Through a Glass Darkly: On Narrative Mysteries and Solutions

Note: Though this essay discusses True Detective and the significance of finales, it does not contain any spoilers of the show—though it does have mild spoilers of The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown. Consider yourself warned.


Review-True-Detective-00There’s a popular idea floating around about HBO’s acclaimed new series True Detective, that the identity of its killer doesn’t really matter. Essentially, that the solution to the mystery around which the show revolves is insignificant, a sort of MacGuffin that provides an occasion for the story that takes place around it, but which itself fades into nothingness when you look at it directly.

This theory—not to put too fine a point on it—is dead wrong. The truth is the opposite: in a narrative constructed around a mystery, that central mystery, if anything, takes on an outsize importance, one that threatens to blot out everything else. On some level, the only thing that matters in a mystery story is the last chapter. You may think that’s unfair, but it’s just the way the genre works, and if Nick Pizzolatto is a crime writer worth his salt, he understands the nature of the high-stakes game he’s playing.

If the finale of True Detective sucks, then the whole thing sucks. That’s just the way this game works.

As many theories as there are about True Detective, there are far more about the ideal structure of a mystery story. A popular one holds that in a mystery there are essentially two kinds of plot: an apparent plot and a revealed plot. The apparent plot is everything that happens up to the final chapter of the story—it’s what seems to be the case, what is immediately apparent, until the very end. The revealed plot is what really turns out to be the case after all the mysteries have been revealed. In a really good mystery, one with real existential stakes like True Detective, the difference between these two kinds of plots isn’t just mechanical, it’s interpretive. It isn’t just about who-appears-to-have-dunit and who-really-dunit. It’s about what it all—the world, good and evil, women and men, family, justice, society, the truth at the heart of humanity—really means: what it seems to mean when we’re wandering in the darkness, and what it means when we come out into the light.

It’s about the difference between seeing through a glass darkly and seeing face to face; between knowing in part and knowing fully.

HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

Another theory holds that what the structure of a mystery is really about is story and discourse, signifier and signified. The mystery, in its opening chapters, posits the existence of a coherent, meaningful story: the body in the woods, the blood spatter, the knife in the grass, the partial footprint. But the story is hidden, its meaning obscured. The narrative that proceeds from this point is not, itself, the story—it is, rather, discourse, the system of talk and empty signification and endless deferment that surrounds the story, like planets orbiting a star that can be glimpsed only glancingly, never directly. The story, usually, is revealed in the final chapter, but the story that preceded the story—the story of the detectives finding clues, signifiers throbbing with a meaning that lay just outside their grasp—that wasn’t the story.

Their story, the detective’s story, was merely the construction of a story.


In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, by my reckoning the first existential mystery novel, what is at stake is nothing less than the nature of the universe itself. Is the world ultimately a strange and unknowable place, chaotic, demon-haunted? Or is it orderly, predictable, knowable by humans through sensory observation and the application of deductive reasoning? Everything rides on Sherlock Holmes’s solution to the mystery. Will the world be ruled by supernaturalism or science?


Similarly in the hardboiled tradition, you—the reader and the detective both—don’t really know what kind of story you’ve got until you come to the end of it. In The Maltese Falcon, the revelation that the woman Sam Spade was protecting was really the villain all along changes the meaning of everything that’s come before; The Big Sleep begins as a search for prodigal daughters and ends with Philip Marlowe becoming a prodigal son. Chinatown—for my money the most well-constructed detective story in any medium, ever, world without end, amen—begins as an adultery plot before becoming a murder mystery, a tale of corruption, and finally a perverse family drama.

New York TrilogyEven in a postmodern mystery, where “solutions” are frequently withheld, the lack of revelation is itself a revelation. The Santa Teresa killers in Roberto Bolano’s 2666, the Trystero conspiracy in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the shifting identities of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy—by withholding solutions, each work suggests that in a fragmented postmodern reality, there is no revealed plot, only apparent plot; no story, only discourse; no transcendent signified, only a fallen world of empty signifiers.

Sometimes, there is no forest. Only trees.


At The AtlanticSpencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan had a revealing roundtable discussion about the most recent episode of True Detective, “After You’ve Gone,” in which each confessed, each in their own way, that after seven of eight episodes they still don’t fundamentally know what this show is about. This basic confusion didn’t just extend to the solutions to the show’s central mystery, but to its genre: Kornhaber variously wonders, sometimes jokingly, if the show is a ” good-looking but heavy-handed rehearsal of clichés? Deep dark occult philosophical treatise? Lone Star viral marketing campaign?” and even a “satire,” before ultimately admitting that he’s “obsessing over it as a murder mystery.”

Says Kornhaber:

And then I say: Stop it. Stop scrutinizing the backgrounds of each frame; stop guessing where this show is going. The exact contours of the plot’s resolution still aren’t available to us yet…I’m holding out for some mind-blowing turn in the finale, something that complicates the picture beyond telling us once more that the crushing scariness of mortality (“Rejoice! Death is not the end!”) makes normal people harm one another. I can’t quite envision it.

Me either. And I hope I’ve made it clear above that I don’t fault Kornhaber, Orr, and Sullivan for their confusion—in crime fiction, confusion up to the very last moment is a feature, not a bug. What happens next could be mind-blowing, the kind of Maltese Falcon/Big Sleep revelation that is simultaneously the last thing we expect and the only thing, in hindsight, that could’ve happened, something that changes the picture and complicates the meaning of everything that comes before.

Emphasis on could. The mystery form has its rewards when it’s done well, but it also has its risks. When you build a story on concealment, there’s a lot riding on the final chapter, the finale episode. The finale of The Sopranos may have disappointed audiences when it ended without revealing what happened to Tony, but the episode—love it or hate it—didn’t retroactively erase all that had come before. Whether Tony died in that diner or went on (“and on, and on, and on…”), we all knew what kind of story we’d seen in the series’ run.

True Detective doesn’t have that luxury. For better or worse, it—like Lost, a show built around a mystery that was partially undone in its final season by an unwillingness to reveal what the story was ultimately all about—will rise or fall on its final episode. Will it fulfill its promise and be what its partisans hold it to be: the best TV show of 2014? Will the solution to its mysteries reveal anything about the two antiheroes at its center? Will it become a postmodern mystery by withholding some aspect of the truth and suggesting that this is a world where “nothing is solved”? Will it lamely retread ground already covered by Red Riding and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake? Or—even worse—will it reveal itself to be nothing more than an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit with a longer runtime and higher production values?

It all rides on the last episode. You better believe I’ll be watching.

More on True DetectiveDid the finale measure up to expectations? Here’s Andrew’s take.

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