Most 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,
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?