Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Unholy Trinity: Mystery, Sci-Fi, and Courtroom Drama

In the manner of the cliched iron filing as it is drawn to the nearby magnet, you were attracted to the mystery novel, for its own sake of mysterious possibilities and for the more general sense of it being a puzzle to be solved.

You despaired of ever being able to write your own, much less solving those such as Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Josephine Tey produced with such seeming ease and mischief. Thus you took refuge in science fiction and those stark, funny, evocative narrative explosions produced with great regularity by John O'Hara.

Before long, you blundered into two remarkable events that led you to believe you understood enough to write your own mystery stories. The first of these was discovering your mystery mentor, Dorothy B. (for Belle) Hughes; the second was her luring you into the southern California branch of The Mystery Writers of America, which led you directly into becoming the acquisitions editor for writers such as Bill S. Ballinger, Steve Fisher, and Frank Gruber, each of whom you'd read earlier with that combined alloy of awe, envy, and prodded imagination.

Your subsequent time spent as editor and teacher led you to consider The Mystery as the quintessential form for fictional narrative. But your association with science fiction caused you to add the Alternate Universe novel to the platform, thanks to the awareness that not only each writer but each reader as well sees the same event through a different set of prescriptive lenses.

And now, or perhaps it was yesterday, surely not later than that, you arrive at the third awareness of your archetypal trinity, the courtroom drama. One of the many bonds of identity that tie you to sister and brother homo sapiens is the sense of engagement in some ongoing conflict between you and a system that is either man made or of a persistent natural origin.

The courtroom drama defines the combatants and the issues over which they disagree. Hovering over the courtroom, its rules and procedures, is an atmosphere of gravitas and solemnity. But as individuals enter the scene as representatives of the Rule of Law, compounded by the litigants, be the issue at hand one of civil or criminal nature, so enters the mischief of absurdity and threats of chaos and anarchy.

In each of these three archetypes, the reader as participant enters, eavesdropping on the escalations of puzzle, alternate visions of reality, and arguments favoring individual rights and broader concepts of human responsibility. The reader is drawn through this archetypal filter into an identity with a character who faces a need for a decision or a way through a problem such as those the reader experiences or has burned into memory.

When you read, whatever the medium, you still bring to the page the six- or seven-year-old boy who felt the boredom of a perfectly normal constraint and who escaped those constraints through reading. Everything was an adventure, whether it was the stories of collies invented by Albert Payson Terhune, underwater menaces exploited by Jules Verne, or historical archetypes set in motion by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Early in your teaching career, you announced to your classes (with some satisfaction) how every novel was a mystery and thus each student, regardless of her or his immediate literary goals, needed to read at least one mystery novel and attempt to write one short story with a shot at acceptance from the two leading mystery magazines of the day, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

You soon arrived at the notion that every novel was indeed an alternate universe story because, taking Heraclitus at his word about not being able to bathe twice in the same river, the New York and Chicago and Los Angeles of different writers were, in their ways, as different as the writers who presented them.

Now, the courtrooms of John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Jodi Picault, along with Michael Connelly's character of Mickey Haller send you into classrooms, fired up with the passion of an attorney in closing argument for the inclusion of the jury-based drama into the panoply of archetype.  As reader, you're caught upon the details of a case. Now, you await the jury's verdict and the effect on the parties involved.

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