Back in 2009 I received a note from a reader observing that more than half the stories published in EQMM that year employed first-person narration. It wasn’t something I’d noticed, mainly because there are actually several different viewpoints that fall under the umbrella of first-person narration, just as there are several possible viewpoints when a story is told in the third person. Most often, a first-person narrator is also a (if not the) central character in the story, and his or her personal observations, thoughts, and feelings are at the heart of the story. But in the mystery field we are very familiar with first-person narrators who are not the central character but serve instead as reporters of events—most of the Watsons of crime fiction fall into this category. We may be seeing the story through their eyes, but their viewpoint is often primarily that of a reporter; sometimes we end up not knowing much about them at all, and the viewpoint they provide is often more objective than the central character’s would be. Most of the traditional mysteries that cross my desk are written in the third person, but when a first-person narrator is used, it’s usually of the Watson variety, and the reason for this is easy to see. If a writer wants to challenge readers to solve a mystery, it’s important not to have all of the thoughts of the brilliant fictional sleuth available up-front.
Contrast that with American hardboiled private-eye fiction, where so many of the most revered works (those featuring Hammett’s Continental Op, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, for example) have a first-person narrator who is also the main character in the story. In this type of story readers are not being challenged to compete with a “super-sleuth” detective who’s likely to be far ahead of them; they’re identifying with the P.I., who may be nearly as fallible as they are, and that identification requires really getting inside the character—seeing and feeling what he or she feels. There’s an immediacy to this point of view that appeals to many readers, and it also provides an opportunity for the writer to tell the story in a voice that belongs to an unusual character—often an eccentric and memorable voice.
There’s another type of first-person story often encountered in crime fiction, in which the narrator is unable to relate what happens reliably because of his or her stage of development, or a mental defect, or an untrustworthy quality of character—a story told by a child or a madman or a compulsive liar, for instance. Often called the “unreliable narrator,” this type of character can be found in some of the classics of our genre, the most obvious example being Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
With so many possibilities in the category, it didn’t bother me at first to think the first-person narrator was starting to dominate in our issues. And in fact, some stories told in what is commonly referred to as the “third person subjective” focus so completely on the viewpoint of a single character that there are limitations similar to the first person in the access readers have to the inner lives of the story’s other characters and to events not directly witnessed by the viewpoint character.
There’s another point of view that falls into the third-person category that is also similar to one of the possible first-person approaches, and that’s what’s often referred to as “third person objective.” Here the narrator acts as a kind of reporter, not offering conclusions or assumptions about the motives or inner lives of the characters, instead simply telling us what they do. In Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, Loren D. Estleman says this about the third person objective: “The most restricting perspective, third person objective calls for the writer who writes for the printed page to surrender his greatest advantage: the ability to get inside characters’ heads. Shorn of his best mind-reading tools, he must define character entirely through action. . . . Dashiell Hammett achieved a powerful result by telling The Maltese Falcon completely from outside the skull of his protagonist, detective Sam Spade. It allowed Hammett to keep the reader guessing as to Spade’s motives and character until the denouement.” What I’d like to point out about this is that something very similar can be done with a first-person narrator who stays “outside the skull” of the other characters, acting as an observer who relates nothing more than the actions of the others. The difference would be simply this: Readers would be limited to descriptions of the actions the first-person narrator was in a position to witness. A third-person-objective narrator would have a wider perspective.
There are, however, some types of third-person narration that provide options with no parallel in the first person. The “third person omniscient” narrator enters into the mind of any character at any time and can see all of the action of the story. We rarely see this form of third-person narration in our submissions these days. Today it seems to be used more often to tell stories with a big canvas, where the scope of the tale, in both time and space, is large, and it would not be easy to use a single viewpoint character or a limited number of viewpoint characters. A good current example in the mystery field at novel-length does not come to mind right now, but Lonesome Dove is one example in a closely related field, the Western.
When I got that message from a reader back in 2009, the first thing I did was to go through some EQMM issues from 2009 and some issues from ten years earlier and compare the number of stories told in first person versus third person. What I found was striking. Thirty-one percent of the stories we published in 1999 were told in the first person: a percentage at least 25% percent lower than what I found in 2009. Inspired to look into this further, I checked one of the anthologies in the Noir series by Akashic books. A whopping 75% of contributions to that 2009 volume were first-person stories. Next on my checklist was the MWA’s 2009 anthology, where 45% of the entries used the narrative I. My conclusion, back in 2009 was that the third-person narrative, long assumed to be the dominant form, especially in genre fiction, had been superseded by the first person. But what, if anything, was the significance of this?
As we’ve seen, some third-person perspectives can be closer to the first person in respect of immediacy and intimacy than they are to other forms of third-person narration. Conversely, some first-person narratives can be distant and objective. Counting and categorizing stories according to pronouns alone doesn’t reveal much. Upon further consideration, though, I realized that our reader’s observation (and implicit complaint) probably turned primarily around the degree of emotional distance existing between the narrator (and hence the reader) and the characters in the story. In the type of first-person narrative in which the narrator is also the central character, there will, in many cases, be no emotional or mental distance at all between that main character and the reader, and readers will feel for other characters in the story according to how the narrator reacts, and think as he or she thinks. By contrast, in many stories told in the third person, an emotional and mental distance is established and either maintained or interspersed with more intimate views into the characters; the reader may not enter as fully or immediately into the inner lives of the characters in such a story, but the tradeoff can be a clearer vision of the characters and events. And readers may also enjoy hearing a voice that does not belong to a character in the story and which may lend insights out of the reach of any of the characters. To me, this is all more a question of focus (zooming in or zooming out) than of first versus third person. But if there is a trend toward one type of viewpoint dominating, it’s worth noting, however we describe it. As a reader, I enjoy different perspectives. I don’t always want to “experience” the action or the characters’ emotions as if they were my own. Sometimes I enjoy viewing it all from a distance; sometimes it’s nice to see it all up close at one point in the story and then be pulled back. EQMM has always tried to provide its readers with a range in terms of genre, theme, setting, and style, and viewpoint is another area in which we want to maintain variety. Since receiving that reader letter in 2009, I have noticed several posts online in which readers commented that they have no interest in any crime or mystery story that does not feature a first-person narrator who is also the central character. I’m not sure what lay behind the surge in popularity of this viewpoint when it was first brought to my attention. (In 2009, when I posted about this on our website, I wondered whether it could be tied to the huge popularity memoirs were enjoying at the time.) But eight years have now passed since my first look at this topic, and I think the trend, if indeed there was one, may be declining.
In the most recent MWA anthology, 2016’s Manhattan Mayhem, nearly two-thirds of the stories are in the third person. Another crime-fiction anthology I pulled off my local bookstore’s shelves, The Highway Kind, edited by Patrick Millikin, is split fifty/fifty between first- and third-person tales, as is the latest anthology from Britain’s Detection Club, Motives for Murder. EQMM can’t be taken, over the past eight years, as indicative of any trend in this regard, because despite my contention that the most important difference in perspective may be the nearness or distance of a story’s focus rather than whether it employs first- or third-person narration, I have tried, since receiving that reader letter, to make sure each issue is balanced in terms of employment of the narrative I. We want our readers’ experience with each issue of EQMM to be as varied as possible, and if we have to count I’s to ensure it, we will. . . . —Janet Hutchings