September 4, 2020

As a crime writer, I’m supposed to be able to follow thriller plots. (I’ve even presumed to teach plotting on creative writing courses.) But I often can’t. That doesn’t stop me from trying, though. During lockdown, since the cinema was closed, I acquired Amazon Prime and Netflix accounts and watched a succession of thrillers with my wife. And as the credits rolled, the same scenario would play out.

Me: “You enjoy that?”
Wife: “Yes.”
Me: “But did you understand it?”
Wife: “Of course I did. Didn’t you?”

I’m a bit tired, frankly, of watching thrillers with my wife. She’s too complacent about plotting. “Oh, who cares how he found out where the villain lives?” she’ll say. “The fact is, he did find out.”

So this week I made —alone — my first visit to a cinema since March. I went to see Tenet, the action-packed blockbuster kickstarting filmgoing after lockdown. That said, I was one of about four people watching it in a huge auditorium. We’d all been reminded to wear face masks “except when eating and drinking”, so I bought a big bag of jelly babies.

Given my particular neurosis, it was asking for trouble to see the particular film. The director, Christopher Nolan, favours complicated high-concept plots. His Inception (2010) is about dreams; Memento (2000) plays about with chronology. I followed shreds of the plot in each case — enough to enjoy the spectacle, because Nolan’s films always look great.

Tenet concerns time travel, and my incomprehension was total, in part because whenever someone appeared to be explaining what was going on, I couldn’t hear them. The main explainer was Kenneth Branagh as the villain who is somehow in touch with the future. He delivers a long, possibly crucial, speech in a blustery wind on a racing catamaran — all the time without really opening his mouth. Explication is further inhibited by the fact that the characters — like the audience — often wear face masks, because when you go backwards in time, there’s no oxygen. (The effect is depressing: it’s as if the actors on screen don’t want to catch Covid from the audience.)

Time travel stories are usually fraught, especially if the author attempts to explain how it’s done; and what happens if you kill your own grandfather back in time? This (‘the Grandfather paradox’) is mumbled about in Tenet. In the film, time travels both forwards and backwards. Approaching the climax, an army officer gives a briefing to two SWAT teams he’s going to be leading in “a pincer movement — not in space, but in time”. The briefing concluded, he asks whether any of the men have questions; none do. I had about a hundred and fifty.

There have been many complaints about the sound mixing of Tenet, and most reviewers have admitted to at least partial bafflement when it comes to the plot. The Telegraph’s line, “Don’t try to understand it — just rewind and enjoy the ride” is common, as though incomprehensibility were some small endearing eccentricity. Or it might be that Nolan is getting credit for creating this smokescreen, as if it proves his brilliance. Apparently, he spent ten years deliberating over the plotline. I don’t know how long he spent on the dialogue, but at one point somebody says, “There’s a new cold war — ice cold.”

Tenet is a thriller, and thrillers are supposed to create tension. If the audience doesn’t know what’s happening — if, for example, they can’t tell who’s chasing who in a backwards car chase — there’s no tension, only confusion.

Of course, there’s room for some confusion in a thriller. It’s like the magician’s fast distraction patter, from which a surprise might spring — and surprises can help build tension. But what’s even better is the opposite of surprise: anticipation. This can arise from a particular situation — for instance Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb under a table. The characters don’t know it’s there: will it go off? Or it might come from the audience’s knowledge of a fatal flaw in a character’s makeup. In this way, tension and characterisation are intertwined.

The plot of Roman Polanski’s film, Chinatown, is intricate, but the complications hinge on the peculiar and poignant situation of the Faye Dunaway character. I know dozens of people who’ve seen it — none of them say it was too complicated. The same is true of Robert Altman’s film of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbye, in which the characters are given better motivations than in the original novel. (We’ll be coming back to Chandler). Of more recent films, I’d cite Knives Out, a whodunit of last year, as a film with well-managed complications.

Knives Out pays homage to ‘Golden Age’ of British ‘whodunit’ crime writing, of which the main exponents were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Their books are also called ‘cosies’ because the settings are opulent and the detectives are God-like — and the more complications the detective can surmount, the more God-like they are.

The cosiness was appreciated by readers seeking relief from the social tensions of inter-war Britain, but there are often too many twists. In The Five Red Herrings by Sayers, it takes Lord Peter Wimsey about 30 pages to explain whodunit. A Christie novel to avoid is Murder on the Links, where there’s much hasty shuffling of suspects towards the end, as though she realised, in a panic, that each successive one was too obvious.

The Golden Age books usually have too many suspects, and the existence of the character finally revealed as the culprit might have entirely slipped your mind. In his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler wrote that, when reading the Golden Agers, he found himself having to “go back to page 47 to refresh my memory about exactly what time the second gardener potted the prize-winning tea rose begonia”.

But if Chandler’s stories were more realistic than those of Christie and Sayers, his plotting could be just as problematic. Farewell My Lovely begins with Chandler’s detective, Marlowe, observing a murder committed by an overwrought man looking for an ex-girlfriend. Marlowe is then immediately involved in another murder of a more rational type, relating to a jewel theft. The two murders eventually serve the overall plot, but the juxtaposition jars. They don’t seem to belong in the same book, and they once did belong to separate short stories of Chandler’s, which he cannibalised for the novel — a common habit of his. Chandler is a superb writer of atmosphere and dialogue, but his novels create in me anxiety rather than tension. I’m always waiting for another ragged and disorientating jump cut.

It’s perhaps more tempting to over-plot now than ever — to come up with something for the Tweeters and bloggers to chew on. But I like that strain of genre writers with a casual approach to plot. Elmore Leonard, I think, more or less made up his plots as he went along, influenced by the developing vagaries of his very three-dimensional characters. And I approve of Lee Child’s laidback approach to the Jack Reacher novels: “Ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, then delay the answer.”

I admire the spare plots of Georges Simenon’s stories featuring the laconic detective Maigret, in which the culprit might be someone Maigret — and the reader — vaguely thought it was all along, and this person is finally triggered into an admission by an apposite remark of the detective’s.

Christopher Nolan should read some Maigrets. He might then make a film where people yawn, watch the rain fall, savour a last Calvados while the barman puts the chairs on the table. And he would do it so beautifully.


Andrew Martin’s latest novel is The Winker (Corsair)