Every whodunnit mystery has two narratives. The first is the crime at the center of the story. How the murder was planned and carried out. The history between killer and victim. The red herring clues that point to innocent parties, and the backstory that makes those parties credible suspects. And so on. All of that comprises a complex narrative that, at the beginning of the book, is hidden from the reader and the protagonist.
The second narrative is the one the reader reads, in which the protagonist investigates and uncovers the first narrative.
Many ghost stories have a similar structure. There’s a hidden narrative of a terrible crime or crimes that created the ghost(s) and the specific details of the haunting itself. The story of the people who experience the haunting often depends on the revelation of that hidden crime for its resolution.
You might think that similarity in the two structures would mean they’d combine well, but the new CW series NANCY DREW shows how difficult that can be.
A lot of folks think that the main pleasure of a whodunnit (or any kind of mystery, really) is that things are be set right at the end. Something awful happens. Someone uncovers the culprit. They’re arrested or killed. Order is restored.
I dunno. I’ve never experienced them that way. For me, the main pleasures of a mystery are the characters, because you need a lot of contrast to tell all those suspects apart, and the hard work.
Me, I wasn’t much of a Nancy Drew fan until after VERONICA MARS showed me that the whole teen detective thing could have real bite to it. Then Emma Roberts appeared in the 2007 NANCY DREW, and I thought that movie was delightful. Much lighter than VM, but it still portrayed the protagonist as intelligent and hard-working, someone who kept digging for clues long after I would have given up.
But ghosts take all that away. Characters don’t have to act on their own initiative because they are terrorized by the supernatural elements of the story to take action. Ghosts push them toward clues. Visions of the past reveal the hidden narrative.
In other words, what would be revealed through the brilliance and diligence of the main character in a whodunnit is now forced upon them.
For example, in the most recent episode, a ghost keeps breaking screens in Nancy’s house. Only after the third one, on her laptop, does Nancy realize they’re all breaking in the same pattern. Nancy, being brilliant, recognizes her small town in the edges of the pattern, calls up Google Maps, and realizes the breaks are pointing toward a specific place: her high school.
Cut to a scene where she’s breaking into the school, complete with black knit cap and flashlight. A ghostly glow directs her to the trophy case/memorial/(?) where she finds a photo tucked away that proves another character lied to her in Act 2 of the episode.
So, sure, it’s smart to recognize the pattern and it shows initiative to break out the lock picks (by my count, Nancy has done a B&E in three out of four episodes this season and she really ought to be better at it) but it still feels like the mystery is being handed to her. Check out the school. Look in the case. In the first episode, a medium tells her to look in the attic, where she finds a bloody dress locked away in a trunk. It’s just another example of “Go here. Find clue.”
Not only is this sort of plot easier on the main character, it’s easier for the show’s writers. You don’t have to brainstorm a reason for Nancy to hunt for that photo at the school. You just have to brainstorm a way for the ghost to point the way in a spoooooky manner.
See also, the movie ODD THOMAS, which is a reasonably effective thriller as long as you don’t think too hard about the way Odd’s magic powers lead him by the nose from one plot point to the next.
See also, redux, this quote: (Source)
I don’t object to the way the Force is used in STAR WARS any more than I object to Eleven’s powers in STRANGER THINGS. It keeps things moving and doesn’t take away from the story. But then, the heroes in those stories aren’t detectives. I’m not watching because I’m hoping to see brilliance.
Honestly, I think I’d like NANCY DREW a lot more if the main character wasn’t named Nancy Drew. I wouldn’t have come to it hoping to see a bright, energetic young person doing the work that the older generations couldn’t.
The ghosts are fun, though. Maybe in the back half of this first season or in season two, they’ll have ghosts who mislead or interfere rather than help. I hope so.
If you’ve read this far down, you should hear a few facts: Progress on THE IRON GATE continues, although not as quickly as I’d have hoped. In fact, I was all set to take part in NaNoWriMo this year for the first time ever, but then I took a close look at the actual numbers and chickened out. Still, even if I’m digging a ditch with a shovel instead of a backhoe, that ditch is going to get dug.
ONE MAN continues to be delayed. Maybe I should set a definite release date to stop myself from fussing with this and that and just releasing it.