The Mystery of Mysteries, part 3: Sub-genres, conclusions


(continued from part 1 & part 2)

The Sub-Genres of Mystery

Notice now that the only examples that don’t fit A, B, C, or D are Stephanie Plum, the cozy mysteries, and the two cross-cultural mystery series by Tony Hillerman and Alexander McCall Smith. At this point I’ll pause and divide mysteries into sub-genres. These sub-genres may have different core narratives, or we may see the same narrative components appear in different ways in the different sub-genres, or be inverted. I stole the attributes of the first 2 from The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which stole them from T.J. Binyon’s Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction:

– The genteel private detective, e.g., Sherlock Holmes:

– Detective is hired to solve a crime

– There are a limited number of known suspects

– The police are honest

– There may or may not be one or more violent scenes

– There is no sex

– First-person POV of the Watson

– The hard-boiled private eye:

– Always in a big city

– Hired to investigate something relatively trivial, which unravels the web of a major crime

– The web of suspects grows over time; everything is connected to something else

– The police are corrupt

– There is constant violence throughout the story

– Sex is omnipresent, but the hero abstains from it

– Lots of alcohol

– First-person POV of the PI

– Cross-cultural mysteries

– May be rural or urban

– Detective (or team) may be a cop

– Detective/team and the crime both span two cultures, one of which is dominant

– The mystery requires respect for the less-dominant culture to solve

– Third-person interior POV

– Romance mysteries

– I’m only familiar with Stephanie Plum

– Many “romance novels” are mysteries, like Key of Light by Nora Roberts

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Cozy mysteries:

– Female hobbyist crime-solver

– Commonly involve cats, cooking, tea, sewing

– No violence except perhaps for the crime

– Solving the crime requires talking to lots of people

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Solvable mysteries:

– Solvable mysteries follow rules of fairness so that the reader has a good chance of solving the mystery before the detective reveals its solution

– I haven’t thought of any famous examples of these! Interesting.


I will ignore romance and cozy mysteries from here on. In light of the literary insignificance of solvable mysteries, I will draw my first conclusion:

1. The purpose of mysteries is not to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery.

I have a very small sample of cross-cultural mysteries, but I notice they don’t include any magical detectives. What is it with these magical detectives?

I think they’re a variant of “Book smarts, but no street smarts” (BS-no-SS). Call it “High IQ, low social/emotional intelligence” (Hi-IQ/low-EQ). The detectives are (allegedly) brilliant logicians, yet they’re single, have at most one friend, and are seldom financially successful.

I think Hi-IQ/low-EQ will come from the same angle as BS-no-SS: told to reassure an insecure audience that their lack of some ability is unimportant, and maybe even a virtue. I’ll draw another conclusion:

2. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that human relationships and human society cannot be analyzed logically.

The mystery narrative tries to deal with the evident fact that scientific analysis produces much knowledge that makes us intensely uncomfortable by making a “separate magisteria” rebuttal: The detective can use scientific analysis to solve crime, but not to solve his own life problems.

If we think about superhero stories as offshoots of detective stories, the core narrative for them becomes: Human relationship problems can’t be solved with force.

I originally argued for the possible alternative

2b. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that neither logic nor feelings is sufficient by itself to deal with all of life.

This casts the story as the kind of dialectical, tension-filled structure that literary critics (not just post-modern ones) are fond of. We can certainly view (2) as (2b). But it feels dishonest to me. All it does is take the statement in (2) and add the statement “Logical analysis is good for solving crimes”, which is neither controversial nor interesting, to come up with a phony claim to be a dialectic. The only claim of interest is that logic is not helpful in everyday life.

Why magic instead of logic? The simplest theory is that writing logic is hard, and writing magic is easy. I’m not satisfied with this theory, because some of our detectives don’t just use unrealistic logic, they’re often downright idiotic. Their stupidity and trust in luck strikes me as too excessive to be accidental. (It may be literally accidental from the point of view of the writer; it could easily happen that a thousand writers write mysteries, and the detectives that become famous all have some crucial property, which the writers each wrote by accident. But that crucial property, while an accident of the writer, has an effect that is not “accidental”; it is consistent across stories. That’s what I expect to find in a core narrative: a structure that has evolved by random story creation and reader selection.)

Here’s another theory: If the detective were merely super-humanly smart, he might apply his logic to his personal problems and solve them. If he’s magical, intuitive, or lucky, there’s no obvious way for him to make his magic or intuition apply to his own problems. (The magician who can do magic only for others feels like it ought to be a trope, though no examples come to mind.)

This would make the use of magic the kind of straw-manning you’d find in BS-no-SS. Fitting mysteries to the same pattern would be nicely parsimonious. But I’m not happy with this theory either, because very smart people often are socially stupid and have screwed-up lives. There’s no need to fake it.

Here’s my favorite theory at this moment: You don’t want a clever reader to think he’s as smart as the detective! If the reader identifies with the detective, the Hi-EQ/low-EQ narrative would make the reader anxious instead of reassuring him. Therefore,

3. The genteel or hard-boiled detective is a misfit and a magical being in order to distance the detective from the reader, to avoid frightening the reader with the loneliness of the detective.

However, Poe spelled out his reason for making Dupin irrational in a long introductory essay to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and that wasn’t it. It was worse: He didn’t want to endorse logic at all! The whole story was a deliberate attack on science. (I didn’t realize this until after writing the first draft of this post, because the essay was cut from the condensed version of “Rue Morgue” that I had.)

That first essay contrasted chess with whist. A second essay in “The Purloined Letter”, given by Dupin rather than by the narrator, said the same thing, only instead contrasting math with poetry. In it, Poe tried to re-purpose both the words “abstract” and “analysis”, to exclude mathematics and to include… poetry. It sounds preposterous, but he was quite explicit about it, and at great length.

Poe attacked chess and mathematics as developing abstract skills that are useless for everyday life. It’s a bit confused, since he used the word “abstract” to mean what we would call the real and concrete, and called real life “abstract” as opposed to mathematics. He considered logic to be a system that could be applied to either kind of entity, and said it was useful for life only when applied to “abstract” (concrete) entities. This implies deep misunderstandings of both mathematics and logic. Yet his conclusion, that logic can in some way apply to all of life, is closer to truth than is the standard narrative of artists, which assumes that ordinary life cannot be represented in mathematics. In its particulars Poe’s position is most similar to Aristotle’s, which was that numbers are all well and good if you want to build a boat, but they aren’t logic.

A small excerpt from Poe’s second essay:

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

… “The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra…. I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly [concretely] logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra are abstract [concretely applicable] or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be…. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.

Edgar Allan Poe. Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Kindle Locations 6981-7013).

The Sherlockian narrative is a Hegelian dialectic between common sense and scientific thought, claiming neither mode is strictly superior. Poe was instead saying that poetic thought is strictly superior!

Poe’s mystery, written in 1841, tries to deny that quantitative analysis is analysis, or that it produces anything useful. Poe meant his Dupin stories as a last-ditch defense of conventional thought against mathematics and the scientific method, using instead psychological analysis and intuition. I did not expect this, since he published another mystery at the same time, “The Gold Bug”, which was largely mathematical.

Greg Sevik’s article “Enlightenment, counter-enlightenment– detection, reason, genius in tales of Poe+Doyle” (Clues v31n2) says that many critics have recently caught on to this anti-rational undercurrent in mysteries, but he doesn’t say that the genre is against reason.  He says the detective is a dialectic between the enlightenment and romanticism. The police represent the sterile “enlightenment” machine (e.g., the police in “The Purloined Letter”, who follow their logical procedures and fail). The police are merely rational; the detective uses reason dusted with his own mystic powers, to prove that reason must be guided by intuition or spirit.

To me, though, horse of the Enlightenment, saying reason must be guided by spirit is like saying it must be guided by the Church, which I would call being against reason. So Sevik’s article, which he framed to sound like the mystery is very even-handed about it, is to me even more anti-rational than just saying reason can’t solve your personal problems.

Anyway. Father Brown, Doctor Who, and Daneel Olivaw seem to belong in the genteel detective camp, but none of them fit the complete pattern. The Doctor is generally happy, and Daneel’s crime-solving ability can in no way be interpreted as the cause of his being a robot. Father Brown is also cheerful, and though he may be a “misfit” in society at large, he fits within the Catholic church far better than anyone can fit into modern society.

The keys to the Doctor must be those ways he diverges from the pattern: his lack of Sherlockian angst, the magical way the universe’s coincidences accommodate his lack of planning (rather than disrupting his plans, as it does most protagonists), his God-like status as protector of humanity and the universe, and most especially his embracing of conventional morality and virtue ethics over reason (unlike the other detectives!). Like a traditional detective, he holds up our culture for inspection. (This is why he spends so much of his time on Earth, rather than exploring new worlds, as is more common in science fiction.) But he doesn’t represent the logical, as Sherlock does. He represents the authors’, and the audience’s, ideal, the supra-logical God who has the right to judge humanity. He’s a Christianized Sherlock Holmes. He still functions to reassure us that our foolishness is wisdom. Not by contrast with it, but as the Platonic ideal of it, the wise fool who always wins.

That’s my theory today, anyway.

My memory of R. Daneel Olivaw is dim, but those stories certainly weren’t meant to reassure us about conventional morality. Humans were inferior to robots physically, intellectually, and morally. I think that Asimov was inverting the mystery narrative to fit it to the science fiction narrative: Knowledge is not bad, but good for us. The traditional mystery says logic and humanity are opposed, presumably because humanity is spiritual. Asimov’s stories say logic and humanity are opposed, because humans are stupid. Robots are more logical and as a consequence more spiritually developed.

Getting back for a moment to observations on the full set of genteel, hard-boiled, and cultural mysteries:

E. Mysteries comment on society

Most mystery stories include commentaries on society. Sherlockian detectives often reach their conclusions not by reasoning about the particular criminal they’re pursuing, but by applying a broad cognitive or cultural observation to the criminal.

– The solution to “The Purloined Letter” is that people won’t think of looking for something hidden in plain view.

– In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes deduces that Irene Adler has hidden the letter in her own home partly because “women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting.”

– In “The Copper Beeches”, Holmes critiques country life: “It is my belief, Watson founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.”

– Father Brown mysteries sometimes hinge on dispelling the idea that a secular worldview is more logical than the Catholic one. The Father detects the thief in the very first Father Brown story (“The Blue Cross”) because the thief poses as a priest, and dismisses rationality as he imagines a priest might. Father Brown’s response is, “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

– Spade and Marlowe continually meditate on the corruption of society.

– Hillerman’s novels repeatedly contrast modern American and Navajo society.

Hillerman’s and McCall Smith’s books are in third person interior, and reveal the thoughts of the detectives as they proceed. I predict these cross-cultural books represent some variation on the pattern. In the standard detective novel, we have two worldviews: the conventional worldview, and the world of the detective. I expect that in the cultural mystery, the two worldviews are those of the two cultures coming into conflict, and the detective has one foot in each. The detective then doesn’t need to be especially odd, nor to stand outside both cultures.

In both cases, Sherlockian and cross-cultural, one of the worldviews is that of the reader. (Even in the South African mysteries, the dominant culture, while it diverged from Europe in the 19th century, is recognizably European.) I take it that the reader’s culture is the point of contact with the reader.

Putting all of the above together, I conclude that

4. A mystery scrutinizes the reader’s culture from the outside.

I’ll break the rest of my conclusions into 2 parts: detective mysteries, and cross-cultural stories.  (Remember my dataset for detective mysteries is all stories where there’s a single detective. Buddy-cop TV shows, forensic shows, procedurals, aren’t represented.)

Detective mysteries

Westerns also have an outsider who comes to town and “critiques” it, usually with lead. Hard-boiled detective novels differ from genteel detective novels, and resemble westerns, in their constant violence, and the need for a macho hero who will use violence against violence. They differ from westerns in their cynicism and widespread corruption.  Hookers don’t have hearts of gold. Crimes and suspects are gradually discovered by threads leading to other threads, to imply that all of society is complicit in all crime. I’ll summarize this as:

4a. Genteel detective novels study the reader’s culture, attempting to understand and systematize it, and criticizing individual cases of hypocrisy or moral weakness.

4b. Westerns criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt, and call for heroes to fix them.

4c. Hard-boiled detective novels criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable.

Post-apocalyptic novels are to westerns something like what hard-boiled detective novels are to genteel detective novels. They succeeded westerns (though later than private eyes succeeded genteel detectives), and they’re stories in which good people are few and the heroes can never save themselves.

Post-apocalyptic stories are post-modern in many ways, such as their total “mash-up” junkyard aesthetic. One way is that they’ve taken one more step toward the romantic, anti-rational, cleansing apocalypse:

4d. Post-apocalyptic stories critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, but after it finally destroys itself, its last ugly remnants can be washed away and a better society can be built.

Genteel detective novels came first, then westerns, then hard-boiled detective novels and movies, then post-apocalyptic stories. This suggests a gradual increase in cynicism from 1850 to the present. Logically, there’s just one more genre left to invent in our grand progression from the romantic, through the modernist, to the post-modern:

4e. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse story will critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, and the heroes must destroy it and wash away its last ugly remnants before a better society can be built.

Probably the heroes in the earliest ones will have to be forced reluctantly to destroy it in a morally ambiguous story. Once we’re over that hump, more and more stories will take it for granted that society ought to be destroyed.

Oh, snap.

There is definitely more judgement and moralism going on under the hood in westerns, hard-boiled detective novels, and superhero comics, but I haven’t parsed it all out. Here are some parting thoughts along those lines from The Thrilling Detective Web Site:

My personal take is that the private eye story is an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it’s not that simple. The cowboy mythos is merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of ’em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson.

Cross-cultural mysteries

In the cross-cultural novels, the contrasting culture is not kept mysterious; rather, the writer tries at length to explain it. Assuming that the contrasting culture serves the same basic function as the Sherlockian detective’s worldview, I infer that the detective’s thoughts are kept hidden in the latter kind of story not because the detective’s worldview must remain mysterious, but because authors who aren’t anthropologists aren’t capable of preserving a consistent alien worldview under close scrutiny. The Watson character was introduced to maintain the illusion that the detective was a legitimate outsider.

The Father Brown series has traits of both the Sherlockian and the cross-cultural, with the second culture being Catholicism. It keeps Father Brown’s thoughts hidden, but has a real and elaborate worldview behind them, which it tries to explicate in many stories.

5. The social function of a cross-cultural mystery is to contrast two cultures.

Hillerman and Smith’s mysteries are noted for the respect they show for Navajo and traditional Botswanian culture, not for the respect they show for Western culture. The Father Brown stories are meant to heighten respect for Catholicism.

Does a cross-cultural story necessarily praise the other culture? I could imagine a mystery similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which contrasted the writer’s society with medieval Europe, and concluded that the writer’s was much better. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Chan mysteries cast Chinese culture in a dim light. In either case, though, I think the point would be to praise our society, not to write an entire book to critique some other society that the reader’s didn’t particularly care about. I will posit:

5a. The social function of an enlightenment cross-cultural story was to contrast an unenlightened culture with an enlightened culture, and praise the latter, likely invoking the march of progress.

Connecticut Yankee would be an example where the enlightened culture is our own. Stories like that don’t get published anymore. I bet they were common in colonial days, though. Another kind of story where the enlightened culture is our own is the dystopia, though typically the dystopia is an extrapolation from our own culture, to what it will be if those people the author doesn’t like keep getting their way. When the unenlightened culture is ours, we often have a utopia.

5b. The social function of a contemporary cross-cultural mystery is to contrast a “de-privileged” culture with a culture that now dominates it, and heighten respect for the former culture, negating the idea of a “march of progress”.


Genres: What good are they?

In this analysis, I ended up comparing the detective story to westerns and apocalyptic fiction, and contrasting the cross-cultural mystery with science fictional utopias and dystopias. The discussion in the comments brings up buddy-cop dramas, police procedurals, CSI, and swords & sorcery.

I’m beginning to think that there isn’t so much a thing called a “genre” as a set of common elements with different affinities for each other. “Figure out what happened”, “watch the misfit try to understand humans”, “the lone wayfarer”, “honest defenders of society fighting both the criminal and the bureaucracy above them”, “violence”, “moral decay of society”, “romance”, “the damsel in distress”, “street smarts”, “personal moral code”, “revolutionary consciousness”–these are strips you can weave together in many combinations. There’s a set that go together well, or at least frequently, to give us the closed-room mystery, and a set that gives us the western, and adding one or two more strips to the weave could give you swords & sorcery or a science fictional utopia. Stories that appear on the surface to belong to the same genre, like detective novels and cross-cultural mysteries, may on a deeper level be more closely related to stories from “different” novels: detective stories with superhero and western stories, and cross-cultural mysteries with utopias, dystopias, and other stories of cultural comparisons.


And… that’s all I got! Thanks for reading this far. I spent months writing this.


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