My Philosophy about Mysteries

The other day I was trying to explain to Jeff why I love mysteries so much.  The more I attempted to explain it to him, the more complicated it became.  I believe that my affinity for mysteries (and I mean who-done-its, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers novels, not thrillers) goes way back to my childhood.  The more I reflect on it the less discernible a point-of-origin becomes.

I think that it has to do in part with a fascination with the supernatural.  In the first grade, I remember checking out books of true ghost stories with photographs of ghosts, often depicted as smoky, light-filtered forms or plumes of billowing ectoplasm.  The ultimate mystery, of course, is the mystery of what lies beyond the physical world, right? Then, when my father died, that interest was amplified for obvious reasons.  Where did he go?  Is there a heaven?  But, of course, there aren’t answers to these questions.

One of the images from the true ghost stories I read as a kid.

One of the images from the true ghost stories I read as a kid.

So, as I grew older and life became more complicated and I entered adolescence, murder mysteries became a source of shelter.  I gave myself over to puzzles with solutions.  A world made dangerous and chaotic by death was, by the end of the story, set back in order thanks to Poirot or Marlowe.  I think this attempt to return to order led me to the Modernists, such as Woolf and Eliot and Joyce, writers trying to uncover a new form from the fragments of old forms.

To this day, I still prize a return to order in books that I read, and therefore, I attempt to achieve that same unity in my writing.  I’ve been criticized for this in workshops, though.  And I understand why.  The world constantly reminds us that it is a chaotic place—a place that gives and takes life randomly, so art, as a reflection of life, must represent that chaos.  Of course, when I’m confronted with this line of thought, I think also of all the patterns and designs that nature and man have created.  Perhaps, the world is a place where order and chaos are constantly in dialogue, and perhaps, a mystery is an exploration of that dialogue.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “My Philosophy about Mysteries

  1. Tracey

    Hi John!

    I’m a friend of Jeff’s (went to high school together) and so I see your blog links from his FB updates. I love this entry. THANK YOU for helping ME understand why I love mysteries so much! Just like you, I have always loved mysteries. Ever since I can remember. And for me it’s also the who-done-its (and more specifically, the “old school” English mysteries like Sayers and Christie.) Your theory makes so much sense (and ties into why I also love math so much — there’s such order to it!)

    I love your blog and am looking forward to reading your novel!

    Best!
    Tracey

    • johncopenhaver

      Tracey,

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I’ve just had this thing for mysteries for so long. I think it’s the combination of a sort of puzzle (who? when? where?) and the psychological element (why?). My own novel tries to tie all the psychological elements to the puzzle (the why becomes inextricable from the who, etc) . . . and I hope it succeeds.

  2. artandliterature

    You might want to check out a classic essay on the genre for more on this: “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story” by Geoffrey Hartman. Originally in the New York Review of Books (and to a great degree about Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man), the essay looks deeply at that very quality of mysteries you’re bringing up — the return to order — and uses that as a way of demeaning their value as literature. Here’s a quick quote from near the conclusion:

    “Most popular mysteries are devoted to solving rather than examining a problem. Their reasonings put reason to sleep, abolish darkness by elucidation, and bury the corpse for good. Few detective novels want the reader to exert his intelligence fully, to find gaps in the plot or the reasoning, to worry about the moral question of fixing the blame. They are exorcisms, stories with happy endings that could be classified with comedy because they settle the unsettling. As to the killer, he is often a bogeyman chosen by the “finger” of the writer after it has wavered suspensefully between this and that person for the right number of pages.”

    What’s interesting, however, is that I ultimately disagree with Hartman (and in the process, I’m sorry to say, with parts of your own assessment here). While I think that the traditional whodunit — the Christie novel, say — does generally provide a return to order at the novel’s close, I don’t think that all mysteries (even all of hers) do, and so it’s tough to make broad generalizations about a genre. You put Poirot and Marlowe together here, but the approaches of Poirot (and of his predecessors Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin) rely mostly on logic and to a commitment to revealing the truth, while Marlowe and his kin and his successors are often less interested in unveiling some objective truth than in navigating a very subjective sense of rough (even frontier) justice. In the process, what emerges is (at best) a temporary or tentative and in any case fragile sense of order, and always with the threat that it’s going to fall apart pretty quickly. The order and the chaos here go hand in hand.

    The hardboiled heroes too were often not just interested in unmasking the killer in the final pages but in revealing deeper social, political, historical, etc. problems — and so in the final pages, one killer may (or may not) be brought to justice but a more series layering of crimes usually persists beyond the novels close. Not so, necessarily, when there’s a killer a-loose in the manor house and banishing him from it lets us go back to our routine of afternoon tea (Christie again). And another essay to look at there: Chandler’s own “The Simple Art of Murder” — as passionate and persuasive a delineation between the two big brands of detective fiction under which many mysteries would still fall today.

    Sorry to go on at such length, but just trying to offer some other perspectives, particularly when you’re discussing both your admiration for genre literature and modernism (literature low and high) AND trying (it sounds like) to navigate those two in your own writing as well.

    • johncopenhaver

      Art,
      This is such a helpful comment! Also, I’m so pleased to have the essay recommendations. Thanks. This has given me a lot to think about.

      I’m still working through these ideas, so I want to clarify my thoughts from my blog a bit. It’s not the return to moral order (and I should’ve made this clearer), but rather the revelation and fulfillment of a design—often a psychological pattern—that I find satisfying. I deeply dislike mysteries—or any sort of fiction—that neatly sorts out the goodies from the badies by its conclusion, ultimately instructing a reader how to pass judgment on the characters. I think Christie and Chandler, when they are at their best, avoid these sorts of conclusions, but do provide satisfying structural and psychological unity.

      When mysteries get called out for being a low form of fiction, it’s often because of the weak examples of the genre that reduce or deny the reader’s ability to interpret character motivation and action.

      So, I do agree with you. A mystery novel doesn’t have to be reductive (and shouldn’t be)—but it does need to have a structure which satisfies a reader’s need to see a pattern emerge or a design revealed—to know something they didn’t know before, even if it’s something grim and unsettling. The best mystery novels, I think, place the reader right in the middle of a moral quandary by the end.

      Thanks again. . . I really do appreciate your comment.

  3. artandliterature

    Ah! Makes good sense there, and I understand better…. That word “order” has so many possible meanings, and one of the ones that often gets applied to mysteries is “order” as “normalcy” — i.e. things are OK, then a murder happens, and we have to get things BACK to OK again, a return to the normal order of things that many readers do find satisfying and reassuring. Sorry I misread.

    But do think you’ll enjoy those essays — they’re insightful and provocative!

    More soon on this, I’m sure.

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