It’s no mystery why I write mysteries 09/03/2013

 

                  “Why did you write a mystery?” People ask me this all the time, whether in casual conversation or more formally at one of my book signings for my debut mystery, The Butterfly Sister. And my answer traces back to the human condition. We are hardwired problem solvers with an inclination to discover the unknown.

                  To me, mysteries are the quintessential genre. Break a story down to its most basic parts—components even a first grader understands—and you’re left with this: a problem that needs to be solved. A story must have some sort of conflict and, in turn, some sort of resolution, and mysteries always fit that bill. Mysteries are often the first books we read once we outgrow picture books. For me, it was Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew, and for my seven-year-old son, it’s been Scooby Doo and the Houdini Magic Mystery Club. No matter the generation, we just can’t resist a good whodunit.

                  Even beloved books not classified as mysteries rely on the power of intrigue to engage readers. Consider Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s Boo Radley, the strange neighbor who supposedly stabbed his family with scissors. What is up with him? And what really happened the day Tom Robinson helped Mayella Ewell with that chifforobe? These questions kept me turning pages long into the night when I was just thirteen years old.

                  So why did I write a mystery? For me, it was innate. It’s my go-to story line. Sure, The Butterfly Sister is also part romance, part women’s fiction, part literary thriller, part book club discussion stimulus. But at its core, it’s a mystery. In The Butterfly Sister, a strange suitcase arrives at Ruby Rousseau’s doorstep, and when she tries to find its rightful owner, college acquaintance Beth Richards, she learns Beth has been missing for several days. What happened to Beth? Is she alive or dead? And who is responsible for her disappearance? The mystery is perpetuated by clues Ruby discovers in the luggage and from her own girl-detective investigating. However, there are other mysteries to be uncovered by the reader—subplots relating to Ruby’s mental health. Why did Ruby’s therapist tell her to “cease reading books by or about women who killed themselves”? Why did she drop out of college ten months prior? How did her relationship with her English professor, Mark Suter, end and why?

And is Ruby a reliable narrator?

                  Mysteries are not easy to write. They are complex puzzles that take time and plotting and re-plotting to get them right. Still, I think mysteries come easily to both writers and readers because they play off our very human need to not only ask questions but answer them. Naturally, my next book will be of the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. And just like The Butterfly Sister, it will ask more than who done it, but also how and why. The National Enquirer’stagline says it best: Enquiring minds need to know. 

 

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