|The Traditional Mystery
by Jane K. Cleland
The nature of a traditional mystery becomes most clear when contrasted with other sub-genres in general and with what is least like a traditional mystery in particular, a thriller. Before comparing and contrasting a traditional mystery to other sub-genres, however, it makes sense to consider what is meant by the term "mystery."
- American Heritage: A work of fiction, drama, or film dealing with a puzzling crime.
- Online dictionary.com said: "(1) One that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding; an enigma: How he got in is a mystery. And (2) The skills, lore, or practices that are peculiar to a particular activity or group and are regarded as the special province of initiates. Often used in the plural: the mysteries of Freemasonry."
- Yourdictionary.com: "a novel, story, or play involving such an event, esp. a crime and the gradual discovery of who committed it."
- About.com said: "Mystery is a genre of fiction in which a detective, either an amateur or a professional, solves a crime or a series of crimes. Because detective stories rely on logic, supernatural elements rarely come into play." Right... tell that to Charlaine Harris! About.com went on: "The detective may be a private investigator, a policeman, an elderly widow, or a young girl, but he or she generally has nothing material to gain from solving the crime." Tell that to Travis McGee.
But they also have an article called "Ten Rules of Writing Mysteries," and since those of us who write them know there are no rules that can’t be and haven’t been broken, everything they say on the subject is suspect.
- E-look.org: a story about a crime (usually murder) presented as a novel or play or movie.
In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut discussed their work over a marathon lasting 50 hours over five days. The two great directors and their French/English interpreter barely paused for meals. According to Hitchcock, and contrary to popular belief, suspense bears no relationship to surprise. Hitchcock gave this example: Say you have a scene where two characters are talking in a café, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table—the audience experiences surprise. If, however, the audience sees the terrorist place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o’clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between the two café patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion.
This approach—telling the viewer, or the reader—what’s going on, translates into fifteen minutes of suspense as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, Hitchcock explained, that the audience be as fully informed as possible.
Most of us who write traditional mysteries also want to keep the audience as fully informed as possible, too. It’s called a fair play mystery, where the reader knows everything the detective knows—at the same time as the detective learns it. The difference is in the way the story unfolds.
In a traditional mystery, the crime occurs shortly after the story starts, or it has already occurred; it’s a whodunit. In a thriller, stopping the crime is the thrust of the story. If an underlying crime has already occurred, say a kidnapping, it is used to demonstrate the villain’s bad character, or to set-up the potential of a worse crime—will the kidnappers kill the victim? It’s a how-can-the-hero-stop-it.
Suspense plays a role in all mysteries, though usually in traditional mysteries, the role isn’t as large as it is in thrillers. In traditional mysteries, the protagonist, be it a professional detective like Hecule Poirot or an antiques appraiser like Josie Prescott, is trying to figure out what happened.
In a thriller, the protagonist, who may be a police officer like Dirty Harry, or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, or an amateur, a man whose child has been kidnapped like Tom Mullen in Ransom, or an everyman, a person wrongly accused of a crime like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, is trying to stop something from happening.
In a traditional mystery, the reader gets to follow along as the detective—professional or amateur—solves the crime. In a thriller, the reader gets vicarious thrills as he participates in the chase. In both cases, chaos resolves into order.
A traditional mystery is a story of revelation, more than action. Something horrible has happened, usually a murder, and the detective’s job is to discover who committed the crime, and why.
A significant challenge for authors of traditional mysteries is to keep the villain unidentified for as long as possible without slowing down the pace. You’ll note that inherent this paradox is the risk that you lose the delicious edge-of-your-seat suspense that keeps readers chained to their chairs or awake and reading all night. Here’s the bottom line: Without suspense, there is no urgency. And without urgency, why would any reader want to read on?
Which is why most traditional mysteries use impending danger to create suspense. But the author of traditional mysteries sacrifices the most significant source of conflict available because, structurally, the protagonist and the villain cannot have a showdown or confrontation until the final scenes. Plain and simple, a threat from an unknown person is never as intense as the threat from a known and powerful villain.
However, what the traditional mystery may lack in shock value and the chilling thrill of the ticking clock, it more than makes up in its tales of human drama, the gripping tales that occur at moments of crisis—not just what happens, but how people react to what happens.
The contemporary whodunit has evolved from whodunit alone into whodunit and whydunit. The reader feels compelled to read on because they want to know the story behind the story. What drives a sane person to kill? Or why did that insane person snap? (And how could they possibly have covered their tracks so well if they’re insane?)
In traditional mysteries, character drives plot at the same time as plot impacts character. Henry James wrote, "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
The reader must crave knowing how this person will handle that situation. To create that craving, you need a different kind of suspense—tension. Tension is created in a traditional mysteries by the characters’ unresolved conflicts, confrontations, or warring goals. Conflict, confrontations, and warring goals are created by placing engaging, realistic, quirky characters, people the reader can identify with, into extraordinary and unfamiliar situations. The situation can be shocking, but it must be plausible. The reader must care about both the people and the situation. Whatever led to the crime and whatever arises as we move step-by-step toward the ultimate resolution provides a Petrie dish full of emotions primed for conflicts, confrontations, or warring goals.
Thus, in a traditional mystery, the reader is engaged not by vicarious thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know. A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition and to resolve:
- confusion into clarity
- disharmony into the familiar and the comfortable
- chaos into order
What is a traditional mystery? It’s the current day version of the tales told by our forbearer’s clan’s storyteller, the ones he wove to help us escape the frightening, ever-present dangers inherent in our lives when our days were spent fighting off lions and tigers and bears, foraging for food, and trying to keep the campfire going. Stories that caught our imagination, held our attention, and helped us get through the night.