Reading Protocols

What are reading protocols? When we think of the word protocol, we usually think of a set of behaviors: diplomats, for example, behave according to protocol. Protocols are the unwritten rules that govern how people behave. Reading protocols are the unwritten rules that govern how we read.

Because after all, when we open a book (or nowadays, turn on an ereader), all we actually see are squiggly lines on a page (or screen). As I tell my students at the beginning of every semester, writing is based on the idea that we can use these squiggly lines to convey meaning. An idea that, if you really think about it, is absurd. Writing and reading are both absurd, which is perhaps why they are so powerful. It is the absurdities of life that are most powerful: art, hope, love.

So we create rules about how to read. About how to turn those squiggly lines into meaning, and fairly sophisticated meaning. There are simpler protocols (reading a sentence left to right, for example), and quite sophisticated ones. I think the best example of how the more sophisticated reading protocols work can be found in a short story by James Thurber, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery.” I’m going to talk about parts of the story, but if you want to read the whole thing first, you can do so here.

The story starts when the protagonist meets a fellow tourist – an American woman – in the English lake country.

“It was a stupid mistake to make,” said the American woman I had met at my hotel in the English lake country, “but it was on the counter with the other Penguin books – the little sixpenny ones, you know, with the paper covers – and I supposed of course it was a detective story. All the others were detective stories. I’d read all the others, so I bought this one without really looking at it carefully. You can imagine how mad I was when I found it was Shakespeare.” I murmured something sympathetically. “I don’t see why the Penguin-books people had to get out Shakespeare plays in the same size and everything as the detective stories,” went on my companion. “I think they have different-colored jackets,” I said. “Well, I didn’t notice that,” she said. “Anyway, I got real comfy in bed that night and all ready to read a good mystery story and here I had The Tragedy of Macbeth – a book for high-school students. Like Ivanhoe,” “Or Lorna Doone,” I said. “Exactly,” said the American lady. “And I was just crazy for a good Agatha Christie, or something. Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective.” “Is he the rabbity one?” I asked. “Oh, no,” said my crime-fiction expert. “He’s the Belgian one. You’re thinking of Mr. Pinkerton, the one that helps Inspector Bull. He’s good, too.”

Do you see what happened? The American woman picked up a copy of Macbeth by accident. She’s not very happy about it, obviously. I wouldn’t be either, if it was late at night and I wanted a detective story.

She and the narrator get into a conversation over tea, and this is how it goes:

“Tell me,” I said. “Did you read Macbeth?” “I had to read it, she said. “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.” “Did you like it?” I asked. “No, I did not,” she said, decisively. “In the first place, I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.” I looked at her blankly. “Did what?” I asked. “I don’t think for a moment that he killed the King,” she said. “I don’t think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty – or shouldn’t be, anyway.” “I’m ‘afraid,” I began, “that I –” “But don’t you see?” said the American lady. “It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it. Shakespeare was too smart for that. I’ve read that people never have figured out Hamlet, so it isn’t likely Shakespeare would have made Macbeth as simple as it seems.” I thought this over while I filled my pipe. “Who do you suspect?” I asked, suddenly. “Macduff,” she said, promptly. “Good God!” I whispered, softly.

Do you see what’s happened? She’s used the reading protocol for a murder mystery to understand and analyze Macbeth. And as someone who has read what I believe to be every Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers published (including the obscure ones, and some of the ones published under pseudonyms), I can tell you that Thurber has an excellent understanding of those protocols. Of course Macbeth is too obvious. The person you first suspect, the person you are told committed the murder, is never the one who actually did it. (There is one exception: if the person you first suspect is definitively proven to be innocent by the middle of the book, if he or she could not possibly have committed the murder, then there is a good chance that he or she did commit the murder after all.)

The conversation goes on to detail further protocols:

“Oh Macduff did it, all right,” said the murder specialist. “Hercule Poirot would have got him easily.” “How did you figure it out?” I demanded. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t right away. At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim.” “Is that so?” I murmured. “Oh, yes,” said my informant. “They have to keep surprising you. Well, after the second murder I didn’t know who the killer was for a while.” “How about Malcolm and Donalbain, the King’s sons?” I asked. “As I remember it, they fled right after the first murder. That looks suspicious.” “Too suspicious,” said the American lady. “Much too suspicious. When they flee, they’re never guilty. You can count on that.” “I believe,” I said, “I’ll have a brandy,” and I summoned the waiter. My companion leaned toward me, her eyes bright, her teacup quivering. “Do you know who discovered Duncan’s body?” she demanded. I said I was sorry, but I had forgotten. “Macduff discovers it,” she said, slipping into the historical present. “Then he comes running downstairs and shouts, ‘Confusion has broke open the Lord’s anointed temple’ and ‘Sacrilegious murder has made his masterpiece’ and on and on like that.” The good lady tapped me on the knee. “All that stuff was rehearsed,” she said. “You wouldn’t say a lot of stuff like that, offhand, would you – if you had found a body?” She fixed me with a glittering eye. “I –” I began. “You’re right!” she said. “You wouldn’t! Unless you had practiced it in advance. ‘My God, there’s a body in here!’ is what an innocent man would say.” She sat back with a confident glare.

You do see how it works at this point, right? You could make a set of rules, actual written rules, with exceptions and qualifications of course. The first suspect is in fact often the second victim, which throws the police inspector off, while the detective says that he or she knew the second victim was innocent all along. When suspects flee, they’re never guilty: they always have perfectly good reasons for fleeing. If I remember correctly, there is not one Christie or Sayers in which the murderer flees.  The murderer is always much too confident.  That confidence is, in fact, the mark of the murderer.

This is my favorite part:

I thought for a while. “But what do you make of the Third Murderer?” I asked. “You know, the Third Murderer has puzzled Macbeth scholars for three hundred years.” “That’s because they never thought of Macduff,” said the American lady. “It was Macduff, I’m certain. You couldn’t have one of the victims murdered by two ordinary thugs – the murderer always has to be somebody important.” “But what about the banquet scene?” I asked, after a moment. “How do you account for Macbeth’s guilty actions there, when Banquo’s ghost came in and sat in his chair?” The lady leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. “There wasn’t any ghost,” she said. “A big, strong man like that doesn’t go around seeing ghosts – especially in a brightly lighted banquet hall with dozens of people around. Macbeth was shielding somebody!” “Who was he shielding?” I asked. “Mrs. Macbeth, of course,” she said. “He thought she did it and he was going to take the rap himself. The husband always does that when the wife is suspected.” “But what,” I demanded, “about the sleepwalking scene, then?” “The same thing, only the other way around,” said my companion. “That time she was shielding him. She wasn’t asleep at all. Do you remember where it says, ‘Enter Lady Macbeth with a taper’?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, people who walk in their sleep never carry lights!” said my fellow-traveler. “They have a second sight. Did you ever hear of a sleepwalker carrying a light?” “No,” I said, “I never did.” “Well, then she wasn’t asleep. She was acting guilty to shield Macbeth.” “I think,” I said, “I’ll have another brandy,” and I called the waiter. When he brought it, I drank it rapidly and rose to go. “I believe,” I said, “that you have got hold of something. Would you lend me that Macbeth? I’d like to look it over tonight. I don’t feel, somehow as if I’d ever really read it.” “I’ll get it for you,” she said. “But you’ll find that I am right.”

The murderer is never a minor character. Couples always shield each other, which makes them both act as though they were guilty. And there is an expectation that the writing will be realistic. People will not speak in uncharacteristic ways unless they have a reason to do so. People will behave the way medical science says they will.

Do you know what this makes me think of? That when I read a murder mystery, or even watch a television show with a murder in it, when I’m attempting to solve it, what I’m really doing is attempting to understand how the writer is using the protocols. I’m doing exactly what the American woman is doing in the Thurber story. I’m saying to myself, no, he can’t be guilty because it’s too early for the murderer to be discovered. No, she can’t be guilty because she’s shielding him. What I find so useful about Christie is that her stories function as a sort of textbook in what you can do with reading protocols. She often writes the same murder twice, with different murderers. And in each one, she approaches the protocols differently.

It’s also fascinating to watch accounts of actual murder trials on television. (I confess, I watch those shows. It’s not a morbid interest – I want to write murder mysteries. And anyway, as a writer, nothing is foreign to me, and that includes crime.) You see, juries use the protocols to make judgments in murder cases. If there is a mysterious death, it must be murder. If it’s a beautiful young wife, the murderer is probably her husband. If he isn’t sorrowful enough, that’s a sign of guilt. If he’s too sorrowful, he’s probably faking it. And if she was insured – well. You see how it works. Real life is considerably more confusing than a murder mystery. For example, it contains more coincidences (in a murder mystery, Hercules Poirot tells us, you are only allowed one).  But juries approach cases as though they were stories.  Stories are, after all, our way of understanding the world.  (I’m convinced that someone should pay me for this insight.)

This is already a long post, but tomorrow I’ll tell you who killed Amelia Price.

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6 Responses to Reading Protocols

  1. Grey Walker says:

    Oh, this is just gorgeous! I love it. I’m laughing like a loon, here.

  2. sarah says:

    Absolutely wonderful! 🙂 And now I have reverted to my original theory about Amelia – suicide. Now I simply have to go and read that Thurber story.

  3. Glad you like it! 🙂 But I think it teaches us a lot too, about how stories are read. And how little we can control that, as writers . . .

  4. Kathy says:

    Excellent piece. I really enjoyed it. I had not thought of that approach to Macbeth before. What fun! Thank you.

  5. Christina says:

    Marvelous…poor old Shakespeare, if he only knew! My experience of ‘Hamlet’ is a not unlike, which makes me smile even more. When I was 15 or 16 and studying ‘Hamlet’ at high school, I was lucky enough to go with my class to see our state theatre company perform ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ (by Tom Stoppard) back to back on the same day, with the SAME CAST. We saw ‘Hamlet’ first, and then of course, the whole ‘tragedy’ was completely turned on its head in ‘R & G’. Since then I have not ever been able to see the character of Hamlet as anything other than a neurotic, arrogant twit, and even now, 30 years later, there are parts of ‘Hamlet’ that make me want to laugh out loud, it just seems to me that it so WANTS to be a comedy!

  6. Christina, what a fascinating experience! I saw both in one semester of AP English, but back to back like that would have been quite different . . . And I wouldn’t have been able to see Hamlet the same way again either.

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