Starting in mid-October this year, most big retailers where I live had their halls decked with Christmas trees right beside the Halloween goblins. The effect was bizarre, but it did get me thinking early about holiday plans, especially holiday dinners—anticipating the special foods, of course, but also looking forward to having time to enjoy conversation with family and friends.
At the same time, it got me thinking about dinners in fiction, one of the most famous of which occurs at Christmastime, in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” In the mystery genre, dinner-table discussion often centers around puzzle-solving rather than the sorts of philosophical questions that absorb the diners in Joyce’s story. Enough conventions have grown up around this type of mystery that I think it can almost be considered a distinct subgenre of the classical whodunit.
Some of the most memorable examples of this genre were written by Isaac Asimov. EQMM still gets letters from readers who remember, fondly, Asimov’s Black Widower stories, in which a group of six men, plus an invited guest, regularly meet for dinner and attempt to solve a murder at table.
I’ll admit right away that although I liked a number of the Black Widower stories, I am not, in general, a big fan of the dinner-table mystery. The problem, for me, is that in such stories the reader is removed a step from the action. We aren’t witnessing the unfolding of the murder or its aftermath or its investigation, we’re witnessing a report and discussion of it. I generally find that an impediment to forming a sympathetic understanding of the victim and other key characters. And the element of vicarious experience that I enjoy in fiction is compromised by the added distance at which we’re made to stand from such stories’ events.
But of course, the central aim of such a story may be to present a dazzling puzzle—a purely intellectual challenge—not to engage the reader emotionally. And if the puzzle is clever enough, the story will probably appeal even to readers like me, to whom a good puzzle is important but not all we’re looking for.
An author who manages to combine brilliant puzzles with characters readers have genuine empathy for is France’s Paul Halter. He manages to do so even at one remove, in the story-within-a-story framework of the dinner-table mystery. (His slight variation on the form is often set in a gentlemen’s club in London, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.)
I said earlier that certain conventions have grown up around this type of mystery. One of them is that there is a recurring cast of characters, and the mysteries they solve together are often brought to them by someone outside their circle. This allows an atmosphere of bonhomie to pervade the story—a sense of being among friends. The resulting repartee among the diners can be highly entertaining in the hands of a good writer of dialogue. Through it, in the best of these stories, the reader may come to form an attachment to the individuals at table, especially if they are not presented as a bunch of inhuman clever clogs. Generally speaking, though, the more time is devoted to developing the characters around the table, the more removed the reader is going to be from the tale of murder that’s being told. Unless the other diners interrupt whoever is laying out the circumstances of the murder frequently to ask questions and offer opinions, readers won’t get a good sense of who they are. But with each interruption, the reader is pulled out of the frame of the murder story and becomes less able to enter back into it with any sense of immediacy.
In the 1990s, former screenwriter Dennis Palumbo (whose credits include My Favorite Year and Welcome Back, Kotter) began a series of dinner-table mysteries starring The Smart Guys Marching Society, the first of them published in EQMM. It’s a coffee table topped with beer and popcorn rather than a sumptuous restaurant with gourmet specialties in the Palumbo stories, but the formula is the same. You’d expect the stars of this series to be ostentatiously brainy, irritating in their sense of superiority. Not so. Palumbo, who became a psychotherapist after retiring from film writing, has a good sense of his characters’ inner lives and is able to humanize them (one a neatnik, another a bit of a slob, all of them aware of how they’re ageing), with the result that the stories have more warmth than I usually associate with this genre. (You can find a collection of the stories, From Crime to Crime: Mind-Boggling Tales of Mystery and Murder, here.)
In the Palumbo stories, the important characters—the ones we engage with—are in the framing story. It seems to me that Paul Halter flips this formula, involving readers most intensely with the characters in the story within the story. His Dr. Twist tales set in London’s Hades club leave me with very little sense of identification with the club’s members, chief among them, aside from Twist, Superintendent Cullen, but I do get drawn right in to the mystery they’re about to solve. The characters in the mystery are brought to life through long passages of narration that go uninterrupted by questions or comments from the listeners. And in the account of the crime there are more direct than indirect reports of speech. (This can be a copyeditor’s nightmare—all those quotes within quotes, as the speaker recounts the exact words of others—but it’s something that creates more immediacy for the reader.) Halter’s attention to atmospheric, not just practical details of setting in the murder story is another important factor in making the murder and not the framing story the focus of our attention. Our February 2014 issue contains “Jacob’s Ladder,” an entry in this series whose inner story is set in a section of the French countryside that I can almost guarantee you won’t forget after reading Halter’s descriptions of it. (You’ll find other good examples of Halter’s use of setting in his story collection The Night of the Wolf.)
It’s largely a matter of taste, of course, which variation on this genre you prefer. I’m more inclined toward the type of story that lets me get inside the mystery itself and focuses less on the cleverness of those around the table. But there are pleasures in both forms. Focusing on the solvers, and treating the mystery more abstractly, creates a lighter sort of entertainment. One more suitable, when you think about it, to a dinner with friends.
Like the marketers who’ve turned our various fall and winter holidays into a single amorphous season, I’d like to wish everyone Happy Thanksgiving early, even if you haven’t yet finished the Halloween candy. I won’t be blogging again before the turkey’s carved, but for that day I wish you a dinner filled with mystery, and a guest as clever as Isaac or Dr. Twist.—Janet Hutchings