The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres


Mysteries. Everybody thinks they know what they are. I’m beginning to think maybe no one does.

Scholastic’s genre chart says:

Purpose: To engage in and enjoy solving a puzzle. Explore moral satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at resolution. Consider human condition and how to solve or avoid human problems. says:

The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience. says:

The plot usually begins with action, intrigue, or suspense to hook the reader. Then, through a series of clues, the protagonist eventually solves the mystery, sometimes placing himself or herself in jeopardy by facing real or perceived danger. All information in the plot (clues) could be important in solving the case, yet in some cases, the author presents misleading information (a red herring) to challenge the reader and the detective. With foreshadowing often used to heighten the suspense, there usually will be several motives for the crime, lots of plot twists, and plenty of alibis that must be investigated. The solution to the crime must come from known information, not a surprise villain introduced in the last chapter of the book; however, the clues must be cleverly planted so that the mystery is not solved too easily or too soon

PBS says:

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a “closed setting” such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the “Watson” at the end.

These state the obvious, but fail to explain the true appeal or source of emotional power of mysteries.

I’ve read three books on fiction writing this year alone that used Sherlock Holmes as an example of a shallow character, including Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. It seemed outrageous to me that, given the entire universe of commercial fiction to choose from, not one but three writers would independently single out Sherlock Holmes as an especially shallow and uninteresting character.

I think they must not have read many Sherlock Holmes stories. I imagine they thought something like this:

Genre fiction does not have interesting characters.

Mystery is the simplest genre, and so should require the simplest characters.

Sherlock Holmes is the best-known fictional detective.

Therefore, Sherlock Holmes is the simplest well-known fictional character.

Sherlock would not approve.

Sherlock Holmes is the original source of fan-fiction. People are still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.And it takes only a passing familiarity with either the original stories, or with the fan-fiction, to see that what fascinates people with Sherlock Holmes stories is Sherlock Holmes.

I thought for a long time that this accusation of simplicity was merely unjust to Sherlock Holmes. Then I remembered Monk, television’s obsessive-compulsive detective. He was another exception. And Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s soft-spoken detective. In fact, almost every detective I knew was an exception!

What are Genres?

What are genres? Why is there a genre called Western in the bookstore, when the world’s output of Westerns today is incredibly small?

I think that every genre originates around a way of looking at the world, expressed through a central narrative. If I use that as a definition of genre, a lot of things become genres that we currently think of as styles, like Medieval painting, romantic poetry, and Nazi propaganda posters.

Once a genre is established, it mutates and splinters into sub-genres. It gets subverted, meaning its message is reversed. It gets hijacked, its subjects and tropes used as a host to camouflage content from other narratives. (For example, John Keats wrote poems with some romantic values and styles, but neo-classical tropes, characters, and metaphysics.  Star Wars, and all other space opera, is fantasy masquerading as science fiction.  I could call Gormenghast an existential tragedy masquerading as a fantasy.)  A genre’s narrative gets hollowed out and its shell re-used by hack writers who copy all the trappings of a genre, or by clever writers who create something with an entirely different feeling (Murder, She Wrote).

I see these as some of the core worldviews and narratives of some existing genres:

Christian fantasy: The world is fundamentally just. Virtue will be rewarded in the end, even when it defies logic. To overcome evil, a hero must face a conflict between virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics, in which it is obvious that acting virtuously is stupid, illogical, suicidal, and will give victory to the villain. He must then act virtuously anyway, and through some “deeper magic” (C.S. Lewis’ term), this stupid virtuous act will prove to be critical to his victory. (Examples: Aslan letting the Witch kill him in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Sam and Frodo letting Gollum live in Lord of the Rings; Luke switching off his targeting computer in Star Wars.)  The social function of fantasy is to dissuade people from doing their own reasoning about ethics.  This is perfectly reasonable, since half of all people are below average, and half of all Americans voted for that guy you hate.

(I want to be clear about why I chose the term “Christian fantasy”. By this I don’t mean just fantasy written by Christians, but the entire tradition derived from them, including writers who aren’t Christian. This tradition probably starts with George MacDonald, and continues with GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, & Star Wars. Early 20th-century high fantasy simpliciter focused more on a sense of wonder, and usually approached ethics through the frightening amorality of its other-worldly creatures.Mythago Wood and Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell are more in that tradition.)

Inversion (Black Company, Game of Thrones): The world ought to be just, yet is not, and the virtuous suffer more than the unvirtuous.

Classic Horror: According to Stephen King, horror is Republican. The central narrative is that evil in the world comes from bad people who’ve been corrupted, and the way to fight evil is to identify those who are impure or corrupted (e.g., vampires, zombies), and kill them. The central narrative is that a town is invaded by an outside evil which can appear like ordinary townsfolk (a vampire, a werewolf, alien body-snatchers), and which must be sniffed out and killed to purify and save the town.

Inversion (Heart of Darkness): Evil comes from good people with good intentions in bad circumstances.

Existential horror (Lovecraft, Lord of the Flies, Sartre, Kafka): Horror is the state of nature, or human nature; “normality” is an illusory construct.

Economic horror: “Civilization” is any social and physical infrastructure that allows good to predominate over evil.

Romance (Harlequin-style): A good man is a bad man who loves a good woman. The central narrative begins when a young woman accidentally meets a man who is slightly older than her, and very successful. She is repulsed by his self-absorbed brooding and his tense paranoia, which makes him seem often on the verge of violence. She antagonizes him in some way. But they’re physically attracted to each other, and meet again, often forced to cooperate by circumstances. She earns his grudging respect, and then his love, which tames his wild ways.

Science fiction: The world fundamentally makes sense. Everything can always be understood. Problems may still be caused by selfishness, but also by misunderstandings and inadequate information. They are never, however, intrinsic, unavoidable, or insoluble as in existential horror, nor due to external circumstances which knowledge alone cannot resolve as in economic horror.

Inversion (“Frankenstein” (the short story, not the movie), Michael Crichton): Science is spiritually arrogant and inherently dangerous.

Western: The world is a violent place that cannot be ruled by law, society, or authority. Government is inherently corrupt. Only lone virtuous violent heroes, unconstrained and uncorrupted by social structures, can cleanse society of its parasites.

Subversion (High Noon, The Gunfighter): Society doesn’t deserve to be saved.

Subversion (The Searchers, Unforgiven): Good guys are just bad guys with good luck and good press.

Mysteries and westerns seem similar. Both conventionally star a lone, eccentric hero who solves problems no one else can, through violence in westerns and logic in mysteries. The main difference is that westerns are drenched in testosterone and self-righteousness, and have happy endings. Mysteries include 2 western-like varieties: the genteel detective stories with happy endings, and the hard-boiled PI stories with violence, testosterone, either self-loathing or self-righteousness, and cynical endings.  It seems to me that westerns and mysteries together cover all of some coherent subset of possible fictions.

64% of western readers are men, while 70% of U.S. mystery readers are women. I won’t assume mysteries are just westerns for nerds, but I suspect most readers of PI mysteries are men (especially given Raymond Chandler’s vicious misogynism), and that there is a close link between westerns and hard-boiled detective novels.

(Notice that the core narrative of every genre is a dysfunctional, sometimes psychotic ideology. I wonder why that is? Are genres a type of cult?)

But what are the core narratives for mysteries? Let’s start by looking at famous mysteries and fictional detectives. Grab your pipe and your deerstalker hat—the game is afoot!

Continued in part 2, “Famous fictional detectives”. (I will hyperlink that sentence once it’s posted.)


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