crime writing, lit blogging, opinions, general chicanery

Mysteries with Dirt on Their Hands

I've been thinking a lot lately--actually, let's pretend I've been thinking about it non-stop since November 3, the date of my last post, and that will excuse my long absence--about the difference between mystery stories and crime stories, something I mentioned in my first post here.

"Mystery" is the umbrella term in literature; "crime" is the umbrella term in drama.  This makes sense.  The classical mystery features a lone protagonist who thinks his way through various fictions to reach a singular truth: he's the reader, and the story of the crime, which is the object of his analysis, is elsewhere and mostly already concluded.  In its origins, it's a dispassionate genre, and a genre skeptical of passion.  Hot blood makes you a suspect; icily cold intellect makes you a detective.  In its Golden Age form, it's fundamentally a written genre, because prose is best-equipped to spin entertainment out of a series of puzzles.  "Crime," on the other hand, is everything that happens before the detective shows up, if he ever does, and it's every sweaty-palmed and desperate moment after that.  Crime is about action; mystery is about interpretation.  You can film noir, and people did, and did it so often as to make it its own genre, because noir puts you with the people who, in their own grimy ways, get the plot going.

I have a bias here, obviously.  But it doesn't have to be this way, and discovering that has made my reading life better.  (And it's made me feel better about the unavoidable fact that the three stories I've sold--and since "Charcoal and Cherry" and "Honey, Hold Me" are still forthcoming, you'll have to take my word for it--are arguably more mystery stories than crime stories.  Self-justification is a helluva drug, but thankfully not the whole reason behind this.)  Undeniably, I have my pet mystery series where the main charm is the continuing hangout with the book-to-book or episode-to-episode protagonists, who are sometimes down but never out, whose evolution is gradual and series-long.  But it's been great to see, more and more, single-novel mysteries where the solving of the crime is so critical to the protagonist that the search for that solution is a genuine story in its own right.

Megan Abbott (in The Song is You and You Will Know Me, in particular) and Gillian Flynn (in Sharp Objects and Dark Places) do it by choosing protagonists who are driven by circumstance and obsession, not by profession: the mysteries they look into become the stories that define them because the ultimate answer will rewrite their lives in addition to solving the crime.  Gil Hopkins looks into Jean Spangler's disappearance because his peripheral role in covering it up means that he can only know what kind of man he is by knowing what happened to her; Katie needs to believe that a community defined by her daughter's talent is more stable than one boy's murder has made it seem; Camille is assigned to write reportage on the murders of some girls in her hometown, yes, but they're indelibly entangled with her family and her history of damage; Libby Day needs to know if she told the truth all those years ago when she said that she saw her brother killing the rest of their family.  In all cases, behind all these protagonists, you can hear the echo of Donna Tartt's Richard Papen in The Secret History: "I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other.  This is the only story I will ever be able to tell."

Probably most impressively, James Ellroy does it in the LA Quartet with characters who are, at least initially, driven by profession.  There is no story for Bucky Bleichert after the Dahlia case, because her story consumes his.  The events of LA Confidential graduate Ed Exley from protagonist to governing power, making it the last story that can be told about him as a character before he becomes an indelible part of the world itself.  John le Carré also uses professionals, but in, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the network of those professionals is tight enough that determining which one of them has turned traitor means determining the nature of the entire backdrop of George Smiley's life.  Tana French's In the Woods stars a detective whose sanity and career get increasingly wobblier as he goes on, and so has a go at blending mystery and tragedy.  All of that works, too.

And then there's Marisha Pessl's Night Film, also a beloved book, and the odd one out here.  To some extent, it follows the pattern of the first set of novels, because its investigator is mostly an amateur driven by a fixation.  But Night Film is less about character and more about atmosphere.  By flirting with the edges of horror and dark fantasy, it becomes a mystery that dabbles in Mystery: it's a story that matters not because the answer will permanently change Scott McGrath's life but because there's the real idea, throughout, that the answer might rend some sort of hole in some veil between this world and another.  In a genre about knowing, Night Film is about the perilous sensation that we may come abruptly and terrifyingly to understand some collective vast ignorance.

Then, all right, there are mystery novels that are using their mysteries as vehicles for the pleasures of intellect and continued company that manage to craft one-off supporting casts who are vivid enough that they can hold interest in their own right.  Ruth Rendell is particularly good at this.

The episodic form also has a tremendous amount of variety--Michael Connelly and Lilian Jackson Braun aren't that far apart from each other on the bookshelves, for one thing--and its own strengths.  But for dramatic impact, the novels I've mentioned here prove that you can go to mystery as well as to crime for stories with dirt on their hands and blood on their clothes; that the search for truth can have its own consequences and its own potential to shatter lives.


"If Not Hope, Hope for Hope": Thoughts on Rectify

"If Not Hope, Hope for Hope": Thoughts on Rectify

Justified: Season One (Tried It On and It Fit)