How many times have we encountered a line like this: “But Inspector that kind of thing only happens in books or detective movies. This is real life.” I’ve lost count, frankly. And how many times have I groaned at those lines! There ought to be a law for anyone who writes a novel never to draw comparisons between real life and fiction.
But there is a certain type of self-referential mystery novel that I do get a kick out of. Often the red flag is the inclusion of a mystery writer in the cast of characters. It's almost guaranteed that the story will be chock-full of crime fiction allusions, in-jokes and talk about the genre itself. This kind of meta-fiction when handled correctly can be both entertaining and enlightening. The commentary tends not to be done as a purposeless aside as in the bothersome "But this is real life" line. The discussions are integral to the plot and reveal an overarching intent behind the novel.
In the hands of a sly and witty writer like Timothy Fuller whose Three Thirds of a Ghost (1941) does indeed include a mystery writer the plot becomes a platform for commentary and criticism on the genre itself and the purpose of sensational fiction in popular culture. The title alone ought to signal to the reader that the story is intended to be taken not too seriously.
George Newbury, literary novelist has turned to detective fiction in order to capitalize on the popularity of the genre and increase his bank account. He sees his new career as slumming but the public loves his books featuring an Asian detective known as “The Parrot.” Just before he is about to make a speech at a literary gathering in one of Boston’s most popular bookstores someone shoots him. No one in the audience saw the gun being fired including the two men standing beside Newbury at the speaker’s dais.
Newbury had just been about to publish a roman a clef about a very rich and influential family. All of them are present at the literary event. So is Jupiter Jones, Fuller’s amateur sleuth who previously had solved the murders in Harvard Has a Homicide. Jones finds a gun neatly placed under the seat of one of the audience members. The discovery of the gun is witnessed by Newbury’s Chinese male secretary named Lin who many think is the model for Newbury’s detective. Lin is a gun toting Charlie Chan wannabe who is certain that Jupiter Jones is responsible for his employer’s murder. The two of them act as rivals in the role of amateur detective while the police home in on the puzzling evidence of who might have been the shooter.
The book is filled with ironic wit and subtle allusions to everything from Charlie Chan to the preposterous plotting of popular detective fiction. (How's that for snappy alliteration?) Here's a lengthy sampling from the longest section in the book where the characters discuss the evolution of the mystery novel and its relationship to real crime:
"We've just been discussing the public reaction to a murder of this kind. There's bound to be more excitement than sorrow. Quite usual, perhaps, but is it the result of the popularity of mystery fiction? Which came first? Was the public educated to its interest by the mystery story or was the mystery story the result of a public demand for more mysteries?"
"The fictional thriller glamorized murder," said Burton. "It was a mistake. Murder is more a question of glands than glamour."
Jupiter quips later to Burton who is an anthropologist: "I understand, Doctor, the police are looking for you to measure the skulls of the suspects." And the discussion continues:
"There won't be a new type of crime and therefore the mystery story is on the way out. There've been three stages of its development. Novelty, a believable realism, and lastly the fad of the puzzle. The novelty couldn't last, realism went out the their mass production, and a mere puzzle can't stand up for long in book form."
"I don't agree about the loss of realism," said Betty firmly. "I believe every one I read."
"So do I," said Burton, "until I've finished it."
Burton continues for a while castigating publishers and writers and readers alike. Then mentions that baffling crimes are a rarity in real life. No more than ten a year he estimates. Jupiter asks him if he thinks Newbury's murder is one of those baffling cases. Burton agrees that it is. "It looks to me as if someone had gone out of his way to commit murder, though."
Lin and Jones reluctantly join forces at the novel's midpoint and Lin proposes that together they trap the murderer with a blackmail stunt. Jones is leery of such a cliché: "That gag has been used before. You're apt to find it at least once in every ten mystery stories." But Lin counters that blackmail is used "because it is based on a sound knowledge of human reaction. A guilty man receiving such a note must act upon it." And then Betty steps in:
"You know, coming from him it might work."
[Lin:] "That is hardly a compliment, Miss Mahan but what you mean has occurred to me"
"I didn't mean..." She blushed slightly and waved her hand. "I guess I go to too many movies."
Much earlier in the book Jones stoops to thinking of Lin as a sort of stock character from fiction and not as Lin really is portrayed:
Jupiter stood up quietly and put up his hands. He had recognized Lin's voice and even if he hadn't known the man had a gun he would have followed no other course. Years of mystery story reading had conditioned him to the proper behavior toward Orientals in dark alleys.
Jones quips, "Eccentricity can hardly be construed as an overwhelming impediment in the path of successful detection."
A few pages on Jones confesses that he's been a fool and his impulsive behavior is mismatched with how a rational person ought to react:
It certainly was not reasonable to ask a girl to marry you the same night you'd been caught with no shoes on trying to hit a Chinaman over the head with a flashlight. A short time ago [Lin] had been definitely a Sinister Oriental. Now with his hat turned down and his hands in his pockets he looked only small, wet, and unhappy.
Events had produced a mass hypnosis; sanity, in himself and in others, had been replaced by pure fictional behavior. Murder, as an institution, was not to blame.
All this talk of real and fictional murder then allows Fuller to slip in some satirical social commentary. Often it comes with an unexpected blow:
The discussion turned to a general consideration of the literary scene and Jupiter found it pleasant and relaxing. Obviously Burton and Day had exhausted their talk about Newbury's murder during the course of the evening and until something new developed Jupiter was ready to forget it himself. The ease with which he could put it out of his mind was not surprising to him. If the human ability to forget could cause a second World War it was no trick to abandon a couple of murders.Feels like a slap in the face, doesn't it?