When a Mystery Story Kills its Own Suspense (A Few Good Men and Knives Out)

This weekend I was in a courtroom drama mood, and placed a lot of holds at the library, of which the first to come in was A Few Good Men. So that’s what I watched!

This is a movie in which I find myself always engrossed, despite being unsure how good a film it is. My hunch is that the engrossing quality it has is because of swift and packed dialogue, some energetic acting, and an overall slickness in directing. Despite this, I can’t feel there’s anything truly remarkable about the movie, or anything particularly insightful in how it handles its moral questions. But one interesting thing stuck out to me this time. A negative review brought it to my attention, and it connects to another mystery movie I saw in the last year, Knives Out.

The detail is this: in both A Few Good Men and Knives Out, the basic answer to the mystery—who killed the victim and how—is revealed pretty early on. In effect these movies kill their own suspense by revealing their own mysteries!

And this is puzzling, since both operate in the mystery genre: A Few Good Men is a courtroom drama, and Knives Out is a knowing take on the cozy murder mystery. You would think we shouldn’t really find out the solution until the very end. And this was the complaint in the review I read, that A Few Good Men loses most of its suspense by showing us essentially what happened.

(Spoilers here.) First of all, we see enough of the backstory to the killing that we guess or suspect most of the details of how it happened. And before the final courtroom scene, our lawyer Danny has figured it out, too, and explains it. So by the time the final witness, Colonel Jessep, takes the stand for his final confession and tirade, we aren’t really surprised by what we hear. We’ve even heard him give a tirade before, so his venom doesn’t surprise too much. Likewise, the crux of the case—did the marines kill the victim accidentally because of a “code red”, unofficial disciplinary action?—is put forward right at the start by another lawyer. She suspects that’s what happened, and I at least never doubted her interpretation. It’s just a question of who will finally admit what we pretty much know all along.

So all through the film, I kept thinking, Yeah, I pretty much know the solution to this whole “mystery”. Doesn’t that make it a bad courtroom drama? Why have the moviemakers done that?

I wonder if the explanation lies in a remark by the director of Knives Out  (I believe it was the director; it’s been a while, so correct me if you know better). This is among the special features on the DVD version. The director says that it was a deliberate choice to reveal most of the solution to the movie’s mystery long before the ending (around the middle). Here is my paraphrase: The purpose was to relieve the audience of their suspense about the mystery so that they can focus on the unfolding story that is going forward.

This got me thinking about suspense and what it makes us do as an audience. I have often had the experience of reading a page-turner in which I cannot read fast enough to devour the story to my satisfaction. It’s usually a story where each chapter or episode ends with so much suspense—such important questions hanging in the balance—that my heart is pounding with the urge to find out the answer. Sometimes there’s a titillating dread of what the answer will be. I can’t stand not knowing. So I keep reading, and fast. Some authors set out precisely to create this effect, a book we can’t put down. But it comes at a cost. When I am reading like that, I am usually not paying attention to the other pleasures and effects of fiction: to subtlety, insight, delicious interpersonal conflict, the experience of setting. And I notice that fiction which works primarily on suspense as its driving force usually does not dwell on these other aspects. Grisham’s The Pelican Brief comes to mind, and to some extent, Gone Girl.

The point is this. Suspense works on us like anxiety: it keeps us circling around or speeding our way forward, seeking an answer, because we can’t stand not knowing. But because of that it acts like a black hole, swallowing all our attention. Therefore a story that is all suspense and mystery can’t be about a lot else. 

My guess is that the makers of A Few Good Men wanted our attention off the mystery of “whodunnit” and and onto, “What are we going to do about it?”—onto the drama of how the crime can be brought to light and proven in court when nobody wants to admit it. I don’t know if this makes A Few Good Men a good movie or not. I feel it could have given a little less away so early, and the movie might have benefitted from a shorter run time. But I think what I’ve said above is the rationale for why so much is given away.

My takeaway from this for writers of mystery fiction is that if you want to bring focus to the unfolding drama of your tale itself, you may have to give away some of the mystery behind it to shift our curiosity and interest elsewhere. There is mystery, which is about the past, and there is the story of its discovery, which is about the present. You have to find where your own balance lies between the two. Practically, as I am writing a mystery myself, I find that the more complicated I make the underlying mystery, the more story time it takes to uncover it, and the less time is left for the drama of the discovery itself. My own interest, as this project goes on, has shifted onto the drama of the characters, and more and more I feel the mystery itself is a structure for telling this story, rather than the sole source of interest.

I’ve also noticed this overall trend in mystery fiction these days. The classic mysteries of the early 20th century (like Agatha Christie’s) are much more about the mystery itself, the clues, finding out the convoluted story of what happened. Many more recent mysteries, and those that are “literary” or aim to play with the genre, simplify the mystery itself to make room for the unfolding drama that surrounds the investigation of it: think of the novels of P. D. James. Often the actual murder and cover-up turns out to be quite simple. The interest of the story lies in the character stories in the present.

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