My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking: Mysteries Run on a Closed Track

The question came up again recently at a party.

“Why do you write mysteries?”

The usual answers flitted through my head:

  1. I don’t know.
  2. Because I read a lot of mysteries.
  3. Why not?

I think I mumbled something that was an amalgamation of those three answers. I was distracted by cheese dip at the time. In the car on the way home, I asked myself the question. Why do I write mysteries, especially since it there is a price attached?

If I’m going to write them, I have to read them. For the past 13 years, I’ve averaged reading a hundred mysteries each year. I’ve watched a lot of crime television: cop shows, detective shows, forensic shows, and every British cop/mystery series I can get my hands on.

I’m more partial to the lighter side of the spectrum, with a lot of mayhem and gore off-stage, but in the interest of at least having touched on the full-spectrum, I’ve read more of the darker, bloodier, forensically accurate books that I probably should have. At least enough to give me nightmares. Not often, but when I have them, they are doozies. I can usually peg them to a particular series, or even to particular images.

Why do this? Maybe for the same reason that highly adventurous people cram themselves into tiny, low-slung cars and race around the closed streets of Monaco, in one of the world’s most expensive sports, Formula One racing. Only I get to get the same kind of thrill without using petrochemical products and contributing to global warming.

Formula One competitors depend on on-board electronics, their car’s aerodynamics, precision suspension systems that allow sliding sideways through narrow curves, and tires built to take the strain of speed, friction, and city pavement. Formula One is the only sport—as far as I know—that awards two grand champion trophies each year, one to the best driver and one for the best car construction. If it were up to me, I’d award a third trophy each year, to the person who designed the best closed-circuit course.

Of course, I have this very strong prejudice. I’d award the course trophy every year to Monaco. I mean, how could anything compete with coming into that impossibly tight hairpin curve in front of the Grand Hotel, whose balconies are filled with suave men and gorgeous women? Of course, there is Singapore’s night course: Formula One meets street racing. That has possibilities.

Face it, we mystery writers run on a closed track. When mystery equals murder, as it does most of the time, we all know the genre conventions. A body, a detective (professional or amateur) committing to finding the murderer, some clues, some suspects, life gets sticky, usually a second body, the detective vows to see justice done—which is quite different from wanting to solving the crime, more clues, life gets stickier, the joy ride down the funnel, life gets stickiest, the moment of revelation/danger, the end.

So the real answer to Why do I write mysteries? Maybe you aren’t old enough to remember or never had a chance to see Richard Kiley belting out The Impossible Dream from The Man of LaMancha. You can find it on YouTube, but the films hold a pale candle to hearing that moment of intense personal commitment when he belts out,  “To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

That desire to right the world, to have justice triumph is the Grand Hotel hairpin curve of the mystery story, made all the more wonderful because it’s played out, not before balconies of beautiful people, but in the heart. Evil won’t win, not if the protagonist has anything to say about it. But there will be a cost to facing evil. By this point in the story, the protagonist knows that. And goes ahead anyway.

So the next time I’m at a party, and someone asks me why I write mysteries, I’ll probably mumble the same inane reasons that I did last night. Or maybe I’ll say something about Formula One racing and the hairpin curve at Monaco. Somehow, I don’t think I could pull off discussing courage, sacrifice, and intense personal commitment over the cheese dip. That’s much better left for the cold clarity of the morning after.

I hope to see on Tuesday, April 29th, for Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom. We know all this great stuff about our characters, but how do we start weaving it into a story?