The Mystery Of The Mystery Story
I had picked up a mystery story the other day and it made me think about how they are one of the few genres that seem to be universally enjoyed by all people. I know that today mystery stories are no longer confined to the pages of pulp fiction magazines and come in many guises and fashions. But in the end, they all still revolve around finding out "who done it".
The mystery story as modern fiction has had as long and colourful a history as some the characters that have occupied its pages. You'd think, because of this, finding a definition for what one is would be easy.. But in checking out the pages of Wikipedia looking for information on mystery stories I discovered that nobody can even agree on what to call them let alone come up with a definition.
In fact the term "Mystery" isn't even used. Instead, the much more specific "Detective Fiction" is used as the general term. From there they've come up with all sorts of sub-classifications that sound like the work of people with too much time on their hands or trying to come up with names of television shows. What the hell is "Unexplained Supernatural Speculative Fiction" when it's at home?
People seem just as reticent when it comes to talking about the history of the genre. The most they'll commit to saying is Edgar Allen Poe is the father of the modern mystery. But even that gets qualified by mentions of the Dickens novel Bleak House which features the mysterious death of a much hated character as a major part of the novel. But even those two books only date back to the 1830s for the Dickens book, and I seem to remember a few books being written before that time.
Although the printing press had been developed in the 1500s, it wasn't until the 1800s that the technology existed for mass publication. But that didn't prevent stories from being told, in one form or another, prior to that and mysteries being part of that lexicon. In fact you could say that the mystery story was one of the first stories that was ever told.
One of the ways the Church was able to spread the word and teach the gospel to people in the early part of the first millennium was through the use of performances called Mystery Plays. These plays would usually feature scenes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and always gave the devil a starring role. The subject matter usually centred around the Church's definition of good and evil and what the rewards of each would be.
The mystery referred to in the title was of course nothing to do with solving a crime, but the greater mystery of life, the universe and everything under God's green earth. The explanation, or the answer to this "Mystery", was explained as being God's will and people weren't encouraged to delve into that too deeply and accept everything on faith..
As theatre began to develop over the years the repertoire began to expand into more earthy matters and by the time of the Renaissance in Europe and Shakespeare in England plays were dealing with human events over biblical stories. Any mystery that was involved in these plays was for the most part up to the characters in the plays to solve, or resolve.
The audience usually already knew "who done it" and the mystery involved finding out how they got theirs in the end. But there were plays that set the stage for today's mystery story. In Hamlet, our buddy in black has to find evidence that the king did indeed kill his, Hamlet's, Dad before he will justify meting out justice and killing the king in revenge. Hamlet was one of the first characters to take up the role of amateur private investigator.
Considering the results of his investigation – the play ending with four bodies littering the stage and two killed earlier on, one would think playwrights would have backed away from the practice in the future. They may have backed off from the private investigator role, but that didn't stop them from littering the stage with bodies for a while.
You want to see gratuitous sex and violence; you need look no further than a good Jacobean tragedy. There's no mystery as to who did it, but the bodies start piling up in the first act – heck sometimes even the first scene – until the by the end of the play the stage is usually knee deep in them. The only thing that put a stop to this developing any further was Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans taking over in England for thirty years and closing the theatres.
Even when they re-opened the only mystery that was offered up by the period known as Restoration theatre in the late 1600s, was who was going to get into whose pants. By the 1700's the best written literature was already being created more for reading then performing, with English (and Irish) verse and prose catching up to their contemporaries on the Continent..
While perhaps Alexander Pope's poem "Rape Of The Lock" could be considered a mystery in the sense of having to try and figure out just what the heck he was talking about, the majority of writers were concerned more with satirizing social mores than anything else. As the century progressed and the world heated up with revolutions in France and America and nationalism swept through Europe political tracts and pamphlets were published, whose only mystery involved the odds around the author surviving their publication.
That brings us back to the time of Mr. Poe again and the birth of the modern mystery story. The first really great detective was "born" by the end of the 1800's in the person of Sherlock Holmes, creating either the prototype, or archetype, for all future crime-solving individuals. Ms. Marple to Philip Marlow might seem a stretch, but they both have Sherlock and Mr. Conan Doyle to thank for their existence.
But am I any nearer to answering my question as to why mystery stories appeal to so many different people? Go back a moment to the "Mystery Plays" with their absolute certainties of right and wrong, and judgement. That's not overly different from our modern detective story with its villain and hero, and the bringing of the villain to justice.
No matter how many shades of grey a writer may imbue his world with, the majority of time we are given the same guarantees offered by the "Mystery Plays". In today's world the certainty of the final resolution offered by most mystery stories is a break from our own uncertain world. On some level they offer us the same reassurance offered our ancestors by the "Mystery Play"
In these days of cynicism and mistrust for those who used to be the bulwarks of our society, church and state, it is the mystery story, by whatever name we want to call it, which gives us the assurance of good (in all its shades of grey) eventually winning over the nominally bad. The heroes and villains may not be as cut and dried as they were in Dame Agatha's day, and the distinctions between good and evil may not be as clear as they used to be, but its still a darn site tidier than what reality has to offer.
In an age of uncertainty anything that can offer a semblance of steadfastness will be clung to like a life preserver. Is it any wonder that the biggest hits on television these days among continuing serials are variations on the mystery story? For however long we are absorbed by either the book or the television we are in a world where we know for a fact that eventually justice in one form or another will be done. And that can't help but be a relief.