Friday, March 16, 2012

The Mystery Novel: A Strategy for Living?

Welcome guest blogger Betty Webb. As a journalist, Betty interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include this year's Desert Wind, given a starred review by Publishers Weekly; Desert Lost ("One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009," Library Journal); Desert Noir ("A mystery with a social conscience," Publishers Weekly); and Desert Wives, ("Eye-popping," New York Times). Betty’s humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted with the prize-winning The Anteater of Death, followed by the just-as-silly The Koala of Death. A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, Women Writing the West, and the National Organization of Zoo Keepers.

When I learned that today’s topic was “strategy,” I worried that it was both too specific and too vague. But when I looked the word up in my Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, one of several definitions caught my eye: “A careful plan or method for achieving an end.”

In mystery writing, that end is usually – after the commission of a murder – to restore truth and justice to a threatened community. Yes, someone’s life has been unfairly cut short, but because of the due diligence of our hero sleuth, the guilty person has been apprehended and order has been restored to the world. The sun rises over a peaceful land and birds sing sweet songs as rosy-cheeked children skip hand-in-hand down picturesque country lanes.

If only.

I give a popular writer’s workshop titled “Five Ideas A Day, Every Day,” in which I teach my students how to read a daily newspaper for story ideas. This idea-getting strategy never fails because newspapers are filled with mayhem, from the front page (“Severed head found on popular hiking trail”) to the comics (the anteater in “B.C.” slurps down a peaceful ant farm), to the advice column (“Dear Abby, my husband is having an affair with my mother”). In newsprint, the carnage is never-ending.

But that’s because they reflect real life, a chaotic place where as soon as we solve one problem, another rears its thorny head. We feel like Sisyphus, forever rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down every time.

Compared to real life, a traditional mystery novel is a tidy place. Someone does a Bad Thing, and people get hurt. But unlike in real life, in mysteries the perpetrator of the Bad Thing is always caught and duly punished. Light chases away darkness. Serenity replaces chaos. And it is the strategy of the sleuth that has brought about this magical transformation. Whether a grizzled police detective, a suburban housewife, or even the octogenarian resident of an assisted living home, successful sleuths all have one thing in common: an orderly mind.

In the sleuth’s orderly mind, one and one always make two. Effect the murder always follows cause the motive. Confronted with a dead body, the sleuth mentally backtracks from the scene of the crime to the commission of the crime. Throughout this process, clues are studied, red herrings explored and ignored. Consciously or not, the sleuth firmly believes the Universe is an orderly place, that all he/she needs to do is pinpoint the one disorderly element, and lo presto, the perpetrator is revealed. The innocents are saved, the guilty are punished. The sleuth’s strategy guarantees salvation.

Sounds almost religious, doesn’t it?

Maybe that’s because in a way, a traditional mystery novel is a religious pilgrimage. We begin in Eden, where all is peace and light. Enter the snake. Daylight darkens. Eden vanishes. Someone gets killed. Chaos reigns until one day, someone with an orderly mind shows up with a list of rules that promise peace and light a strategy for living, if you will. Exhausted by the chaos, most people eagerly adopt the rule book, hoping that by adopting this new strategy, they will win back Eden.

This is exactly what a mystery novel gives us: a formerly happy place marred by an ugly crime, returned to salvation by our mentally-formidable sleuth.

Maybe it bears repeating strategy guarantees salvation.

At least in traditional mystery novels, it does.

To read the first chapter of Betty Webb’s new mystery, DESERT WIND, log onto


Gigi Pandian said...

Very true! One of my favorite things about traditional mysteries is how order is restored at the end.

Sophie Littlefield said...

hi betty! welcome and glad to see you here. this was a fresh perspective for me,since i usually approach crime stories from the chaos end. but it's true that the story arc really does follow a restoration of order.

Unknown said...

*Great* post. If only strategy could guarantee my house would stay clean. :)

William Doonan said...

I like it! And that means that our protagonists are agents of salvation by reordering the universe. I feel better about my cruise-ship crime solver protagonist already, even if he does drink too much.

William Doonan

Anonymous said...

You've covered the subject -- and beautifully, I think.


Juliet Blackwell said...

Betty, welcome to Pensfatales! Thank you so much for dropping by. I've admired your books for some time. And I do love your interpretation of the genre, something I've been thinking about lately!

Radine Trees Nehring said...

This gives valuable insight into why we write mysteries! Literary? Who cares, really? But how about providing a valuable window on human motivation and action, and showing us what is of value in the end? Oh, yes!

Thank you, Betty

Jenny Milchman said...

It's a terrific recipe for a world more orderly than this one. Thanks for the post, Betty.

Betty Webb said...

Thanks, folks. If only life was as orderly as mystery fiction, eh? And Sophie, your Stella is the angel with the flaming sword at the gate of Eden -- only instead of driving away poor, hapless Adam and Eve, Stella whomps the snake.