Some years ago, when I was teaching at a community college in Maryland, one of my English department colleagues stopped by my office. Sheâ€™d heard that Iâ€™d recently had a story published, she said, and sheâ€™d love to have me speak to her creative writing class. I accepted the invitation and asked what topics sheâ€™d like me to discuss. â€œWell,â€ she said, â€œthe most important thing is for the students to get a sense of what serious writing is. I want them to understand that they donâ€™t have to fill their stories with violence and murder.â€
This was awkward. â€œActually,â€ I said, â€œmy stories are filled with violence and murder. I write mysteries.â€
I know she didnâ€™t literally gasp and turn pale and back out of my office, even though I remember the scene that way. She just smiled nervously, mumbled something or other, and got the hell out. Later that afternoon, I found a note in my mailbox. My colleague had checked her syllabus more carefully, it said, and realized that she had an overwhelming amount of material to cover in that class. She wouldnâ€™t need my services as a guest speaker after all.
Over the years, most of my faculty colleagues have been more tactful than that woman, but I know many of them share her opinion of mysteries. To many academics, and to many others who fancy themselves intellectuals, mysteries arenâ€™t respectable. Even those who confess to reading mysteries occasionally do so with a self-deprecating shrug, the sort of shrug that might accompany an admission that they sometimes crave Big Macs or watch a few minutes of professional wrestling while flipping channels. Mysteries are guilty pleasures. They definitely arenâ€™t worth taking seriously.
Obviously, most mysteries arenâ€™t great literature. Neither is most so-called literary fiction. Probably, most of the plays written and performed during Shakespeareâ€™s time were pretty bad, and so were most of the novels published during Austenâ€™s day. Probably, in any period, most of the things that make it into print are mediocre at best and will quickly fade into obscurity. I think thatâ€™s true of our own timeâ€”and I think itâ€™s just as true of most literary fiction as it is of most mysteries. I also think that in the hands of a truly gifted writerâ€”a Dorothy Sayers, for example, or a Ruth Rendellâ€”a mystery can be just as good as a first-rate literary novel. If most mysteriesâ€”definitely including my ownâ€”donâ€™t rise to that level, thatâ€™s a reflection of the writerâ€™s limitations, not of the limits of the mystery form. And, once again, most literary novels donâ€™t rise to that level, either.
So why are mysteries singled out for scorn? I think itâ€™s at least partly because they donâ€™t conform to some contemporary ideas about what serious fiction should be. And I think that the things that make my colleagues look down on mysteries are the same things that make me like and respect mysteries so much.
First of all, I think, mysteries are suspect because theyâ€™re popular. If millions of people can understand and enjoy them, how good can mysteries be? Real literature should be so sophisticated, so subtle and obscure and rarefied, that it can be appreciated only by the elite few. This attitude was epitomized by a 2001 incident in which author Jonathan Franzen confessed to being embarrassed when Oprah Winfrey selected his novel The Corrections for her book club. It made him â€œcringe,â€ he said, to have his work associated with the â€œschmaltzy, one-dimensionalâ€ books on Oprahâ€™s list. Essentially, he thought his novel was too good to be appreciated by Oprahâ€™s viewers: The Corrections was â€œa hard book for that audience,â€ he said.
We can imagine what Jonathan Franzen thinks of mysteries. But the idea that good literature should not appeal to a wide audience is relatively new. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twainâ€”all were popular authors, and I doubt any of them were embarrassed by that. Iâ€™d guess, in fact, that the desire to reach a wide audience was among the reasons that these writers chose genres that were popular in their times. P.D. James has said that â€œif Jane Austen were writing today, she might very well be our greatest mystery novelist.â€ I agree, and Iâ€™d guess that if Bronte, Dickens, Trollope, and Twain were still around, they might choose to write mysteries, too. (I recently read an articleâ€”by an academic, no lessâ€”arguing that Jane Eyre is the first true detective novel, with Jane piecing together clues to try to solve the mystery of the madwoman in the attic.) Would it be going too far to suggest Shakespeare might also opt for mysteries? Maybeâ€”although Hamletâ€™s a determined, clever detective as he tries to uncover the truth about his fatherâ€™s death, and other plays, such as Macbeth, also center on murder. Maybe Shakespeare would be more likely to write some well-plotted, psychologically probing mysteries than to pen ethereal little tales about sensitive souls coming of age.
In any case, I think itâ€™s a shame that some people who consider themselves serious authors think theyâ€™re too good to try to appeal to a wide audience, preferring to write for prestigious little magazines with twelve subscribers. Writers who consider popularity beneath them are destroying their chances of sharing their insights with a large, diverse group of readers; theyâ€™re destroying their chances of having a real impact on their society. Mystery writers seldom make that mistake.
Another reason that mysteries are considered lowbrow, I think, is that they actually have plots. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. Things happen. Mysteries are not poetic little slices of life, meticulously crafted constructions of words and images and inconclusive themes. At a time when many sophisticated writers have turned away from traditional ideas of plot, the mysteryâ€™s inevitable focus on plot seems an embarrassment.
Again, however, if we look to the great writers of the past, we see that they didnâ€™t despise plot. Jane Austen is enjoying a resurgence of popularity these days, for many reasons. We love Austenâ€™s sharp insights into characters, her lively style, her witty dialogue, her ability to draw us into a world different from our own. We also love her stories. We might even venture to say that, most of all, we love her storiesâ€”the meticulously drawn conflicts, the surprising twists, the inevitable progress toward a fully convincing climax. Things happen in Austenâ€™s novels, and they happen because of the choices characters make and the actions they take.Â In all these respects, Austenâ€™s novels resemble mysteries more than they resemble most modern literary fiction. (In the same talk mentioned earlier, P.D. James says that Austenâ€™s Emma is, in essence, a detective novel.) Dorothy Sayers looks even further into the past to find a precedent for the mysteryâ€™s emphasis on plot. In a talk called â€œAristotle on Detective Fiction,â€ Sayers argues that good mysteries share Aristotleâ€™s emphasis on carefully constructed plots: More than most modern writers, mystery writers stay true to Aristotleâ€™s ideas about what makes a plot satisfying and sound.
Mystery plots are sometimes criticized for focusing on violent acts. Well, thereâ€™s often plenty of violence in literary fiction, too, but the violence is often randomâ€”a sudden, irrational intrusion that points to the ultimate absurdity of human life. In a traditional mystery, the violence may be sudden, but itâ€™s not irrational. It underscores the fragility of human life and the weakness of human character, but itâ€™s not absurd. It points, ultimately, to the importance of human choice and human action. That, I think, is a crucial difference; it points to a different opinion about what it means to be human.
At mystery conferences, Iâ€™ve sometimes heard speakers and panelists protest that even though they write mysteries, plot really isnâ€™t terribly important to themâ€”really, theyâ€™re more interested in characters, in setting, in voice, in theme, in style, in punctuation, in virtually anything except something so common and vulgar as plot. Letâ€™s stop saying that. Letâ€™s admit that a good plot is the soul of a good mystery, just as itâ€™s the soul of all good fiction. Letâ€™s stand with respected novelist E.M. Forster, who declares in Aspects of the Novel that â€œthe fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect.â€ And as Ursula LeGuin reminds us, story-telling is fundamental not only to the novel but also to human life itself: â€œThere have been great societies that did not have the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.â€ Like the great literary artists of the past, mystery writers tell stories. Letâ€™s take pride in that simple fact.
The kinds of characters generally found in mysteries may be another reason that many highly sophisticated people donâ€™t take the genre seriously. Mysteries certainly acknowledge and, indeed, emphasize human weakness and vice. Nevertheless, mysteries also offer us genuinely admirable characters, ones who know the difference between right and wrong, who are determined to find the truth, who are devoted to justice, who actually do something. From Agatha Christieâ€™s Miss Marple to Dick Francisâ€™s sturdily incorruptible protagonists, the central figures in mysteries are not resigned to the futility of human existence. When they see that something is wrong, they act to set things right; and, at least to some extent, they succeed. They are not paralyzed by a sense of their own powerlessness or by a recognition of the fundamental unfairness of the universe. We donâ€™t find many mysteries written about the J. Alfred Prufrock Detective Agency.
The central characters in much literary fiction, by contrast, are helpless, hopeless, and lost. They may be intelligent and sensitive; they may be very well educated. (They may, often, be thinly disguised versions of the authors who created them.) Even so, they tend to blunder about doing foolish, self-destructive things, bringing misery to themselves and to everyone around them. But we mustnâ€™t condemn them for that. After all, their poor choices and hurtful actions simply mirror the impossibility of the human condition. In an absurd, unfair universe, what more can we expect of them?
Mysteries insist that we can expect a lot more. Mysteries insist that characters take responsibility for their choices and actions. Life is tough; Iâ€™ve never read a mystery that denies that. But mysteries insist that people can be decent and honest and courageous and smart no matter how tough life gets. Maybe thatâ€™s an unsophisticated view. Maybe, on the other hand, itâ€™s the truth. Once again, I think that the difference between mystery fiction and literary fiction boils down to a difference of opinion. Mystery writers may be wrong about people, or we may be right, but in either case weâ€™re telling the truth as we see it. Weâ€™re not just pandering to popular tastes, and weâ€™re not intellectually incapable of understanding other ways of seeing the world. Itâ€™s just that we respectfully disagree.
Finally, it may be that the main reason most intellectual types donâ€™t take mysteries seriously is that mysteries are so darn moral. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and in most mysteries it isnâ€™t all that difficult to tell them apartâ€”at least, not once all the facts have been uncovered and all the clues correctly interpreted. Some human actions are clearly wrong, and other human actions are clearly right. There may be considerable pain and sadness in a mystery, particularly if either the victim or the murderer is a likeable character. But almost always, at least in a traditional mystery, by the time we reach the last page, the guilty have been stopped, the innocent are safe, and the worst of the pain is over.
True, things arenâ€™t always this clear-cut in mysteries, especially in non-traditional ones. Sometimes, murderers are more sympathetic than their victims; sometimes, detectives wonder if they were right to meddleâ€”even Lord Peter Wimsey sometimes wonders about that. In some mysteries (not among my favorites), the world, or at least a portion of it, is portrayed as so thoroughly corrupt that bringing one wrongdoer to justice doesnâ€™t seem to make much difference. And once in a while, someone actually gets away with murder in a mystery, or with some other crime. These mysteries may question our ideas about justice; they may suggest that in some rare circumstances, the usual rules donâ€™t apply; they may imply that sometimes, even when the letter of the law hasnâ€™t been enforced to perfection, justice has been done in some higher sense; or they may leave us feeling uneasy, reminded once again that some evils are bound to go unpunished.
But such mysteries are the exceptions. In most mysteries, at least some approximation of justice is achieved. And I think thatâ€™s why readers who consider themselves sophisticated tend to consider mysteries naÃ¯ve. I remember a speaker who addressed a writersâ€™ group I once belonged to, a man who had published stories in several literary magazines. Happy endings, this speaker declared, are impossible in serious literature, because â€œlife just isnâ€™t like that.â€ Any reasonably perceptive person, he maintained, knows that human life is miserable and meaningless. Love inevitably fades and sours; truth is eternally elusive; any efforts weâ€™re foolish enough to make will be frustrated; our choices donâ€™t matter, because we can neither understand nor control the forces that determine our fates; in the end, all we can hope for is the intelligence to recognize the abyss of nothingness.
The mystery, at its heart, doesnâ€™t believe any of this. The mystery believes in truth and justice. It acknowledges, certainly, the difficulty of determining the truth and the possibility that justice will be denied. Throughout a mystery, the truth is hidden, the guilty seem safe, and the innocent are in danger. The situation is precarious; disaster threatens; if someone doesnâ€™t do something about it, things will get worse.
But in a mystery, someone does do something about it. At least one person makes brave choices and takes decisive actions; at least one person manages, eventually, to distinguish between the true and the false. There may be more loss along the way, sometimes very painful loss. But in the end, at least to some degree, the truth is discovered, justice is done, and order is restored. The situation is better, and itâ€™s better as the direct result of what at least one human being has done.
Of course, mystery readers and writers know that in real life, justice and truth donâ€™t always triumphâ€”weâ€™d have to be fools not to know that. We know, too, that situations are sometimes morally ambiguous, that sometimes one good has to be balanced against another, that sometimes an evil has to be tolerated to prevent a still greater evil, that sometimes even the most determined human efforts fail. But mystery writers and readers believe that justice and truth should triumph; and we believe that they sometimes do. Those victories are the ones we choose to celebrate, the ones we hold up as difficult but possible ideals.