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Sunday, November 28, 2010

We Don't Read Mysteries For the Plot

We don't read mysteries for the plot. We read them for the characters and the genre. That's why there have been so many series with the same detective in them. We want to see the development of the character. But we also want that character to ultimately be safe. And that is the promise of genre. Doyle famously could not kill off Sherlock Holmes. This was a violation of the genre: it promises a return to order with all the central characters intact. It may be dark, but it is not tragic.

In some ways, mysteries are an optimistic art form, rather than, say tragedy. Even hard-boiled mysteries revere justice. To not do so would be to violate the genre. The detective needs to be a hero who sacrifices much to create some justice in what seems, on the surface, a world ripe for cynics. But the cynicism is so often stylized, so often sentimentalized. What is not sentimentalized is the demand of the reader for a genre. This is what is most "real" about a mystery.

Another way of looking at mysteries is as a genre that lets all hell break loose only to clear things up nicely and neatly. I think this is generally not the case, although mysteries as a whole have been multitudinous. This much I am sure of: to break the dictates of the genre, which states that justice must be served in the end, is to write an anti-mystery. Paul Auster has written some anti-mysteries.

Mysteries are fun. Unlike horror stories, which are exciting. Mysteries promise a sort of mind game. Horror stories cause us to be sucked in by extravagance and excess, thereby losing ourselves into the fearful spectacle. Mysteries do not ask us to lose or leave ourselves.They ask us to wonder and ponder over a manageable and discreet set of possibilities. Neat, clean, efficient. Kinda bourgeois?

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