The collective ‘Ahhh!’

David Bordwell’s new book untangles the mystery of murder mysteries

Columbia University Press

The cinema has few theorists as gifted as David Bordwell. Film Art: An Introduction, co-written with Kristin Thompson and Jeff Smith, is taught in just about every intro to film class, while Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling is a must for anyone interested in how a medium changes through collaboration.

Bordwell’s latest, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, to be released Jan. 17 by Columbia University Press, takes the film scholar and professor’s patented inquisitiveness and zeroes in on how literary modernism laid the foundations for a brand of popular storytelling that shaped a century’s worth of narrative. If you’ve ever wondered about the connective tissue between James Joyce and Gillian Flynn — with a Donald Westlake stopover — reader, you are in luck.

Bordwell frames Perplexing Plots with an appreciation of Pulp Fiction — touched off by the memory of an audience reaction to the then-newly released film.

“Abruptly the audience (me too) realized that the meandering story lines we’d been tracking were knit into an earlier scene,” Bordwell writes. “The collective ‘Ahhh’ came because we had seen the beginning of that scene about two hours ago. We had totally forgotten about it.”

Why had they forgotten, Bordwell wonders. And how did writer-director Quentin Tarantino manage to cue the audience into what was happening fast enough that they went “Ahhh!” instead of “Huh?”

To discover that answer, Bordwell explores the trends of mystery construction throughout the years, returning to a deeper understanding of how Pulp Fiction’s nonlinear narrative works before digging into Flynn’s Gone Girl — which gave rise to a new cycle of domestic thrillers with unreliable narrators.

But theory for Bordwell isn’t a simple, “Where from?” but a more curious, “What for?” Influences might inform a discussion of where artists get their ideas, but they don’t always add what we think they do. Instead, Bordwell is interested in how audiences consume and comprehend these various twists and turns so that when the mechanics are exposed, they let out that satisfying “Ahhh.”

Perplexing Plots is a must. Rare is scholasticism this engaging — you’ll put it down with more than a handful of authors to discover, not to mention the movies adapted from them. And you’ll laugh out loud more than once, particularly when you read the Westlake chapter. 

ON THE SHELF: Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder. Available Jan. 17.