What’s Wrong with Mysteries?

Some years ago, when I was teaching at a community college in Maryland, one of my English department colleagues stopped by my office. She’d heard that I’d recently had a story published, she said, and she’d love to have me speak to her creative writing class. I accepted the invitation and asked what topics she’d like me to discuss. “Well,” she said, “the most important thing is for the students to get a sense of what serious writing is. I want them to understand that they don’t have to fill their stories with violence and murder.”

This was awkward. “Actually,” I said, “my stories are filled with violence and murder. I write mysteries.”

I know she didn’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 wouldn’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 aren’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 aren’t worth taking seriously.

Obviously, most mysteries aren’t great literature. Neither is most so-called literary fiction. Probably, most of the plays written and performed during Shakespeare’s time were pretty bad, and so were most of the novels published during Austen’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 that’s true of our own time—and I think it’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 writer—a Dorothy Sayers, for example, or a Ruth Rendell—a mystery can be just as good as a first-rate literary novel. If most mysteries—definitely including my own—don’t rise to that level, that’s a reflection of the writer’s limitations, not of the limits of the mystery form. And, once again, most literary novels don’t rise to that level, either.

So why are mysteries singled out for scorn? I think it’s at least partly because they don’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 they’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 “cringe,” he said, to have his work associated with the “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books on Oprah’s list. Essentially, he thought his novel was too good to be appreciated by Oprah’s viewers: The Corrections was “a hard book for that audience,” 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 Twain—all were popular authors, and I doubt any of them were embarrassed by that. I’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 “if Jane Austen were writing today, she might very well be our greatest mystery novelist.” I agree, and I’d guess that if Bronte, Dickens, Trollope, and Twain were still around, they might choose to write mysteries, too. (I recently read an article—by an academic, no less—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? Maybe—although Hamlet’s a determined, clever detective as he tries to uncover the truth about his father’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 it’s a shame that some people who consider themselves serious authors think they’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; they’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 mystery’s inevitable focus on plot seems an embarrassment.

Again, however, if we look to the great writers of the past, we see that they didn’t despise plot. Jane Austen is enjoying a resurgence of popularity these days, for many reasons. We love Austen’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 stories—the meticulously drawn conflicts, the surprising twists, the inevitable progress toward a fully convincing climax. Things happen in Austen’s novels, and they happen because of the choices characters make and the actions they take.  In all these respects, Austen’s novels resemble mysteries more than they resemble most modern literary fiction. (In the same talk mentioned earlier, P.D. James says that Austen’s Emma is, in essence, a detective novel.) Dorothy Sayers looks even further into the past to find a precedent for the mystery’s emphasis on plot. In a talk called “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” Sayers argues that good mysteries share Aristotle’s emphasis on carefully constructed plots: More than most modern writers, mystery writers stay true to Aristotle’s ideas about what makes a plot satisfying and sound.

Mystery plots are sometimes criticized for focusing on violent acts. Well, there’s often plenty of violence in literary fiction, too, but the violence is often random—a sudden, irrational intrusion that points to the ultimate absurdity of human life. In a traditional mystery, the violence may be sudden, but it’s not irrational. It underscores the fragility of human life and the weakness of human character, but it’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, I’ve sometimes heard speakers and panelists protest that even though they write mysteries, plot really isn’t terribly important to them—really, they’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. Let’s stop saying that. Let’s admit that a good plot is the soul of a good mystery, just as it’s the soul of all good fiction. Let’s stand with respected novelist E.M. Forster, who declares in Aspects of the Novel that “the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect.” And as Ursula LeGuin reminds us, story-telling is fundamental not only to the novel but also to human life itself: “There have been great societies that did not have the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Like the great literary artists of the past, mystery writers tell stories. Let’s take pride in that simple fact.

The kinds of characters generally found in mysteries may be another reason that many highly sophisticated people don’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 Christie’s Miss Marple to Dick Francis’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 don’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 mustn’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; I’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 that’s an unsophisticated view. Maybe, on the other hand, it’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 we’re telling the truth as we see it. We’re not just pandering to popular tastes, and we’re not intellectually incapable of understanding other ways of seeing the world. It’s just that we respectfully disagree.

Finally, it may be that the main reason most intellectual types don’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 isn’t all that difficult to tell them apart—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 aren’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 meddle—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 doesn’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 don’t apply; they may imply that sometimes, even when the letter of the law hasn’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 that’s why readers who consider themselves sophisticated tend to consider mysteries naïve. I remember a speaker who addressed a writers’ 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 “life just isn’t like that.” 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 we’re foolish enough to make will be frustrated; our choices don’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, doesn’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 doesn’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 it’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 don’t always triumph—we’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.