Saturday, February 27, 2010

Once Upon a Time...

by Scott D. Parker

"Once upon a time" are words rarely seen in crime and mystery fiction. Why?

All mystery and crime fiction is just that, fiction. It's make believe. It can have its roots in reality (McBain's 87th Precinct and Cornwell's Scarpetta's novels, to name two) but authors still spin the threads that make the yarns we love to read. This reality we all crave (why?) often takes the form of stories ripped from the headlines. When the man flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin last week, I can bet you that dozens of writers crafted their own versions as to why he did it. That's make believe, isn't it? Then why don't we start our crime tales with "Once upon a time?"

When readers and listeners hear that phrase, they expect a story. We mystery writers don't have a problem with that. Perhaps, then, it's the magical connotations associated with "Once upon a time." There is a sizeable group of readers of mystery fiction who don't like magic, vampires, fantasy, or fairy tales getting in the way of a good mystery. Maybe it's because they like their stories to feel "real." If that's the case, just read non-fiction. As a historian, I can attest that history is alive with plots and stories of things any agent would reject with words like "This could never happen." Thing is, we slurp up those stories of ordinary human tragedy and triumph like patrons in a soup kitchen. Be honest now: who didn't feel a twinge when Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette performed only days after her mother's passing. Yeah, that's a bad movie-of-the-week in any other situation, but, on Tuesday, at the Olympics, it was fantastic.

So, what keeps "Once upon a time" from opening all our stories? One possible explanation comes from the crime fiction itself. Crime fiction has, over time, evolved from stories involving over-the-top heroes and villains (I'm looking at you Gardner, Grant, Robeson, Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, etc.) to narratives examining the social conditions from which crime emerges. "The Wire" is one of the most compelling pieces of crime drama I've ever seen. The reality of that show is what gives it the edge over many other things. Thing is, stuff like this really happens, all the time, in cities across America and the world. It's in the headlines and the television news. Maybe the reason we like reality in our fiction is because we can get closure with a fictionalized version of a true story whereas, in real life, we rarely earn our answers.

Which brings me back to "Once upon a time." Is this phrase not the key that unlocks the world of the imagination, even if the world is a high-tech thriller, a space fantasy, a romance novel, a historical mystery, or a piece of crime fiction about the inner city of Washington? Or is it that we can't hear famous narrators like Sam Spade say it even though it's the invisible words printed on every page one? Or is "Once upon a time" strictly the province of children's literature, the type of story adults slough off like dead skin once they reach a certain age? I hope not. There’s a reason stories featuring Cinderella, Goldilocks, Frodo Baggins, Sam Spade, Luke Skywalker, The Cat in the Hat, Scarlet O’Hara, and Scout Finch stay with us. It’s the magic of the tale. It’s the magic of “Once upon a time.”


Mike Dennis said...

Food for thought, Scott. But let's not forget the use of the phrase in titles, like Sergio Leone's two powerful, operatic films, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Very fitting use of it, I think.

Chris said...

I've honestly never thought much about it, but it is intriguing. The conclusion I come to is I'm thinking "once upon a time" every time I crack open a book to start reading.