Writing Techniques: The Whodunit
Is The Great Gatsby a crime novel? There’s a murder. Crime and Punishment? It’s in the title. Moby Dick? Oh, the whales! People like to make distinctions among mystery, crime, and detection fiction. But what’s the essence of a good mystery? What are the boundaries of what constitutes a crime? How narrowly professional or intentional does a character have to be to be considered a detective?
I would argue that the essence of all three—and of fiction generally—is the exploration of the mystery of the human condition. Granted that there is usually a germinating “event” and a number of genre expectations (sometimes met, sometimes not) that are part of the attraction and the fun. But the essence of all fiction, mystery as much as any, is the exploration of questions such as “What is it like to be human?” and “Why do people do what they do?”
In my own novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, there is a death to be investigated, but the person hired to investigate is hopelessly hapless, mentally unbalanced (borderline multiple personality), aided by his cognitively challenged (read Down syndrome) sister (the moral center of the work). There’s a mystery to be solved and he unwittingly solves it, but the real mystery in the book lies in the perplexities of the human experience. The novel is less about the dead body and more about reconciling the mind and the heart in everyday life.
The best writing in this genre can be re-read, meaning it does not rest primarily on figuring out “who done it” or on intricacies of plot. Rather, it depends on an engaging exploration of the human heart and mind. We, as readers, can be engaged on many levels—intellectually (including trying to “figure it out” but also in interacting with ideas, values, and world views), emotionally, and physically (the heartbeat rises and falls more than the reader is aware, and emotion and body often move together). Then there is curiosity—a blend, I think, of the intellect and the emotions. After all, we both “feel” curious and sense a link between curiosity and our analytic powers.
I want also to make a pitch for the engagement that comes from the human experience with language. Mystery and crime fiction are often linked to pedestrian language skills and overwriting, but it doesn’t have to be so, and there are many counter-examples. Readers want, whether they know it or not, the word that is not just adequate but right, even perfect. The perfect word at the perfect time both surprises and yet seems inevitable (the same with the actions and choices of effective characters). The rhythm of well-crafted sentences doesn’t lull us; it mesmerizes us, a very different thing.
These two large qualities of good fiction—exploring the human condition in a story that engages us at many levels—are why we should resist the idea that a desirable trait of fiction of any genre is that reading it kills time. Time is perhaps the single most precious thing that life affords us. To kill it—dissipate it with trivial things—is itself a crime, one worthy perhaps of a good crime novel. “Why,” such a novel would investigate, “are human beings so afraid of death and yet so anxious to reduce their consciousness of life in the extended time preceding death?” Now there is a mystery.
No, good fiction (in all senses of the word good) does not kill time; it redeems the time. It fills the time of the reader—and the writer—with greater significance than it would otherwise have. It leaves us knowing at least slightly more about the human experience and our place in it. There is an ethics to storytelling, part of an unspoken contract between a teller and a listener or reader. The receiver promises to listen with a bias toward belief. The teller of a story promises not to waste our time. If a story doesn’t keep that promise, it is a thief.
Mystery writing has as much potential for redeeming the time as any other genre. That it too often doesn’t is the fault of readers as much as writers. We get what we ask for. What we pay for. What we tell our friends about.