Monday, July 9, 2012

why we love a mystery

This week on the NY Times Bestseller list, 5 of top 10 bestsellers in fiction and 11 of top 20 are mysteries.  Mysteries and crime novels consistently dominate the bestsellers lists in both the US and Britain. What draws us to these tales of murder and mayhem? Why do we stay up late at night reading about violence and vengeance?

Because they are fun. Mysteries are the guilty pleasure of the intellectual. They are puzzles of logic. When Sherlock Holmes cries out, ‘the game is afoot,’ he almost means it literally. For if the classic mystery – the traditional mystery – is a contest between the intelligent sleuth and the clever villain, it is also a duel between the skillful writer and the astute reader, who delights in trying to solve the puzzle along with – and possibly before – the detective. The paradox is that if the reader does, indeed, discover ‘whodunnit’ early on, the game is spoiled. The alert reader far more wishes to be surprised and fooled at the end, and yet find delight in seeing how the outcome was inevitable. This is only possible if the writer has ‘played fair’ with the ‘rules of the game,’ in which the reader can detect along with the detective – and still be assured that the detective will be more clever than the reader.
In Britain, Monsignor Ronald Knox had set out in 1928 the "10 Commandments of Detection," contending, for example,  that the criminal must be mentioned early on, the supernatural must be ruled out, the detective himself must not commit the crime, and "no accident must ever help the detective, not must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right." American SS Van Dine offered 20 rules that same year, insisting, for example, that the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery with all clues plainly described. “There simply must be a corpse and the deader the better”, and “there must be no love interest”. Dorothy Sayers believed the same thing but fell in love with Lord Peter Whimsey and married him by proxy via Harriet Vane. The Detection Club, which formed shortly afterwards in 1930, asked members (such as Sayers) to swear an oath on Eric the Skull (all in good fun): "Do you swear solemnly never to conceal a clue from the reader?" Members also promised to honor the King's English, use legitimate detection methods in stories, and refrain from stealing other writers' plots, although collaboration was encouraged. Two of the greatest collaborators in the genre – Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, the cousins who comprised “Ellery Queen,” regularly issued ‘A Challenge to the Reader” near the end of Queen novels, saying that the reader now had all the clues necessary for solving the puzzle. Queen began his – I mean their – writing career by entering one of the many detective fiction contests of the period, and always saw the detective story as a contest between the writer and the reader.

Some of this rule-making - and breaking - became quite complex. Christie, especially, played with the "rules" as a way to outsmart readers. It was a matter of "you think that I think that you think I think this, so I won't - or will - in order to outwit you." She did things like exonerate a suspect in a trial only to prove he was guilty all along, employed double disguises, broke the convention of "the least likely suspect" in Murder on the Orient Express, and committed the unforgivable sin in The Murder of Roger Akroyd. I should probably not say here what she did with those two books. It would spoil the fun.

Books of this period sometimes looked like games: they included lists of characters, maps of houses, gardens and room layouts, all part of the game. Some included physical clues – matchsticks, coins or facsimiles of letters. One of my favorites is the "sealed mystery" - the last chapter was sealed with an onionskin wrapper. If you returned the book with the wrapper uncut (because you figured out the mystery or gave up trying), you'd get a refund. Small wonder that Parker Brothers launched the board game “Clue” at about this time. The newspapers were full of crossword puzzles and other word games. Edgar Allan Poe, who practically invented the detective story, also produced scores of crossword puzzles, secret codes and other games of logic. One might argue that his first detective story is a kind of game; He begins it with a long essay on ‘ratiocination,’ the art of logic and deduction, and the story is, in some ways, an illustration of his argument in the form of a locked-room puzzle.

But mysteries aren’t only about the puzzles, they are about the people who solve them. Mysteries allow readers to spend time in the detective’s gumshoes for a while.  Along with our favorite sleuth, we get to outwit the killer with our friend within a few hours of reading. From the security of our armchair, bed or tub, we get to be brave and clever for a while. And if it is a character in a series, then we welcome them as friends into our lives a few times and get to know them better than our own families.

A peculiar thing about the genre is that, while usually driven by a crime to be solved – a puzzle – and therefore plot-oriented, it’s the people we remember more than the plots: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Inspector Maigret, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade,  Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter, Steve Carella, Dave Robichaux, VI Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Miss Marple, - well, the list is long. For each sub-genre – the cozy, the amateur sleuth, the police prodedural, the Private Eye, the historical, among others – there is a kind of character that affords a particular insight or comfort for readers.

For example, readers of the ‘cozy,’ where the violence is offstage and the sleuth often quirky or an outright amateur, the battle of wits with the villain is won by a person much like the reader. There is the subtle reassurance of St Paul’s dictum in I Corinthians 1 that ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty.”

In the police procedural, readers meet the hardworking middle-class and working class joes who do their job under stress. The police novel is, some say, the literature of the proletariat, celebrating duty in one’s work. Readers find special delight in the rumpled rain-coated Columbo asking just one more question of the elitist, wealthy killer who truly believes he’s gotten away with murder.

One more example: in the PI or hard-boiled story, as in ‘The Maltese Falcon”, readers encounter another kind of  working-class hero who must work for a living and take lousy, dangerous jobs to make ends meet. He is, in the words of the character Race Williams, "a middleman, just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks." Because of this, the hero is often isolated, lonely, and cynical. He is idealistic and a bit sentimental, a tough guy with a noble heart. He’s an urban counterpart of the lone cowboy in The Western who is good with a gun and, like a mounted knight, upholds a code of justice and chivalry. As Raymond Chandler put it famously in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be…a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.’

The ‘noir’ story may be a game like other detective stories, but it is a rough game.

If even the serious crime novel is a form of game, there’s another reason we play it. One writer put it this way: ‘When we look at clues and details about murder, we get to be a four-year-old playing with rubber dinosaurs: the game is enjoyable because we control what might otherwise give us nightmares.”

It is small wonder that the detective novel emerged in the Victorian Age when the murder rate was twice what it is now .  People wanted some assurance that the police could do their job and keep respectable citizens safe. The books did that. They still do.

Murder mysteries are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and his own flaws to expose evil, stop the bad guy and restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful hero or heroine feel a little better about the world and about themselves. A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy world in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But what's wrong with that? That's healing. The odd thing is that we can escape reality and face it at the same time.

That’s because, with mysteries so close to the barest human desires and fears, they have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries: love and power, guilt and innocence, good and evil, the mystery of undeserved suffering.  

All literature tries to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birthdate and departure date on our tombstones. Mysteries, dealing so openly with the reality of death, do this well.

It was Aristotle who defined what good literature ought to do, and as it turns out, mysteries do it best.

The best stories, Aristotle said, advance through a series of discoveries – recognitions and subsequent reversals – and this is what occurs in a mystery whenever the detective discovers a clue, a new suspect, an alibi that checks out or doesn’t, or another body – usually the lead suspect. This results in a reversal – a change in direction, a setback, a gap between expectations and results, a new plan of action. The reversals and the setbacks raise the stakes, the danger, and make the protagonist suffer. So our detective endures criticism, failure, false leads, isolation, and the threat of being killed by the desperate villain who cannot bear to be exposed.  The ending must be inevitable, but it cannot be predictable, Aristotle says – it must be a surprise. And this is exactly what happens in a mystery where the puzzle pieces fall into place perfectly at the end, and the reader is delightfully fooled.

Aristotle’s favorite story, after all, was a mystery - Oedipus Rex, in which the sleuth who investigates relentlessly discovers that, ironically, he is the villain.