Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why I Love Mysteries--and Why I Write Them

I love mysteries, don’t you?

It’s the same with many of us female mystery readers. From my 11th birthday, when I received The Secret of the Old Clock as a gift and read it straight through, my pillow propped up and a flashlight in my hand, I was hooked.

Of course, Nancy Drew was hard to identify with. She was about 14, drove her own little blue roadster—didn’t they have drivers’ licenses in the ‘30’s?--and in the illustrations wore lace-up, heeled black shoes exactly like those of my grandmother. Add to that, she never had to ask permission to go anywhere, and you have pure fantasy. My mother kindly fed my habit, purchasing new Nancy Drews as they came out. The were only $1 apiece, imagine that!

Two years later, I discovered Hercule Poirot in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and my fascination accelerated. Sure, the little Belgian was no more realistic than Nancy, but he had panache, the writing was more sophisticated and the puzzles Agatha Christie devised were far more complicated. And Miss Marple reminded me a lot of my beloved, aforementioned grandmother. As years passed, I managed to read every single thing Agatha Christie wrote, and liked them all, except for Endless Night, which (in my opinion) had an unsatisfactory conclusion and Death Comes As The End, which was set in ancient Egypt. (I couldn’t identify with the characters at all.)

Oh, and Ten Little Indians, beloved of so many junior high English teachers? I hated that one, too. But I adored The Man in the Brown Suit, whose villain was based on a real person, and They Came to Baghdad. (Romantic.) Who wouldn’t love The Alphabet Murders, her tour de force The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Pale Horse, which actually saved a man’s life when a real-life nurse read it and compared her patient’s symptoms to that of the victim.

Inevitably, I ran out of reading materials. I’d exhausted my supply of Patricia Wentworth novels and those of Dorothy Sayers and a host of other geniuses. Agatha went to her reward shortly after the movie of Murder on the Orient Express came out, so that source was gone. I tried contemporary mystery writers and was enchanted by Charlotte MacLeod’s wonderfully deft wit, but they, too, eventually ran out. One day, I bought a paperback mystery novel by an unnamed academy award-winning actor (okay, it was George Kennedy) and was so disgusted by the poor quality of the book that I actually threw it across my kitchen. “Even I,” I snarled, “could write a better mystery than that!”

(I will write of the “evolution” of my first book another time. The focus of this blog is why we love mysteries.)

There are reasons why some readers prefer mysteries and I have several theories on that subject:

Theory 1) Mysteries give us resolution.
Just as many of us prefer a resolved musical chord, a resolved problem, we love a resolved story, where all the loose ends are tied up. This happens so seldom in real life—especially on the news—that it’s a pleasure when it happens in a book. (Many of the earlier mystery writers—ie. Chesterton, Sayers--were Christians. What could be a better resolution than God’s plan of salvation through Christ?)

Theory 2) Mysteries show good triumphing over bad.
Very few mysteries have no real villain. Our world is so full of evil triumphing (temporarily, I believe) that we crave some victory somewhere.

Theory 3) Mysteries are enjoyable puzzles that challenge your intellect.
Lots of books are classified as mysteries that don’t fit these criteria, but those written by the Great Ones of the Classic Golden Age of the Mystery all did.

Theory 4) Mysteries adhere to The Rules.
Again, there are books called mysteries who don’t, but the mysteries I love all:
            a) Play fair—all the clues are there in the text of the book. Subtly hidden, of course.
b) Never introduce the villain at the end—we will have been introduced to him/her/it early on in the story.
c) Never leave loose ends untied. A famous mystery writer once said something to the effect: “If you introduce a dagger in the first scene, you’d better use it by the last!”
d) Never let evil triumph. Lots of writers break this rule, but I hate it when they do.

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone have an opinion on this subject? I’d love to read them in the comment section.

Next time: Ten answers to every writer’s least favorite question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

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