by William H. Benson
October 25, 2012
It is a winning formula. Create an appealing character, place him or her in a complex, hard-to-crack situation, and watch the plot boil. For decades, authors have written mysteries by that same formula.
Agatha Christie brought to life Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and sold thousands of books. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found fortune and fame when he described the mystery-solving talents of his pipe-smoking detective Sherlock Holmes. Earle Stanley Gardner wrote eighty-six Perry Mason mysteries. Then there is Dick Francis’s Sid Halley, Dashiell Hammet’s Phillip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Robert Parker’s Spencer, and multitudes more. The suspense holds our attention because as human beings we are curious. We read because we want to know what happened.
But we should not limit ourselves to just mysteries. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote adventures, stories of Tarzan swinging through African jungles, and of John Carter fighting the creatures that inhabit the planet Mars. Ian Fleming wrote fourteen James Bond spy novels. Then there is Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger, a detective but in a Western setting.
Then there are the comic book superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, who solve immense problems with their superior-strength, skill, and acumen. In the movies there are hundreds of larger-than-life characters. For example, Sylvester Stallone built a franchise around his fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. It is difficult to determine who is more real: Stallone or Rocky? Wherever one looks, one sees the same formula again and again: a larger-than-life character blessed with skills of perception, or strength, or endurance.
These characters are normally on the side of “good.” Few, if any, are sewing seeds of discord and enmity, for there is nothing attractive or appealing in that. Instead, they sort out tangled webs of intrigue, and bring resolution and insight to a stack of problems. For example, the Lone Ranger offers hope and comfort to hard-up people eking a living on the western frontier, and Tarzan kills a lion, a rhinoceros, a panther and so protects Jane Porter.
It is human nature to allow a story to invade our thoughts and carry us into a fictional world, one where perplexing circumstances are at the last moment corrected, where the super person performs effortlessly, and where people are suddenly relieved from their tensions and burdens.
The creator though remains hidden, screened from sight by his or her text. The author is a far less-compelling figure than the fictional created-being. Where the creation assumes a fabled existence, the author is stuck in the drab and colorless world called the present, one absent the excitement and intrigue that the creation inhabits. There is a distinction between creator and creation.
The English majors are those best at bringing into life these wonder-filled creations. Those students are superb at reading, describing, and revealing any given character’s motivations and actions. On the other hand, the history majors are relegated to observing only real-life, actual, historical persons. Two different mindsets: the former includes intrigue, tension, superhuman capabilities, complex plots, a powerful antagonist, and admirable characteristics, whereas the latter limits him or herself to a real person and to identifying what happened and why.
Hollywood jumps into the fictional world because it dazzles, tempts, and grabs our minds better than the historical world does. History may provide a movie its background, but the story is fictional.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first detective novel, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” featuring Dupin, a predecessor to Sherlock Holmes, but Poe downplayed what he called, “these tales of ratiocination,” because he observed that “people think them more ingenious than they are.” He asks, “where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?” The answer is that the story holds our attention and keeps our innate boredom at bay for an hour or two.
The elections will be over in two weeks and then we will know. When we vote, we cease dwelling in the fictional world, peer at the candidates, and select one rather than another. Inevitably, the candidates fall short of fulfilling the promises they made to get our votes, dashing our expectations. We expect a super person, but we get someone human, all too human, someone much like ourselves.
The truth is that there is no Lone Ranger who will stealthily enter into our lives and solve the problems we ourselves have created. There is no Tarzan to fight the wild animals lurking in the forests we have blindly walked into, and there is no Sherlock Holmes to sort out the crimes we and others have committed. No one among us wears a cape or a mask, or drives a Batmobile. We are too much human.