Mysterious Doings: Building a Mystery

Annette and I have this show we like to watch–the Inspector Lynley mysteries.  I gather it was popular on PBS a couple of years back, but we discovered it via Netflix.  It’s about a British aristocrat-turned-detective, Inspector Lynley, and his lower class partner, Sgt. Barbara Havers. So there’s all this British class system stuff, the nuances of which probably escape us. Nathaniel Parker plays Lynley, and we honestly don’t like him that much, especially in the third season, when he got a new hair style that somehow made him act like a total prat, instead of just looking like one.  But we love Sharon Small, who plays Havers. 

Anyway, every episode starts with a murder; Lynley and Havers are called in to investigate, and interview various suspects.  Then, some twenty minutes in, comes my favorite part.  We pause the show, and Annette and I share our theories as to who dun it.  Annette, you should know, is, like, five million times better than I am at this.  I’ll say something like “I think it was the gardener.”  And Annette will give me the look you give the slow child in the class, and she’ll say “Well, I suppose it could be.  What I think, though, is. . . .”  She’ll then describe the most astounding, baroque, complex, convoluted, preposterous plot imaginable. I’ll stubbornly insist that the gardener had both motive and opportunity.  She’ll be on about how the vicar and the novelist conspired with the headmaster to steal drugs from the nurse, which the village blacksmith uncovered, and was about to reveal to the barmaid, who, it turns out, was in love with the lab assistant, which means . . . .  I make fun of her a little; she says something like “Well, I could be wrong, let’s watch it and see.”  We then turn the show back on, and watch the episode’s plot unfold precisely as Annette said it would.  She’s really amazing. She’s never wrong about any of it.

It’s a little like P. D. James mysteries.  Her novels are all third person limited omniscient, and there’s always this point late in each of them when Adam Dalgliesh is thinking about the crime, and she’ll write something like “Dalgliesh finished his coffee and put away his pen, because he knew just who had killed the arch-bishop, and why.”  Me, I’m sitting there with the book in my hands going “What? Who?  You mean to tell me I now have enough clues to solve this?  Seriously?”  I think that’s the point; you’re supposed to pause and go back over everything and figure it out.  Not that I can with her either–I’m essentially the village idiot of Mysteryville–but it’s nice to have someone tell you “I’ve now told you what you need to know.  You have enough information now.”

It got me thinking, though, about how essentially everything we write is a mystery.  A mystery is about the careful withholding and revealing of information.  Set-ups and pay-offs.  Red herrings.  MacGuffins. Story-telling 101: will Odysseus make it home? Whether it’s “will Hamlet kill his step-dad” or “will Leonardo DiCaprio plant the false memory in Cillian Murphy’s subconscious,” or “will Alyosha figure out that the Grand Inquisitor is really a figure for Ivan’s atheism,” we’re trying to figure something out.  We’re trying to unravel the plot.

It might be because our own lives are filled with mysteries.  Whether it’s “which of you guys took the last brownie?” or “have you seen my cell phone?” or “is there a God, a plan, a purpose, a reason?”, we’re all trying to figure stuff out.

Mormons tend to be great at sci-fi, but not so great at mysteries. We have dozens of published authors in the fantasy market, but nobody really comparable writing mysteries. Well, Anne Perry, but she seems like an exception, as atypical a Mormon as we might imagine–a convert, a Brit, convicted murderer herself, subject of a movie. And she’s the exception that proves the rule.  Maybe we do fantasy because we think we’ve figured things out?  That is, our theology is miraculous and cool and mind-expanding and weird, so we’re comfortable creating new worlds of extraordinary imaginative power.  But we also think we’ve got the answers.  I don’t think we dislike mysteries–I don’t have any reason to think we don’t read them, or that we don’t like shows like Law and Order or CSI.  I think we do.  But we tend not to write them much, I think. Except, again, someone for whom murder was hardly an abstraction.

So back to P. D. James.  She seems obseessed with questions of justice, especially in contemporary, agnostic, cultured, refined, fatalistic England, where the maximum sentence for murder is twenty years.  Dalgliesh sees horrors, and tries to make sense of them in some grander sense, first by writing poetry–Dalgliesh is a published poet–and then by arresting killers.  But he wonders if it’s worth it.  He wonders if anything’s worth it.

That’s sort of true of all the best mysteries–they’re about damaged people reaching desperately for some kind of justice in a corrupt and fallen world–see for example Dashiell Hammett, Raymod Chandler, those guys. Joe Wambaugh, some. No Country for Old Men, especially the ending. And again, Anne Perry. I don’t mean writers of the Agatha Christie school, whose mysteries seem to me to be Sudoku-esque, elaborate, entirely intellectual constructs. Christie’s books don’t really seem touched by the violence and horror and poison of real murder. Neither, frankly, does Inspector Lynley, not very much. Nor, really, does CSI.  So I guess I’m positing two kinds of mysteries–puzzle mysteries, and poison mysteries.  Mysteries about who-dun-it, and mysteries about ‘how can what-got-dun possibly exist?’

Those are issues we don’t seem to be very comfortable with, we Mormon types, the poison issues, the fallen world issues. I remember seeing a wonderful film a few years ago, Born Into Brothels, about children in India from a social class where prostitution becomes their inevitable fate.  Thousands of children, with essentially no future except a completely repugnant one. After the movie, I was talking to some LDS friends, and asked ‘how can that be part of the plan of salvation?  How can Heavenly Father consign some of His children to that monstrous life? Our answers–including my answers–seem to me now pretty facile.  We don’t wrestle with angels much anymore.  If we did, we might dislocate our hips.

So this started off being about this fun thing Annette and I do, which she’s way good at and which I’m not good at, and now I’m talking about the poison of murder in this fallen world, and how we should maybe like write about it more.  (Heck, maybe I should.  Except I kind of suck at mysteries.)  What I do know is that technically, starting with a mystery template is probably a great exercise for those of us who write.  And also that murder isn’t just a puzzle to be solved.  It’s horrible.  It infuses violence into everything.  It poisons.  And that’s not an issue for which our theology has a lot to say. And yet, our scriptural narrative starts off with it, too.  Cain.  Abel.  And it’s not about whatever mark got put on Cain’s forehead.  It’s about ‘our child just killed our child’.  And how that fits with the plan we all agreed to.  Does it? Doesn’t it?  And so another mystery.

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7 Responses to Mysterious Doings: Building a Mystery

  1. Wm Morris says:

    There are two key aspects to a mortal world:

    1. There are being with the spark of life that can be ended. e.g. there is an end
    2. There are objects (and beings) that can provide power, pleasure, security and/or altered states of being and these objects exists in various levels of availability and refinement. e.g. there is consumption

    Once you have the possibility of an end and the drive to consume and other beings that can impact your end and your ability to consume, then there’s the potential for all sorts of ugliness (and all sorts of meaningful, wonderful relationships). That’s why the secret combination is so powerful and pervasive — and that’s what the combination really means: by causing an end you can increase your consumption (e.g. murder for profit). That profit can be literal gain, but more often it’s abstracted a level — so crimes of passion are a nihilistic response to the lack of security; serial killing is an enactment of control over feelings that get projected on the victim, etc.

    My point is this: my guess is that why this is such the right test for spirits is because of the fact that existence in this sphere can end if certain physical conditions are deprived a being and because there are physical objects that can be acquired and consumed and what those two things mean for how we relate to each other. Life is tough not just because we are separated from God and have to exercise faith, but also because we are dealing with the conditions of mortality — this may be a prosaic insight, but much of literature is preoccupied with what those conditions of mortality mean for individual worth and for relationships.

    Murder is so poisonous because it peels away all the layers that society adds (in part to protect from murder) to individuals and relationships and gets at the core, stark physical fact of mortal life.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    So I googled LDS mystery and, of course, ended up at the DB website, where there are 37 mystery novels for sale. Judging by covers, many are murders. So Mormon writers are writing mysteries and they must have a relative degree of success. Why else 37?

  3. Wm Morris says:

    Are they puzzle mysteries or poison mysteries? (my guess is that most are puzzle mysteries)

  4. Wm Morris says:

    And, wow, what time zone is this blog set on?

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I have no idea–about puzzles and poison or time zones. Surely we have a DB mystery reader out there with the answer to the first question.

  6. Wm Morris says:

    I can speak to Lemon Tart and Imprints. I’d say that they’re both somewhere in between.

  7. I always thought the Grand Inquisitor was actually Catholic and that his version of Jesus was Protestant but that neither has much to do with Dostoevsky’s Russian Christian religion.

    Or else the Grand Inquisitor was selling drugs to Hamlet who was in love with the village nurse who…um…you’ll have to ask Annette.

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