Warning: Contains mild spoilers regarding Tana French’s In the Woods.
I was recently reading Tana French’s bone-chilling novel, In the Woods. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so immediately. It won’t take you long because it is one of those un-put-down-able, stay-up-to-3am mysteries. Late in the novel, the protagonist/detective finds the diary of the young woman whose murder he has been investigating, which made me think about that old chestnut, “the discovered diary trope.” You know it: a diary is discovered that contains crucial information that allows mysteries to be solved or truths to be revealed. I would characterize it as tired, overused, and narratively lazy trope, one that good writers steer away from.
I’m reminded of a wonderful work of short fiction from the middle of the nineteenth-century, Annie Frost’s “My Experience,” published in 1867 in Godey’s Lady’s Book. The story lambasts the stale conventions of romantic fiction of that era (which aren’t all that different from the stale conventions of contemporary romantic fiction). The narrator is an author who sets out to write her first novel, stocking it full of all the familiar formulas of her selected genre: “My plot was continually tangled into double knots and intricate twists, to be nicely drawn out and wound off in even threads, till every horrible mystery lay coiled in a nice little ball of explanation at the end.”
Here’s my favorite part, when the narrator describes one of the particular challenges with which she confounds her characters:
Heir to a princely fortune, [the male love interest] lives in a garret upon a crust, because his rich uncle’s will, instead of being filed at the lawyer’s, is tucked away in an old-fashioned writing-desk, containing unsuspected drawers. (I wonder it never occurs to heroes and heroines, under these circumstances, to smash all the furniture in the house — it is almost certain to pay.)
I love that parenthetical aside and the image it conjures up of characters across literary history willy-nilly smashing furniture in search of hidden wills that will turn their circumstances from poverty and hardship into wealth and opportunity.
Although Frost speaks here of hidden wills (c.f. the Trope of the Hidden Will), it shares some similarities with the Trope of the Discovered Diary. The discovered diary trope has several embedded presumptions about diaries:
- Diaries contain useful information.
- Diaries reveal the truth about the authors’ relationships, goals, thoughts, and values.
- Diaries solve mysteries.
Of course, diaries generally don’t contain what might be considered useful or truthful information — in the sense of authentically characterizing either the author or her subject matter. Diaries are generally so idiosyncratic, interior, and fragmented that their readers are forced to speculate about their real meaning. (This is what so much diary scholarship boils down to.) It’s hard to imagine an real diary containing a statement such as “If I am murdered, my killer is _____.” (Though I am tempted to write such a sentence in my own journal now.)
Discovered diaries need not be formulaic pap. In the hands of someone like French, the discovered diary trope becomes something else. In In the Woods, French turns the trope on its head (as she does throughout the novel with regards to multiple mystery/detective fiction tropes): the diary is not discovered by the detective but someone else, who hands it over to him; the diary doesn’t solve the mystery (it’s already been solved); and the diary does not guarantee that the guilty party is caught or punished (she isn’t). French’s discovered diary frustrates expectations by failing to provide resolution. In that sense, it is a wonderful citation of the trope, even as it subverts it.
EDITED to add: I’ve been reviewing my notes on diary criticism and stumbled across Abbott’s discussion of the “conceit of the found object” and the common framing device of representing a diary as a real document that is found and introduced by another. While not exactly synonymous with “discovered diary trope” I’ve addressed here, it’s still worth citing this useful source: H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (1984).