The best detective fiction often has a pair of crimes in parallel – one in the present caused by one in the future. To solve the present, you must excavate the past. This can take a range of forms, so that in the novel The Big Sleep, there is a hidden murder which is what really gets Marlowe involved, since all the overt plot threads derive from the murder that nobody even realises has happened until Marlowe summarises at the conclusion of “the case”. Conversely in The High Window, the motive is intimately connected with what was merely suspicious until the murder committed to cover it up. The other Chandler novels are in some senses recombinations of these two structural motifs. I think this is one of the things which Agatha Christie does a lot better than her contemporaries, and it doesn’t take many Five Little Pigs stories to punch a pretty solid hole in the George Grella theory (from “Murder and Manners”) of the Great Detective as enforcer of cultural homogeneity via the ejection of an interloper (the murderer). The murder in truth is more often an intimate of the victim, nonetheless revenging an ancient wrong. In the case of Five Little Pigs the revenge is 16 years in the making, but some Christie plots play out over even longer periods.
One of the difficulties for authors of “pedonoir” is that these timescales are simply unaccessible. In the first season of Veronica Mars the proximate mystery is also the deeper mystery – simply, who killed Lily; it is only in the second season that the mystery acquires the deeper layering of adult fiction – the mysterious bus bombing can only be solved when the much earlier abuse of Cassidy is resolved. Cassidy’s youth adds a dimension of horror and suffering to the scenario which adult noir can evade, paradoxically making a youth-oriented fiction more difficult than its adult counterpart. Well, in The Veronica Mars Movie, the eponymous hero has grown up, and the creative team uses that opportunity to create events that happened “just after high school” as the backstory for some of the central mini-mysteries. This essentially creates new backstories for existing characters, destabilising the immediate familiarity you might expect from a TV spin-off, allowing the canvas of the storytelling to feel familiar while still using all the “hidden backstory” ploys that a one-shot mystery would permit. Rob Thomas makes very full use of this flexibility and the solid basic geography of Neptune, cramming what must be virtually a whole season worth of mysteries into the film without ever seeming rushed or overwhelming.
Detective stories are usually an end in and of themselves – there is a dead body, and someone needs to be determined as the killer. For this reason, detective stories are especially suitable for Robin Laws’ “Iconic Hero” construction. They are perhaps the most “Iconic” of characters, and virtually all character drama that they accrue is incidental colour. Dalgleish, Poirot, Morse, Continental Op – these people don’t change at all, they change the world around them, restoring order from a situation put into chaos by a murder. Their personality quirks and foibles make them interesting, but they are defined by their professional activities. Child detectives are a natural contradiction in these terms, because the whole concept of childhood is a growth into adolescence, and the whole concept of “coming of age” is inherently dramatic. “Bildungsroman” (hi Freya!) is inherently structurally opposed to the character stasis of the Iconic hero. I think Buffy the Wampire Slayer was more successful than Veronica Mars because the creative team completely redefined the goalposts of the “order” that Buffy’s iconic nature restored, was able to provide two compelling alternate visions of what her Iconic identity could have been in the form of Kendra and Faith, and then allowed Buffy herself to redefine the whole concept of “the slayer”; Veronica never had a chance to really do any of those things, remaining trapped in an Iconic Identity. The final scenes of the show, where Veronica apparently escapes were in some senses unsatisfying, because we all understood from the opening few scenes of the first episode of the show that Veronica’s brutal experience had forged her into her iconic identity.
Weirdly, what this film thus provides Veronica is a fresh chance at the “coming of age” story, as an adult. Having lost her identity, this film really acts as a mechanism for her rediscovering it. She undergoes a full dramatic arc, arguably even following the “Hero’s Journey” pattern of resisting the call etc, before resolving into the character we recognised from the show. The difference is in her perception of herself as an Iconic Character. In the first voice-over of the show, Veronica constructs her identity as a projection of things that happened to her. She is the victim of rape, probably, and is suffering the loss of a friend. She is a reactive force, and she becomes involved in the tribulations of her classmates almost unwillingly. In the closing voice-over of the film, she projects her identity outwards, as someone “back in the fight”, as a force for social justice.
I’d heard generally unflattering things about this film, that it felt incomplete, that it was too bitsy, that the characters lacked snap and sizzle. I didn’t find any of that true. I thought it was a very solid capstone to the character and the concept, while firmly establishing a basis on which I think a new version of the character could be built. If I have any negative comments, it’s that it continues to let certain male characters escape the consequences of their misbehaviour – thinking particularly of Dick Casaveettes here, who must be one of the most repulsive characters ever on TV that we’re supposed to like. Aside from that blemish, this was the film I wanted it to be, that served its principal character well, and was satisfying within multiple genre constraints. Now to check out the novels that follow.