Are You Talking to Me?*

Directly Addressing the ReaderMost crime stories are told either in the first or third person, as a narration of events. Readers follow along and (hopefully) are drawn into the tale. But every once in a while, the author addresses the reader more directly. That strategy, when it’s done well, can invite the reader to engage in the story. It’s a bit like someone telling you about something and then asking what you think or whether you agree. You’re more drawn into the conversation when you’re addressed directly.

Fans of ‘the Queen team’ will know that they use this strategy in some of the Ellery Queen stories. For example, in The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the murder of attorney Monte Field. The murder occurs during a theatrical performance, so the Queens have two logistical tasks. One is to find out how Field was killed, with so many people around. The other is to narrow down who, exactly, was close enough to him to commit the crime. There’s also of course the question of who would have a motive. That field’s open, since the victim was in the habit of blackmail. There’s a section in this novel titled: Interlude: In Which the Reader’s Attention is Respectfully Requested. In that section, the narrator figuratively turns to the reader and lets the reader know that all of the evidence, suspects, clues and so forth are now ‘on the table.’ The reader is then invited to make sense of them and solve the case. The narrator than returns to the story in the next section. Those who’ve seen the TV series starring Jim Hutton will know that Hutton, as Queen, does the same sort of thing in that series.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal begins this way:

 

‘My dear fellow, it’s all perfectly simple and clear. I detest discussing such a gory thing, but I must do so. Otherwise, I fear you’ll receive your only knowledge of the episode from those lurid newspaper accounts, which are written for scandal-hungry human animals of the lowest order.’

 

The narrator, staid banker Horace Croyden, then goes on to tell his story. A quiet, very respectable man, he’s always prided himself on living a quiet, completely scandal-free life. He craves stability and order, and that’s all he’s ever known. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. After an appropriate time of courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Croyden finds that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea isn’t the quiet, old-fashioned, respectable sort of woman he’d thought she was. She begins by making some (to her) minor changes to the décor of their home, which is bad enough from her husband’s perspective. But then, she destroys some of his beloved ciphers (a hobby he’s had for a while). That proves to be too much for Croyden, who decides to take his own approach to solving his problem.

There’s also Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. Here’s how that story begins:
 

‘Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’ 

 

The narrator then continues to address the reader directly, telling the story of a printer named Justin and a suave man named Harley. Things turn ugly when they get involved with some dangerous people, and the end of the story has a real twist in it. The effect is all the more eerie because the reader is directly addressed.

John Burdett’s series featuring Royal Thai Police officer Sonchai Jitpleecheep also includes comments made directly to the reader. These novels take place mostly in Bangkok, and are told from Sonchai’s perspective. As the stories go on, Sonchai occasionally breaks the narrative just a bit to address the reader. Here, for instance, is a bit from Bangkok Tattoo. In this scene, Sonchai is discussing Thai attitudes towards prostitution:

 

‘These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farang [foreigners] exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough, drunken, whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it. (Don’t look at me like that, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us).’

 

It’s an interesting way to share cultural/religious information, which occasionally happens in this series. It also serves to show Sonchai’s particular world view.

Sometimes, the author puts the reader in the story, if you will, almost as a character. For instance, in Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we meet Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a bookselling/publishing firm. Hand is devastated by the sudden death of his wife Rachel, and decides to make a major change in his life. He sells their home and moves to a quiet, respectable hotel in London. When he settles into his room, he discovers that the previous occupant left behind a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a silk bundle and hidden in the davenport.  Hand becomes curious about that occupant, whose name is Freddie Doyle, and starts to ask questions. When Doyle tries to get the hair back, Hand refuses and becomes even more curious. In fact, he becomes obsessed with Doyle and with the woman whose hair Doyle left behind. Hand’s obsession begins to take over as he starts to believe that Doyle is a murderer. As is the case with many obsessions, this one leads to very dark places. Throughout the story, Hand addresses the reader, starting with the first sentences:
 

‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’ 

 

In the end, we find out what role the reader is given in the novel.

Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet Mysteries,’ featuring her sleuth, PI Kinsey Millhone, don’t address the reader quite as directly as do Burdett’s. Still, the novels end with epilogues signed,

 

Respectfully Submitted,
Kinsey Millhone

 

In those epilogues, Millhone occasionally steps out of the role of narrator and addresses the reader just a bit more directly than she does in the stories themselves.

What do you think of that strategy of directly addressing the reader? Do you feel more engaged in a novel when its author uses it? Does it pull you out of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use that tactic?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s What Was it You Wanted?

26 Comments

Filed under Charlotte Jay, Ellery Queen, Fredric Brown, John Burdett, Sue Grafton, Talmage Powell

26 responses to “Are You Talking to Me?*

  1. Addressing the reader directly can be very annoying if it’s too obtrusive – I like it in Burdett’s case, as it gives an additional commentary on the differences between Thailand and the West, it sort of pricks any of our airs of superiority, any pretensions. I wouldn’t use it personally in crime fiction. I might use it in some more experimental type of fiction and perhaps in shorter pieces rather than in a whole novel, as it can grate).

    • I like the way Burdett uses this strategy too, Marina Sofia. It certainly disabuses us of any notion of superiority; and as you say, it gives readers a window on another way of looking at life. I think you make an important distinction, too, between short stories and novels. Addressing the reader directly can be effective in short bursts or for short stories/novellas. For longer novels, I think it’s best in small bits, as Burdett does, rather than for stretches.

  2. Col

    I can’t recall encountering it enough to be irked by it. I suppose the trick every now and then would help my reading remain fresh…. a slightly different presentation of events. No-one wants to read the same story told the same way over and over again.

    • That’s just it, Col. It does get tiresome to read the same kind of story – well, told in the same way – the whole time. That can be one advantage of using the technique of addressing the reader directly.

  3. An interesting topic, Margot, and I have not encountered it a lot. I still haven’t read any of John Burdett’s books, and I should.

  4. I don’t care for that technique so much in books when the author addresses the reader, but do like being told the story by one of the characters. It’s lots more fun in movies when the main character looks at the camera and either speaks to or expresses his opinion through body language. The Kevin Spacey asides in House of Cards are good writing.

    • Oh, that’s a good example, Pat! And it can work quite well when it’s visual, as it is on film or TV. Interesting that you find that an omnicient narrator addressing the reader doesn’t work quite as well. It’s not a strategy that’s easy to pull off. As you say, it’s different when one of the character tells the story…

  5. “Dear reader, I married him!” What? It’s a crime novel – arson! 😉

    I’m just about to start reading ‘You’ by Zoran Drvenkar which is apparently written completely in the second person – the thought makes me shudder a bit, but we shall see. He did use ‘you’ quite effectively in his earlier book ‘Sorry’ but only in sections. In general, I think it can be effective in short bursts, but only if the author handles it really well. Otherwise it’s more likely to throw me out of the story rather than draw me in.

    • 😆 I like that, FictionFan!! 🙂
       
      I’ll be really keen to know what you think of You. The use of the second person like that is so unusual; I’d suppose it’s very hard to pull off. I hope Dvenkar can do that. You have a good point about the measured doses, actually. I think different strategies (such as addressing the reader) can be effective as ‘breaks’ and in small bursts. Not so much, perhaps, for longer than that.

  6. I just finished Bait and Switch by Larry Brooks, who does this. And I loved it. So much so I’m trying it in my new book. I’m sure I won’t be able to pull it off like he does, or these other incredible authors you mentioned, but I’m giving it my best shot. I think it’s a great way to pull the reader in.

    • I’m sure you’ll do a fine job of it, Sue. And I’m glad that Brooks’ work inspired you. I always think it’s great when authors are inspired by other authors.

  7. As you say Margot sometimes addressing the author works well but I often feel like a child as I used to listen to a radio program called ‘Listen With Mother’ and my mind can’t help but silently say… ‘are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’ I did enjoy A Hank of Hair that I read on your recommendation because this method fitted that story perfectly.

    • I think it fitted the story well, too, Cleo, and I’m glad you enjoyed the novel. How interesting that addressing the reader directly brings back those childhood memories for you. I suppose we all have those memories that can be triggered like that. I’m glad actually that you had a radio storytelling program. I think storytelling is an important art; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if hearing and telling stories as a child is related to loving books later in life.

  8. Oh the ‘Just sit back and relax…’ gets me… but then I’m a real Woose!

    Excellent post Margot – we were discussing 2nd person narrative at my local writing group recently and all tried to do a ‘horror’ piece in that style… generated much discussion

    Have heard Iain Banks ‘Complicitly’ uses it with great effect

    • Thanks for the kind words, Poppy. I’ve not (yet) read Complicity, but I have heard it’s good. Using the second person to write a horror piece sounds like a fascinating exercise in creativity. Even if you decided it wasn’t for you, I’m sure you got some terrific writing ideas. And as far as that ‘Sit back and relax…’ sort of line? It really can make your skin start to crawl, and it’s used very effectively in Brown’s Don’t Look Behind You, I think.

  9. Philip MacDonald did this at least once (in RYNOX) and of course Carr has Gideon Fell say in THE HOLLOW MAN, “We’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.°

    • Oh, Sergio, I’d forgotten about The Hollow Man! Thank you for filling in that embarrassing hole. And I didn’t know that was a part of Rynox (must read that!). Thanks 🙂

      • Sorry for the typo Margot – definitely THE HOLLOW MAN (known in the US as THE THREE COFFINS). RYNOX (aka THE RYNOX MURDERS) is great fun.

        • Oh, Sergio, I made the same mistake, so don’t feel bad! I knew the book you meant of course, and just…didn’t spell it properly. Goes to show you what happens when you don’t think. I’ve fixed it for both of us.

  10. So glad you mentioned that terrifying story by Frederic Brown, just coming across it makes me shudder! Perfect use of 2nd person….

  11. Kathy D.

    Interesting idea. But what is the difference between asides to the reader and stories being told in the first person when much of the protagonists’ thoughts and statements are directed to the reader. I don’t mind this usually, but I disliked it in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a bit too much.
    Then again in a Montalbano book when the inspector says something like, “I am afraid to run into the actor who plays me on television,” isn’t that an aside to the reader? That I think is a perfectly fine aside to the reader and adds to the fun of the book.
    Also, when a book is told in third person but there are chapters or sections in italics which portray the killer’s thoughts to the reader, I shudder and often skip those parts.

    • I agree with you, Kathy, about killers’ thoughts in italics. I’ve never liked that much, myself. To me, anyway, the difference between first person stories and asides to the reader goes a bit like this. A first person story tells the events from the narrator’s point of view (e.g. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels). Asides to the reader are not as much narrations of events; they directly address the reader. It’d be a bit like Warshawski turning to you in the middle of one of her stories and saying something such as, ‘You can understand what I mean, can’t you?” or ‘Now, you might not know this, but…’ Something like that. Sometimes the difference is a bit subtle, but it’s there.And sometimes it works effectively…and sometimes not.

  12. Kathy D.

    I see. Sometimes on TV an actor winks and gives an aside to the viewer.
    It happens in plays, too. I recall seeing some, including by Shakespeare, with this plot device and it worked there.

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