Monday, September 10, 2018

More than a Mystery

I read every book as if it were a mystery.
Maybe it’s because my first favorite books were all mysteries. Or maybe it’s because I’m descended from a man who obsessively read every word Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Or maybe it’s because I'm a naturally cynical person. Who knows… The bottom line is whether it’s Dickens or Spillane, Allende or Eco, I’m going into every story looking for clues to put the puzzle together.
And over time, I’ve come to recognize that at the core of every good story is an essential mystery.
Don’t believe me? 

Then why do you keep turning the pages?

I’ll tell you why:
To find out what happens next.
Before any genre purists have a literary aneurism, let me explain.
In a good mystery - one in which the reader is trying to solve a puzzle (aka a crime) with the characters (see, I do know the difference) - the reader is motivated to figure out the puzzle (the crime) before the characters. To outwit the villain before the protagonist gets the chance.
Really good fiction (regardless of genre) does the same thing. It tricks the reader into that singular impulse to put all the pieces together and try to figure out what picture the author is drawing.
Why is that important?
Well, just like really good fiction borrows a few instruments from the mystery toolkit to manipulate the reader into moving faster through the story, really good mysteries do exactly the same from the reverse end.
Only in our genre, we use a really good story to manipulate the reader into forgetting they’re supposed to be solving the puzzle with the protagonist. Because it’s genre fiction, this is not a requirement. I have read many a good mystery on a long flight that didn’t have much in the way of a good story. But, hot damn, what a fun puzzle to solve (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown).
But really powerful mysteries… ones that make you explore your own weaknesses and humanity… ones that stick with you for decades, now those are as intricate as woven silk because those stories entwine the puzzle you’re supposed to be solving with the characters with one that you’re solving for the characters.
(If you’re a literary critic, please stop reading now, I’m about to piss you the fuck off.)
Jane Eyre is a baller of a powerful mystery.
That’s right, that Jane Eyre. And if you’re a literary critic who’s still reading despite my warning… yes, yes, I know it’s Gothic Fiction and Gothic Fiction usually has some sort of mystery and blah, blah, blah, but (and this is why I told you to stop reading) Jane Eyre is a big “M” Mystery masquerading as a work of Gothic Fiction.
Who is Bertha Mason?
That is the real story in Jane Eyre. All the rest? The powerful strength of Jane and the evocative language and emotionality of the story? Those are just distractions from the real mystery.
A mad woman who burns the motherfucking house down while dancing on the rafters. Find me a James Patterson or Karin Slaughter serial killer that is as terrifying and heart-wrenchingly tragic as Bertha Mason.
Go on. I’ll wait.
Ok, I won’t, because I don’t have that kind of time. But I do challenge anyone to find a villain who is so brilliantly drawn from the negative space of her own existence. I mean, we barely know or understand her but the entirety of the story revolves around her.
Edward Rochester’s everything is explained by her and everything we know about her is based on the characters’ reaction to her.
Now, that’s a mystery.
They don’t come along very often, these big “M” Mysteries. These More than a Mystery Experiences. I’ve only read two and I have read A LOT of mysteries. They’re so rare that they usually get pushed into high literature so quickly that our poor under-appreciated genre doesn’t get to hold onto these trophies. But they are there - books like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood - and I think very much that they should be ours.
Because in every really good Mystery - whether it’s a fun romp through a cozy village in Wales or a gritty detective novel with serial killers around every turn - there is always the opportunity to elevate it beyond its genre. There is always the opportunity to interweave a good story in amongst the puzzle pieces that the reader and the characters are picking up to solve along the way.
And that is hard as a genre fiction writer. It’s painful and nerve-wracking. When I was writing Chasing Those Devil Bones, I felt like I was so focused on the characters and their relationships that I wasn’t giving enough attention to the mystery. But finally, I just had to let go of that anxiety and I’m glad I did because I love that book. I’m proud of the way it turned out. The charm of it. For me, showing how two people become best friends superseded the crime that they were solving together and I’m glad I let it take centerstage.
Regardless of what genre you write, you are telling a story, and that story deserves its own care and attention. It deserves to be more than the label we slap on it for the sake of the Dewey Decimal system.
In The Devil’s Luck, my main character, Clementine “Q” Toledano, asks her best friend why he refuses to call her by her nickname. You see, everyone in Q’s world calls her “Q”, unless they are angry past the point of reason with her, but not Detective Sanger. He tells her that no one letter could ever live up to how amazing she is. And so it is with a good Mystery. No one label can really define what it is.
Don’t let your labels define you. Tell the story that needs to be told.