Monday, October 24, 2011

It's a Mystery to Me!

This year I am a judge for a children's mystery award and one of our discussions has been what constitutes a mystery. Many of our stories have mystserious elements, but are essentially fantasies. Think of Harry Potter--we want to know the truth of what happened to his parents, why he was the only one to survive Voldemort's killing curse and why he has to stay with the Dursleys. But it is more quest novel-classis battle of good versus evil like the Lord of the Rings.

I suppose my definition of a mystery novel has to involve a central puzzle--be it missing person, stolen jewel or other crime and a central character whose quest it is to solve this puzzle and thus put the universe to rights.

So it was interesting for me to go to my group blog, Jungle Red Writers, this morning and read the comments on how the stakes have been raised in mystery writing and whether people now expect more violence and adrenalin rush.  I felt that one way the stakes have been raised is in the involvement of the sleuth and our emotional investment in him or her. Hercule Poirot was an outside obvserver with no personal involvement in the crimes he solved other than a sense of justice. But today's sleuth is dealing with a personal battle in many cases--a tragedy in his or her own life that mirrors the crime she has to solve, personal demons, a villain with a grudge against her... I agree that this makes for a more compelling book.  I have always read mysteries for the enjoyment of the puzzle but it wasn't until I found Tony Hillerman in the 1970s that I became hooked because he made Jim Chee and the landscape around him so real and so compelling. My favorite sleuths since then are wonderfully flawed humans like Morse.

So does a mystery have to involve a dead body, a murder, a villain? It seems to be that way these days although not all of the Sherlock Holmes stories involved a murder, did they?
I suppose murder is the ultimate crime in any society which goes along with that raising the stakes idea. If we read a book with no murder, we are constantly waiting for the discovery of the body.

But for me the good mysteries involve personal relationships that lead to that murder. And they rise or fall on the character of the sleuth. Plots are fun, with twists and scary scenes--cellars at midnight with a killer on the loose. Clever methods of killing are fun. But essentially we have to care about the people or it's just like a video game.

So what do you think defines the mystery novel?


  1. Hi Rhys,

    It's possible that male readers crave violence, whereas female readers who already have so much on their plate may crave a less violent though equally challenging mystery.

  2. Honestly, I think the only reason those thriller elements became necessary was because thrillers have a shot at the generic 'bestseller' audience who don't particularly like mysteries -- and booksellers only want bestsellers.

    An awful lot of mystery series - series with a steady following -- were forced out of the business in the 1980s and early 1990s because Barnes and Noble refused to order books that did not make it to "break out" status within three books.

    That situation has gotten a little better, but the readers who used to read classic mysteries still read them. Poirot is still available, and becoming more so by the day. And Amazon has made sure that even out of print books are still available to the masses -- and used classics sell very very well.

    eBooks allow publishers to offer midlist books again in a way that is profitable for them to serve that smaller, but enthusiastic audience.

    IMHO, too often those thriller elements -- especially when there is some lurking villain out to get the hero or heroine -- feel forced in a series. It's fine in a standalone, but it's unsustainable in anything but a serial or soap opera.

    A less personal threat -- like Moriarity, who wasn't out to get Holmes, but rather out to run his crime empire -- IS sustainable. He might be an immediate danger in a particular story, but it's resolvable.

    Which isn't to say I don't like the ongoing struggles of a protagonist that you see in hard-boiled and police procedural, but they are a different kind of story.

  3. For me, a true mystery has that puzzle to solve--and that can be a murder, a theft, or any crime. My first mysteries as a kid were Agatha Christie ones, and I loved that puzzle to solve.

    Children's fiction has a harder time following the true mystery 'format' because you're often limited as far as crime goes. But still, I've always wondered why there aren't more true kid mysteries, considering it's one of the most popular genres for adults.

    For my blog, I (try to) read all the mystery nominations for awards like the Edgars in the Juvenile and YA categories every year, to look for that perfect children's mystery. They're tough to find, but when you do, it's exciting, I think.

  4. This article reminded me of a story that I heard about Agatha Christie. Someone complained that her mysteries had no blood in her stories ~ she preferred to use poison as means of murder instead of guns or knives. Although Harry Potter has some violence, the series is still different from other mysteries in some ways ~ the characters are interesting and the stories connect.

    I agree with you that we have to care about the characters in the novel. And a mystery has to have a puzzle to solve. One of the things I really like about Agatha Christie is the brief descriptions of the characters before the story starts, but that is Agatha Christie's style.

    Nancy Drew mysteries had illustrations between the pages, which I thought was great when I was a pre-teen. Sherlock Holmes stories also have illustrations.

    Thanks again for writing about this subject.

  5. I don't need the adrenaline of many "mystery" stories. What I need is a mystery and I agree there should be a puzzle. While I would prefer to care about the characters, I only truly care about how the story is laid out. In a mystery, I feel the reader should have all of the clues so they can figure out the solution along with the detective. Or at least have subtle clues to remember once the crime has been solved - something to go back to and say "oh yeah! I forgot about that!"

  6. As a reader, I skip over gory pages and torture scenes. I read for escapism, and there's enough ugliness in real life that I don't need to compound it with bloody fiction.

    As an author, I am always looking for ideas for my mysteries that are not murders. We see way too many "oh-a-dead-body, what-fun!" stories on TV and in books too, with no grieving families or friends on scene.

    But whatever the puzzle within the mystery is, the stakes must be high or else the reader doesn't really care. It's hard to come up with higher stakes than someone getting away with murder. Another criteria that I have, both as a reader and a writer, is that enough clues must be provided for an astute reader to guess at the outcome, or could at least see how the clues all fit together when the culprit is revealed. I love it when an author or movie maker can surprise me and then I can go back and say, oh yes, I can see it now. That is true genius.

  7. This is why it's so hard to write a good children's mystery. Too many come down to Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?