Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's a Mystery to Me

mystery--an enigma to be solved in literary fiction; a puzzle to be coped with by a single character or team of characters in a genre novel; an attempt by a writer to solve a perplexing condition or circumstance.

Lima, Peru: Friday, June 12, in the year of our Lord 1714. A bridge across a gaping chasm, woven perhaps a hundred years earlier by heathen Incas, collapses, sending five individuals to their death. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was about to set foot on the bridge at the moment of its collapse, wonders why he was spared and why the five individuals who were on the bridge at the time of its collapse were allowed to proceed to their death. He is, in a sense, investigating what could be variously seen as God's purpose, the nature of God, the meaning of life, and mysteries of the universe. Thus The Bridge of San Luis Rey by the American novelist and dramatist Thornton Wilder. In an interview conducted some twenty years after the publication of the novel, Wilder was asked if he would have reached different conclusions or ended the novel differently at this later date, to which Wilder observed that he had moved beyond his personal state of curiosity about the elements of the story that had intrigued him earlier. In other words, he had moved beyond his need to write that novel, perhaps even having "discovered" the answers or answerability to his prompting questions.

Dashiell Hammett set forth another kind of existential mystery in his novel The Maltese Falcon, where the major issues were who killed Spade's partner, Miles Archer, where was the "real" Maltese falcon, and was there in reality such a prize as there had been in urban myth.

Antonia S.Byatt has set forth an academic mystery in her novel Possession. Did a noted Victorian poet enter an adulterous affair with another poet? Had there, in fact, been a child born of that relationship? In the present day, an obscure American scholar, eager to forge his own reputation, makes a discovery in the London Library that leads him to suspect the connection between the two Victorian-era poets. His discovery leads him into a meeting with and then a competition with an attractive and well-regarded scholar, a distant relative of one of the two Victorian poets. Among the mysteries unearthed, literally and figuratively, is the nuanced one imparted to the reader: will the modern scholars find a mutual romantic connection.

Mystery is an essential subtext or direct theme for all fiction, making the reading of at least one such work a necessity for every storyteller. The throughline of a mystery novel is its introduction of one or more murders, the discovery of clues, and the use of clues as an avenue to the solution, at which point the story is over, with scant room--perhaps a paragraph or two--for an epigram in which some ironic or instructive commentary is hinted.

Hint: Before undertaking the revision of a novel-length work, read at least one mystery from the time period between Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and a Tony Hillerman Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery, and one mystery from the twenty-first century.

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