Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Occupied France and viewpoint in fiction

In the second world war the French more or less surrendered to the invading German army without much of a struggle; certainly there was no attempt to defend Paris on a street by street basis. Thereafter, the Germans pretty much ran France however they wished, at least until the Allied armies landed on the beaches in 1944.

This period of French history has proved a rich background for fiction, most notably perhaps for Alan Furst. But another writer who has used this time and place for a series of thrillers (or whodunits if you will) is J. Robert Janes.

Janes is the author of at least eight novels featuring Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the Surete Nationale and Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo. Together this unlikely pair investigate crimes, chiefly murder, threading their way as best they can through the dark alleyways of occupied France. They find themselves threatened on all sides by both the Resistance and the various factions within the occupying forces, the Gestapo versus Wehrmacht and so forth.

I have been meaning to dip into this series for some time, and have finally got around to reading Mayhem, which seems to be the first volume. In a brief note at the beginning, Janes tells us that, although he has used actual places and times, he has seen fit to change these at will. During the occupation of France the everyday crimes of murder and arson continued to be committed. And so the author has merely asked himself, By whom and how were they solved?

Well, Mayhem contains plenty of mayhem; perhaps there are too many events for credibility at times. The characters are well drawn and the extreme difficulties of the times, for all parties, are made clear. So far so good. By and large, this is a fairly entertaining crime novel. I do, however, find one fairly serious drawback with it. This relates to the author's use of viewpoint.

Janes chooses to write from what may be called the omniscient viewpoint. In other words, the author sits in God's chair and looks down on all the characters; he can see precisely what each and every character is thinking and feeling at any given time, and he can tell us, the readers, whatever he wishes.

This is all very well up to a point. As techniques go, this was probably perfectly acceptable for a mainstream novel in the nineteenth century. But Mayhem is a late twentieth-century thriller/whodunit, and I don't think the technique works at all well in that context.

To begin with, all novel readers these days have seen and absorbed a vast amount of stories told through the visual media, chiefly television. And when we watch a drama unfolding on the box we see it from a particular viewpoint: the camera's viewpoint; and the camera usually appears to show us events as witnessed by a participant, or a bystander.

In some mysterious way, which I do not claim to understand, this circumstance has influenced our reading of fiction. The result is that fiction is now much more effective if it is told from the viewpoint of one or other of the major characters, rather than from the point of view of God. Most experienced novelists, especially thriller writers, now relate each chapter from the point of view of one character, and one character only -- usually the character on whom the emotional load is greatest in the events being portrayed. The viewpoint character can change, but only after a distinct break, as in the transition from one chapter to another.

If you want to read a book in which this technique is used to perfection, read Ken Follett's early novel The Key to Rebecca.

There is another problem relating to viewpoint which is uniquely relevant to whodunits, thrillers, and other stories in which there is an element of mystery. If the story is truly being told from the viewpoint of God, there can logically be no mystery at all, because God knows everything. If therefore, the author writes as God, he has to cheat, because if he tells us what every character is thinking and feeling then he would have to tell us what the murderer is thinking and feeling too. This is certainly possible, but not if you want to retain the mystery element.

The classic solution to the choice of viewpoint in mystery fiction has been to write the stories from the point of view of the detective's sidekick. The Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, told by Dr Watson; the amazing feats of detection performed by Nero Wolfe are explained to us by Archie Goodwin. And so on. The loyal sidekick is privy to all the key events in the story, but he is never quite sure what the great detective is thinking, and so the element of mystery is preserved until the final revelation.

Back to Mayhem. I must say that I found Janes's use of the omniscient viewpoint quite disturbing, and I suspect most readers would also be jarred by it, though without understanding why. In key scenes Janes often jumps from telling us what one side of a dispute is feeling and thinking, to telling us what the other side is thinking and feeling; and for my money that doesn't really work at all. It interferes with the smooth flow of the story, and leaves us feeling less interested in the characters rather than more so.

Apart from that, Mayhem is an interesting book, telling us a good deal (much of it unpleasant) about the realities of life under an occupying power.

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