One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straightjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterisation, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination.
So writes P. D. James on page 10 of her new book, Talking about Detective Fiction.
I am not quite sure if it is better to talk about the irony, the dramatic irony of finding freedom and beauty within what seem to be unduly constraining rules -- or the appearance of contradiction. Whichever it is, one of the most delicious and beautiful delights of Complementarianism is finding this freedom within the boundaries of Gods laws.
James is here obviously talking about writing detective fiction and the normal conventions of same. She later mentions the same sort of finding in connection with writing romance novels. And here we might be able to see, more obviously, how it plays out. From page 11:
And detective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognised convention and structure. All Jane Austen's novels have a common storyline: an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen we have [Harlequin] written by a genius.
When I read that first paragraph quoted above, I had a frisson of anticipation, a sort of vision. What immediately bloomed forth in my mind's eye was God's conventions for men and women. From the outside they look artificially constraining. But, from the inside, we can see that they provide for a beautiful variety of expression. No two marriages look exactly the same. There is much play within those conventions. As with dancing, there is a beauty expressed by living within these conventions, but each dance, each marriage is its own. The apparent contradiction is to be found that, by watching from the outside, it often looks like those marriages, those couples who are living at the center of their faith -- it sometimes seems impossible to tell when the man is leading. But leading he is.
Now, in the second quote above, we can see the same thing. I have substituted Harlequin for the British series James mentions, but the outcome is the same. Our critics look from the outside, look only at the conventions, and come up with Harlequin. But from the inside, that is inside to those who embrace sexual orthodoxy, we can see the beauty of individual expression. We have embraced the reality and not simply the instructions. Standing on the outside looking in, all you have are the rules and all you can see is Harlequin. But, once you step inside, you see the freedom and beauty -- what looks like a Harlequin formula becomes Emma.
Whether it is dancing, cooking, marriage -- what looks like a simple, constraining formula from the outside reveals an incredible depth of beauty and freedom of expression from the inside. Once you learn the rules, you can improvise -- and appear to break them while actually filling them out and making them your own.