Saturday, April 2, 2011

Where's the Mystery?

Scott D. Parker

A generation and a half ago, a little old lady looked at a hamburger and asked, "Where's the beef?" In 2011, I'm looking around at some of the things I've been reading and asking myself where's the mystery?

Lately, crime fiction comics have been my fiction of choice. Part of the reason is that I'm genuinely interested in the art form. The other part is, well, soon to be announced. What has struck me is--at least in some of the titles I've chosen (Gotham Central, Hunter, Coward (Criminal), and Incognito)--there is a distinct lack of mystery involved. Like a great deal of *crime* fiction, those stories deal with the lowlifes and criminals, their way of life, and the choices that they make. It's fun reading, to be sure, but it has brought up a question: is there a line between mystery fiction and crime fiction?

Here's how I tend to generalize the two. Mystery fiction is trying to solve a crime, usually murder, and figure out the killer. While there are undoubtedly titles out there that use criminals as the protagonists, this style of storytelling tends to focus on the good guys, the ones trying to answer the question of whodunit?

Crime fiction seems to be about criminals or ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control. Where mystery fiction ends when the killer is identified, that's often the place where crime fiction starts. Mystery can be an aspect of crime fiction, but not always. For example, a heist film has little mystery to it other than to show how the robbers pull off the deed (or not).

Perhaps I've not read broadly enough, or perhaps I'm looking for different things nowadays. I'm not sure. But it just seems that there is a chasm in the middle of this genre we call home that separates us. I wonder why that is?

TV Show of the Week: Body of Proof
The good: Dana Delany's Megan Hunt is a bit like Sherlock Holmes, so far ahead of others that she appears superhuman. Oh, and there are dumb cops. Odd to see Sonja Sohn (The Wire) on network TV. Delany has some good chops that are best shown when her character actually has quiet moments. The bad: For someone who is seemingly surrounded by idiots and still pines for her old job, Delany's character seems to flit through the episode without much care. Perhaps that's the way we are shown she has no friends. I enjoyed the pilot and will continue watching. Anyone else?


Gerald So said...

Hi, Scott. I think you've hit on the key differences between mystery and crime fiction. I believe the chasm exists because, for some readers and authors, "mystery" brings to mind more intellectual characters like Holmes and Poirot and a brand of storytelling "crime" authors don't recognize as their own. I know Russel McLean hates when the term "mystery" is applied broadly.

"Crime" fiction seems to fit a postmodern world where you can't assume crimes will be solved or killers will be caught. Detectives may be too consumed by their own demons to do much sleuthing.

While I enjoy both types of story, I have a soft spot for mystery because, by definition, it intends to challenge the mind. Crime fiction's surprises are more visceral. The crime fiction I like best blurs the rational line between right and wrong. A criminal may have broken the law, but laws are man-made after all. The act in question doesn't necessarily make the the lawbreaker a "bad guy".

John McFetridge said...

Interesting post. Lately, in my own writing, I find myself moving in the opposite direction. So far the books I've written have been "crime" novels with no mystery at all - the reader, and the cops for that matter, all know "whodunnit" from pretty much the beginning.

But now I find myself working on stuff that is more traditionally mystery, with cops trying to solve crimes by persons unknown.

I can't say why, exactly, but I've decided not to fight and just go with it and see what happens.

Dana King said...

Good post, and I think you've nailed the differences. I've found myself writing stories the past few years that are mysteries to the characters, not so much to the reader. Multi-POV stories where the reader sees what the criminal is up to, so the reader remains a step ahead of the cops. (But not too far.)

My next project will be a straight first-person PI story, which will, of necessity, be more of a mystery, as the reader won't know anymore than the hero.

Both sides of the chasm can be fun to read and write, but the meatiest potential may be in the middle, borrowing elements of both.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

This is a great post. Funny, but I think that mysteries are often crime fiction, but crime fiction does not have to be a mystery. My husband and I were just talking about the fact that thrillers can have mysteries, but don't necessarily have to. There are some where it is just the hero racign against the clock.

I admit that I prefer crime fiction with a bit of a mystery in it often because I find the pacing is faster when there is a mystery to be solved - it drives the plot. At least it feels that way to me.

Scott D. Parker said...

Gerald - Bringing out my History Hat (since you referenced 'postmodern), I can't help but wonder if "crime fiction" originated after World War II. Much of what was the old world was destroyed in that conflict. I can't help but wonder if the hard-boiled fiction that emerged during the post-war years naturally led to crime fiction as we know it today. I, too, have a soft spot for mystery.

John - When you are done with your WIP, I'd be curious to know why it was you moved in this direction.

Dana - I think it'd be fun to have a true whodunit with a criminal as the protagonist. Is there a title already out there that fits that bill? When I wrote my first book, I purposefully hid the identity of my antagonist, but the reader still knew what the antagonist was doing.

Joelle - I, too, prefer a little mystery spicing my stories. The hero racing against the clock is a excellent thriller, but not always mysterious. I like the stories where there is a mystery to solve against the clock before the bigger, badder event happens.

Al Tucher said...

Good points. I write stories of both types, and I never know which I have until the story is nearly finished.

For the record, I would watch Dana Delany sorting coupons.