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: [Read more…]