Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and Paris policewoman Sophie Neveu overcame one obstacle after the other in a never- ending series of lucky breaks that depended on walkie-talkies that could not work, Swiss banks whose passwords were written by Sudoku gamers, a friendly rich guy with a jet, and Langdon’s bottomless memory of secret texts and symbols that would have shamed Google engines. That they would crack the mystery to find the Holy Grail was a difficult yarn to swallow. Why?
Let’s compare them to two other mystery-cracking literary figures:
“My dear Holmes,” said I, “this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can’t imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out….”
“It is simplicity itself,” said he. “My eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes is having one on Watson and, more importantly, on us. It works. But, why does Doyle’s series of coincidences work and Dan Brown’s does not? They both involved genius insights that lead to the hither-to unsolvable conclusions. Is there a difference?
First, Doyle makes the reader ‘everyman.’ He has written Watson in the first person so that we, as readers, see Holmes’s powers of deduction just like we were in Watson’s shoes. Brown’s point of view, however, was fly on the wall and thereby made Langdon and Neveu remote, people being spoken about, not people with whom we were speaking. In writing from that point of view, it is essential to write patiently, with intimate details of things from everyone’s daily experience, so that the reader can visualize as if he involved.
When Holmes reveals a brilliant train of deductions, it isn’t Watson asking how he worked it out – it is me. But when Langdon or Neveu gets out of a pinch, they or some serendipitous straight man describe the tight spot (‘Oh, no – the ancient mysterious box is locked’) and one of them remembers out loud something no reader would ever know (‘Oh, I remember, Da Vinci believed one of the twelve apostles was a girl! Try the numbers 4578 – those are the secret numbers in Latin for girl.’)
Second, Doyle’s books are almost not even about the mysteries – they are about Holmes. They are character-driven books whose personalities are the same each time — a befuddled doctor, a bumbling Scotland Yard inspector, and a brilliant but idiosyncratic deducer of obscure facts from every-day events. Brown’s book is story-driven, a travelogue chase to find the Grail before the bad guys stop the heroes. The former is about a character, the latter about an event.
Finally, as suggested in the last installment, Brown’s use of coincidence relies on things that are beyond ordinary human experience. Who has a rich friend with a jet who is willing to help you flee the country in the middle of the night? Who solves a murder by decoding, or even stumbling across, a mythical religious symbol that has been hidden by secret societies for thousands of years? By way of contrast, Doyle never uses coincidence – he employs the very things that we all have, such as dirty boots, barking dogs, ink on our thumbs (failing eyesight from word processor monitors…). Nor do they have much to do with the mystery. Instead, they are written to foreshadow the mental sleight of hand that Holmes will eventually use to solve the case, meanwhile hiding everything in plain sight and then explaining it after the fact.
One technique is to write details that actually happen to people. Cut fingers. Wounded pride. Red lights. Missed assignments. Crashed computers. Once a reader accepts the truth of the story, the leap to the fiction of the story is much easier to make. Reading The Da Vinci Code is difficult, despite its detailed research, because it is difficult to believe that any of the things that happened to Langdon and Neveu could happen to him or her. With Sherlock Holmes, we quickly believe we could be Watson, if not Holmes himself.
Good writing evokes in the reader an image of an experience that might be a memory, even if it is a memory of something that has never happened. It is like describing one of Monet’s haystacks, to a blind person.
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Jack Woodville London’s French Letters series has been praised for its meticulous historical research and ability to capture the language, attitudes, and moral culture of their setting in prose described by reviewers as “beautiful, but not pretentious.”
French Letters: Engaged in War is the second volume in the French Letters trilogy. The companion to French Letters: Virginia’s War, it is the story of Will Hastings, an army doctor caught up in the D-Day landings in Normandy and the drive to capture St. Lo, France.
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