Friday, December 26, 2014

A Mystery to Me

Embedded within the titles of the hundred novels of your as yet untitled project wrapped about the armature of one hundred novels that delivered a sharp blow to your solar plexus, there is a secret.  The secret is not so well embedded as to have been a surprise to you.  

Twenty of the hundred novels listed are mysteries; two others are about the kinds of search or unraveling, and one additional title, written by a master of suspense, is espionage related.

There is already an overflow list of seven novels, meaning they have some chance of displacing one or more of the original hundred.  Six of these seven are mystery or suspense related.  These statistics confirm an opinion you have held for at least--to introduce another number into the hash--twenty-five years:  The mystery is the quintessence snap of the novel.  

Think about it.  Outcome is everything.  The mystery has solution as its primary outcome, meaning first and foremost that a puzzle or intrigue has been solved.  Dipping into subtexts, justice has been in someway acknowledged, the cigarette burn on the sofa or the ketchup stain on the white table cloth have been dealt with, in effect mended, where all will be well until the next destabilizing event will occur, sending us off into another outing for the protagonist to decipher, unknot, reweave as best he or she can, and as best such things can in reality be mended.

The mystery is often a series of interviews, conducted by one or more individuals who are in search of information.  Where is the loot?  Or, who killed Cock Robin? In some novels of suspense, say The Maltese Falcon, a number of individuals are seeking information, some of them for the most selfish and private reasons.  All the while, the protagonist, Sam Spade, is seeking information, but as we discover, some of this information may be more self-serving that we at first thought.

With its focus on interviewing witnesses in order to arrive at a menu of potential suspects, we hear versions of events that may serve to exculpate the individual, but there is the equal possibility of causing us to suspect the witness or person of interest is holding back on the truth.  Joy of joys,this reticence with the truth may be completely unrelated to the actual crime, but may be an attempt to conceal some other infraction.

The protagonist may not be associated with the forces of The Social Contract, may in fact be on the opposing side of it, yet we are drawn to root for him or her and if we cannot allow that luxury, we can at least admire, even respect that individual.

In a novel of mystery or suspense, pace is everything.  Kate Atkinson's noteworthy mysteries, featuring the detective, Jackson Brodie, may not move with the cadence of Hammett or Chandler, but there is a constant reminder that Atkinson, via Brodie, is on story, following with details that may at first seem irrelevant, but which have about them the sting of inevitability and purpose.

You favor the mystery leaning into the noir or hardboiled, a fact you believe responsible in a significant way for the narrative voice that ultimately shoves aside the gimmicky, wise-guy, or mannered approaches that might appear in your early drafts.  This does not mean you ignore the potential for humor, which has always been your default position.  

That one-man mystery industry, the late, lamented Donald E. Westlake, has shown an approach to humor in mystery that fascinates you.  His novel, Bank Shot, is a prime example.  A group of robbers decide to hit the opening of a bank branch so new it is still housed in a large house trailer.  Trouble is, they can't crack the safe.  Their Plan B is to steal the entire house trailer until they can secure a safe cracker who can get them to the loot.

This same Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe, is able to produce tough, nourish narrative from the POV of a gangster known only as Parker, and as a retired cop who carries an incredible load of guilt for having not been there for back-up when his partner was killed.

In his one mystery novel to date, Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish  Policeman's Union, demonstrates the versatility of the mystery format with the same elan as a card sharp, executing the difficult waterfall shuffle, bringing heart-wrenching humor and pathos into his narrative.

Thus we are into some of your favorite areas, the politics of gender, race, and class, as exemplified by a long-time friend, Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins to bring us the one-armed private eye, Dan Fortune.

Ah, these stirrings of memory.  Number 60 on your list, Laura, by that lovely friend, Vera Caspary, of your mystery mentor, Dorothy B. Hughes, is now in danger of being bumped for one of Dennis.  And someone else is in danger, because you have just recalled another mystery writer who had a personal and editorial effect on you, the late Ken Millar, who wrote as Ross Macdonald.

Back to your point of thesis:  The mystery novel embodies the mainstream novel, sifts for a semblance of truth through differing versions or agendas, reveals hidden secrets, causes motives to be examined, points out weaknesses, and delves the human condition by offering a spectacular menu of potential crimes, potential perpetrators, and the societal fallout of these events and personalities.

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