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Who doesn’t love a good mystery, eh?  In the book publishing biz, in North America at least, we use that term for a specific story format: murder mystery.  However, mystery is a broader concept.  It covers anything that is secret, unexplained or unknown.

People can be puzzling.  Places can be shrouded in myth.  Events can have no obvious cause.  Motives may be obscure.  The past may be concealed, or the future uncertain.  The truth of things sometimes is beyond our comprehension, and might even be altogether unknowable.  That’s true of religious rites, say.  In communion, the mysterious process of transubstantiation somehow turns bread and wine into a body and blood.

For storytelling purposes, though, there’s one thing to remember above all others: mysteries are fun.  We as readers love to be intrigued, puzzled, and tantalized by unanswered questions.  Mystery is a good effect in a story.  What, though, actually produces the quality of mysteriousness?  What makes us cling to a dissatisfying notion and read on, rather than feel frustration and give up on a book?

There are several foundational qualities in a mystery.  First, an intriguing puzzle is presented.  Not all puzzles arouse our curiosity, of course.  Why evil people do evil deeds, say, mostly excites only those who study criminal and abnormal psychology.  The rest of us are simply repelled.  Intrigue, on the other hand, arises when there is an apparent contradiction.  Something is evident and undeniable, yet at the same time cannot possibly be.

Second, the puzzle itself is intriguing to someone to an extent that demands action.  In murder mysteries, that person is the detective.  Third, the puzzle causes other characters to minimize or run away.  Danger suggests avoidance, or at least caution.  Fear is covered up by offering easy explanations, dismissing the puzzle (wrongly) as harmless, ordinary, or easily controlled, or possibly warning that the mystery is too dangerous to pursue.  The mystery has magnitude and we know that because people deny it or affirm its harmful power.

Finally, the solution to the mystery is not easy to reach.  Time and effort are required.  Obstacles arise.  There are those who do not want the mystery explained, having vested interests in keeping it unsolved.  The mystery also presents a personal challenge to someone, possibly even a test.  A mystery isn’t easy to crack, but when a protagonist is up to the task we are heartened, cheering and full of anticipation.

A mystery, to put it simply, keeps us reading when it is solvable by someone special but, for a while, seems like it isn’t.

Which story got you hooked on mystery?  For fun, let’s first have a look at some of the stories most commonly cited by generations of readers, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s progenitor tale The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).   An unnamed narrator, living in Paris, introduces us to a man of surpassing intuition and impeccable logic: C. Auguste Dupin.

After a long account of the circumstances of their friendship and a demonstration of Dupin’s deductive powers, Poe finally settles in to the gristly details of a double homicide in the Rue Morgue, where the crime scene presents apparent impossibilities, including a body stuffed up a chimney, a feat that would have required inhuman strength.  The narrator performs the role of avoidance.  When his opinion of the case is asked, he says:

I could merely agree with all Paris in considering them an insoluble mystery.  I saw no means by which it would be possible to trace the murderer.

Dupin, however, is unwilling to dismiss the case.  He is, in fact, confident that his logic will win and is contemptuous of the police:

“We must not judge of the means,” said Dupin, “by this shell of an examination.  The Parisian police, so much extolled for acumen, are cunning, but no more.”

Dupin is correct, and goes on to solve the mystery using the brute force of logic.  He thus fulfills the role of the one for whom the mystery cannot rest, who must struggle to solve it yet who ultimately finds the means.

The first case of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes—very likely the most popular character in literature—was A Study in Scarlet (1886).   The form of the tale owes much to Poe.  The narrator, Dr. Watson, first gives an account of the circumstances by which he came to share rooms with Holmes at 221B Baker Street.  There follows a demonstration of Holmes’s acumen, which becomes even more evident when Holmes, accompanied by Watson, is called to a highly puzzling murder scene at Number 3, Lauriston Gardens.

There Holmes provides in astonishing detail a description of the murderer and his actions.  A second murder follows and Homes again uses his unparalleled powers of observation and deduction to uncover the murderer’s identity.  Throughout, the role of avoidance is fulfilled by Watson and the police, while the drive to discover the truth is abundantly evident in the casual, almost laconic, Holmes:

[Watson writes:] I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

Lestrade, lean and ferret-like as ever, was standing by the doorway, and greeted my companion and myself. “This case will make a stir, sir,” he remarked. “It beats anything I have seen, and I am no chicken.”

“There is no clue?” said Gregson.

“None at all,” chimed in Lestrade.

Sherlock Holmes approached the body, and, kneeling down, examined it intently. “You are sure that there is no wound?” he asked, pointing to numerous gouts and splashes of blood which lay all round.

“Positive!” cried both detectives.

“Then, of course, this blood belongs to a second individual–presumably the murderer, if murder has been committed. It reminds me of the circumstances attendant on the death of Van Jansen, in Utrecht, in the year ‘34. Do you remember the case, Gregson?”

“No, sir.”

“Read it up–you really should. There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

By now a bit of the mystery of mystery’s appeal should be clearing up.  Have you deduced the solution?  The intriguing paradox or impossibility comes first, for sure, but it is not that alone which makes a mystery exciting.  What does that are the characters, who amplify both our puzzlement and our sense of defeat as well as our confidence and our hope.  Characters embody those twin states in each of us, and both are needed for mystery to grip us.

The first Nancy Drew mystery by “Carolyn Keene” (a house pseudonym) was The Secret of the Old Clock (1930).  Nancy, “a pretty girl of sixteen”, is presented in plain terms as a person of confidence and curiosity.  (I am quoting here from the 1930 edition, rather than the—to my mind, clunky—rewrite of the 1950’s.)

There was something about a mystery which aroused Nancy’s interest, and she was never content until it was solved.  More than once her father [“noted” attorney Carson Drew] had found her suggestions, or “intuitions” as he called them, extremely helpful.

The Secret of the Old Clock concerns the will of a rich but eccentric gentleman, Josiah Crowley, which appears to leave the entirety of his fortune to conniving relatives, the Topham family, with whom he briefly resided.  Nancy is indignant at the prospect, feeling that Crowley’s money ought to go to poorer and more deserving relatives.

Nancy dislikes the Topham family, whom she regards as social climbers, and pesters her father about the possibility of a second will.  The possibility exists, but Carson Drew dampens his daughter’s expectations:

“Perhaps he hid the will somewhere,” Nancy suggested thoughtfully.

“If he did, I’m afraid it will never come to light.  The Tophams will see to that.”

“What do you mean, father?”

“The estate is a considerable one, I understand, Nancy, and the Tophams don’t intend that anyone shall get a cent of it.  It’s my private opinion that they will take care that a second will is never found.”

“Do you mean that if they discovered the will they would destroy it?”

“Well, I’m not making any accusations, Nancy.  But I do know that Richard Topham is shrewd, and he isn’t noted for his honesty.”

“Can’t the present will be broken?”

“I doubt it.  While I haven’t gone into the case, I am of the opinion that the Tophams have a legal right to the fortune.  It would cost considerable to contest the will, and so far as I now the other relatives are in poverty.  They have filed a claim, declaring that a later will was made in their favor, but I doubt that the matter will ever go further.”

“But the Tohams don’t deserve the fortune, father.  It doesn’t seem fair.”

“No, it isn’t fair.  But it is legal, and I’m afraid nothing can be done about it.”

By now you see the pattern, which reflects our own inner condition as readers.  Courage and caution war within us.  An outward event with an intriguing aspect puzzles and excites us, but also makes us wary and possibly fearful.

Thus, for a mystery to feel mysterious and to grip—rather than repel—us, it’s not enough to simply to present an intriguing impossibility.  People must be involved: people who both take up the challenge of solving the puzzle, and others who caution against it.  The quality of mysteriousness arises not just from facts, but from the psychological amplification of the exciting and dire effect upon us of the unknown.

What, for you, makes a good mystery?  Do you have favorite stories that involve puzzles other than murder?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].