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What Is a Mystery?

Mar 18, 2013 in Guest Posts, Writing

fascination*Every once in awhile, when my (ahem) amazing job comes up in conversation, someone will ask me, if not: “What is a mystery?” outright, another question along similar lines. Could be someone curious how the category has evolved in the years since Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Dupin and Hercule Poirot. Or it could be an avid reader just discovering a love of suspense, yet finding themselves somewhat flummoxed by all the subcategorization—with police procedurals, cozies, psychological thrillers, and so many more, the permutations can at times seem endless.

So what is a mystery? I’m sure for Mulholland Books readers, the answer comes easy. A mystery involves a crime, and centers around the investigations of a protagonist who endeavors to bring justice to its perpetrators. We often refer to this as the “solution” to the mystery, despite the fact that the crime most commonly depicted—murder—is irrevocable and, thus, unsolvable. (See: Detective Ramone’s penultimate speech in Pelecanos’s The Night Gardener.)

The other, slightly more slippery version of this prompt: What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller?

Conversationally, readers often use the terms interchangeably to discuss any novel that engages the tropes of the crime fiction genre, or operates within the suspense paradigm. But the terms aren’t actually as exchangeable as we make them out to be. The answer has a lot to do with Hitchcock’s famous speech on the art of creating suspense—the bomb under the table, a very neat example from a master storyteller and a useful example for also highlighting the differences in the genres:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

Hitchcock’s version of events is a classic thriller premise—a crime is about to be committed, one which readers have been alerted to. But begin this story fifteen minutes later, just as the bomb explodes, and you have yourself a crime and mystery—the identity of the perpetrator—in need of a solving.  It’s all in the timing—start in one place, and you have a novel centered around anticipation, a thriller. Start later and you’ll find yourself in classic mystery territory.

Does this mean a mystery can’t be suspenseful? Certainly not—the path to each mystery’s solution is often littered with mid-novel scenes just like the thriller premise that Hitchcock describes, in which our protagonist’s life has been placed in danger and the survival, or successful unveiling of the truth itself, has been placed in suspense. Which is where the term mystery/thriller comes in handy, and why the two categories have become more and more confused in the past few years. Many of our most successful crime novelists have become masters at blending the categories so that suspense is as much the name of the game as the investigation at hand.

Take, say, Lee Child’s Reacher series. Most if not all of his novels are actually mysteries, despite Child’s reputation as one of our best thriller writers around. The Affair finds Reacher wrapped up in an unsolved murder case that will change the course of his life—and readers don’t discover the identity of the murderer until the novel’s climactic scenes. The Hard Way finds Reacher in New York City, investigating the kidnapping of a wealthy paramilitary figure’s wife–and we as readers won’t find out why or how she was taken until very late in the game. We often talk about these stories as thrillers, and quite understandably—they both certainly thrill—but given the unsolved crimes at their center, both are actually mysteries, strictly speaking. If Reacher were just a six-and-a-half-foot-tall, gorilla-faced guy who happens to be an ace in a fight, would readers really care for him in quite the same way? I doubt it—he’d still be in Carter Crossing, Mississippi, interviewing murder suspects, having never quite resolved the events of The Affair in the first place!

All of which begs the question, Mulholland Books reader: How do you prefer your bombs? Still ticking? Or already gone off?

Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

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