again as the novel requires.  Furthermore, a whodunnit is rarely a static examination of a past crime, as Dr. Haydock points out in Christie’s Sleeping Murder: “supposing somebody goes poking about, digging into things, turning up stones and exploring avenues, and finally, perhaps, hitting the target?  What’s your killer going to do about it?  Just stay there smiling while the hunt comes nearer and nearer?”  He’s right, and the investigation process tends to prompt new crimes as the murderer forges documents and kills witnesses in an attempt to escape.  The various plots all loop round, causing and being caused by each other, even though they may occur years apart.  To make it all more involved, when the dénouement finally occurs, it is frequently revealed that the crime was originally caused by a story even further in the past, such as a clandestine previous marriage (4.50 from Paddington) the long-ago suicide of a ruined academic (Gaudy Night) or even the tontine in Murder at the Vicarage, effectively a sweep-stake on who will die last.

That these plots are separate strands can be seen that in most whodunnits, they finish at more or less, but not exactly, the same point.  The style of dénouement in which all the suspects are called together, to be accused and eliminated one by one, allows the criminal to be apprehended and the crime to be explained in the same scene.  This helps avoid tedious chase scenes or suspenseless arrests, but can’t always quite paper over the cracks between plots, and often the relating of the investigation itself occurs afterwards.  Last-chapter explanations are prone to begin with phrases like such as: “You know, I think, that I enjoy my little lecture.  I am a prosy old fellow” (Cards on the Table), “Go on, Bridget, tell me how you came to suspect the Waynflete woman” (Murder Is Easy) or even “If I don’t explain to someone how clever I’ve been, I will burst.” (Sparkling Cyanide)

Though these time-schemes may seem tortuous and confusing when laid out separately, they operate smoothly and efficiently within the novels.  The complex systems of causality which underpin these works are not proof of their authors’ inability to keep the plot under proper control and the different strands separate.  On the contrary, this close interweaving of different time-schemes makes the plot resolution more satisfying and shows us the moral system which the classic whodunnit depends upon.  Long-lost relatives and wrong dates on letters are fairly hackneyed plot devices, but they are also the building blocks of a coherent scheme of morality in the works of authors such as Christie and Conan Doyle.  The most rigid principle in the whodunnit is causality: everything means something, and though coincidence is permitted on occasion, it is often passed off as the work of Providence, and is generally considered to be cheating a bit on the part of the author.  The plot of every detective story from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Remorseful Day is based on the idea that every event has causes and consequences.

Though this seems perfectly obvious, and the natural way to write a story, it is in fact a very specific way of describing the world.  Neither the knight errant in medieval romance nor James Bond are bound by such a tight web of cause and effect; they simply ricochet from one adventurous episode to the next until a climax arranges itself somehow and a final battle occurs.  In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the clerical Mr. Collins fancies Jane, proposes to Lizzie and eventually marries Charlotte, but there is no sense in which these events are part of a relentless march of logic.  The series of proposals are linked by comedy, rather than necessity.  Mystery fiction depends upon everything being causally linked, even if the links are not obvious at first glance.  This obviously impinges upon morality: if one act causes another in a logical and stable sequence, then that sequence can be traced backwards by a sufficiently astute observer.  If that act is a crime, the criminal can and will be uncovered.  This is obviously comforting to law-abiding citizens, and discouraging to those who might feel tempted by the fruits of criminal activity, it effectively substitutes the laws of cause and effect for the “eye of God” in laying evil open to scrutiny.  The importance of this aspect of the plot can be seen by the fact that the detective usually devotes some time to explaining how and why he came to unravel the case, though this usually does not have the same tension and drama as apprehending the criminal.  The reader must come to understand not only the series of events from the murderer’s point of view, but how the detective was able to deduce them from the given evidence.

Additional crimes which occur during the investigation, such as the murders of witnesses, are also vital to the moral design of the novel.  They are necessary for entertainment and suspense – after all, without them, the whodunnit would simply resemble a sudoku written across the crime statistics – but they also stress the continuing effects of causality.  They imply that not only does murder leave visible traces in the events which follow, it also has a tendency to replicate itself.  In other words, there can be no such thing as a justified murder, because even if the killer has the most watertight and convincing reasons, and executes the crime in the most brilliant and effective way, that first crime cannot be complete in and of itself.  It will spawn other crimes by necessity, and may produce other deaths which the murderer originally had no desire for.  Paradoxically, this demonstration of the unexpected chains of cause and effect elevates the importance of free will, and emphasises the individual’s moral responsibility not to commit the first crime in the sequence.

Clocks, with their symbolic freight of time and plot, can serve as weapons with which the murderer and the detective attempt to impose their will on the world.  In changing a clock’s hands, falsifying an alibi, or cheating a timetable, the killer tries to take control of time, and it is up to the detective to wrest it back from him by proving that time is logical and relentless.  I was not quite accurate when I suggested that the whodunnit freezes time: it may isolate portions of it, and even slow it down by close concentration, but even the detective must continue travelling forward whilst trying to understand what has occurred in the past.  It is this condition of life that the mystery novel dramatises.  You may break a watch, or wind its hands backwards, but you cannot undo time, though you can try to understand it.

W.H. Auden, himself an avid reader of whodunnits, began his anguished and ironic “Funeral Blues” with the command “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”, ending it “For nothing now can ever come to any good.”  Faced with the presence of death in the world, the detective novel does not attempt to stop the clocks, but instead spins them backwards and forwards like the dial of a combination lock, seeking the series which will unlock the problem.

This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, June 2007