Friday, August 11, 2006

WHY MYSTERIES?
Why do I read them, why do I write them?
The second question is the most easily answered--I write what I like to read. I've been a fan of mysteries since my childhood, beginning with the inimitable titian-haired sleuth, Nancy Drew. Also the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, the Bobbsey Twins and, when I'd devoured those, I moved on to Agatha Christie.
But the turning point in my love affair with mysteries was my senior year of college. For my senior seminar, I chose The Mystery Novel. We read far and wide across the genre. I read Dame Agatha and Ross McDonald and Ellery Queen. I was introduced to the historical mystery with Ellis Peters and Anne Perry. I fell in love with Peter Wimsey and his Harriet in BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON. I met John le Carre through THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. I felt the delicious creepiness of Henry James' TURN OF THE SCREW and threw myself into 19th-century Russia in Dostoyevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Last night, I dug out a paper I wrote for that class, most impressively titled "Moral Complexity in the Mystery Novel." I had hoped to find some profound line or paragraph, something I could use as a springboard for this post, but I'm afraid what I discovered is that, when I was in college, I wrote like I was in college. Not bad, you understand--I did get an A on the paper--but nothing terribly insightful or original. So I'm left to my own devices to explain why I read mysteries.
I read mysteries for the characters. The inherent tensions in a criminal investigation goes a long way to revealing characters--and character. I'm not a puzzle fan. I don't read for the intellectual element of trying to figure out what happened. I read to find out why and how it effects those involved. I read for motivation and resolution and judgment and mercy. I don't require happy endings--only satisfying ones. An ending in which loose ends have been collected and unanswered questions are rare.
An ending, in short, which only exists in fiction.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
I've had the good fortune of personally getting to know the Vermont mystery writer Archer Mayor. I'm not particularly a fan of mysteries, but I enjoy his because he uses Vermont settings that I recognize(including a Lake Champlain ferry, the hospital morgue, old hotels and backwater towns I've spent time in). That makes his stories fun to read even if after a novel or two they the plot lines become transparently similar. What I didn't know until I quized him in person was why his characters seemed so real. It turned out that he was in my home town because he was interviewing people to be characters or composites of characters in his upcoming novel. Pretty cool, now I can read his novel and I see what he thinks people I know might be capable of.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I'm sure you guessed--I'm not really anonymous--I'm Patty

Laura A. said...

I figured that pretty quick--I don't know anyone else who lives in Vermont! On the DorothyL listserv they're currently having a discussion about mysteries in which setting is a vital part. Sounds like Mayor fits the bill.