It’s only rarely that bestselling author Carolyn Hart writes a short story. She’s a prolific novelist, with more than four dozen titles in print, most of them mysteries. EQMM is fortunate to have been able to present two of those rare Hart short stories to its readers over the years. This week the Oklahoma author has some thoughts about the nature of the mystery/suspense field that should be of interest to all fans of the genre. (Discussion is welcome!)—Janet Hutchings
Mysteries fascinate millions of readers. What attracts readers to mysteries and why do I write mysteries?
Do you remember reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew? Why did we love those books? What did we find in those books?
We found independence, a battle for justice, and a puzzle. Girls reading Nancy Drew found a heroine who delighted and inspired them. Nancy Drew was—and is—brave, honorable, fun, and gloriously independent. Boys and girls found the same qualities in Frank and Joe Hardy. I know you remember them well, serious, thoughtful Frank, fun-loving, eager Joe. They too exemplified independence, a status children are thrilled to envision for themselves. We weren’t as brave and independent as they but we wanted to follow their lead. What an example they set as they battled injustice, dishonesty, cruelty, and corruption. They faced bewildering challenges but persevered until the mystery was solved, the criminal captured.
Independence, a battle for justice, and a puzzle.
These are still prime attributes of the mystery. But the mystery offers more. The moral worth of the mystery should be evident in that it has drawn to it writers devoted to the religious life. Dorothy L. Sayers was a foremost theologian of her time. Philosopher Ralph McInerny wrote the Father Dowling mysteries. Agatha Christie was a staunch member of the Church of England. Among other books where the mystery’s link to the religious life is made explicit are the charming books by Sister Carol Anne O’Marie.
I have always said and not really in jest that if I were to be marooned on a desert island, I would choose mystery readers and writers as my fellow castaways. They would follow the rules and one of them would be smart enough to get us off the island.
So what are these books that offer so much to readers?
There are two sharply different kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery. The crime novel features heroes such as private eyes Sam Spade or V. I. Warshawski and police officers such as Barbara D’Amato’s Suze Figueroa or Ed McBain’s officers of the 87th Precinct. The traditional mystery features the amateur sleuth, such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Joan Hess’s Claire Malloy, or my own Annie Darling.
The crime novel is the story of an honorable woman—or man—who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. The crime novel is the story of the protagonist, not the story of the murder that is solved within those pages. The private eye – whether we are talking about Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade – is the white knight who will never betray her or his code of honor. These books explore society’s ills and attempt to right society’s wrongs. These books are about the quest for honor. Although crime novels are often described as books about the mean streets and indeed they often look at the underbelly of society, these books are very romantic in intent. They celebrate heroes and heroines who are willing to fight corruption, dishonesty, and fraud.
My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books were once pejoratively described as “cozies” by those who admire books about the mean streets. The inference was that mean street books are “real” and “cozies” are about drawing room crimes in little villages that could never happen.
But as Agatha Christie brilliantly demonstrated, the traditional mystery is at the heart of our lives. In her Miss Marple Books, Christie made the very point that life in a village is a microcosm of life everywhere. One does not have to live in a huge city and wander the alleyways to be acquainted with anger, jealousy, greed, and despair.
Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. It is a fascinating analogy. In the medieval morality play, the tradesfair audiences saw a graphic presentation of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is precisely what readers of today’s mysteries are offered in a more sophisticated guise.
The opening segments of the Agatha Christie television mysteries capture the essence of the traditional mystery.
If you recall, the TV presentation opens with a figure peering out of a window into the street and two women with sly faces in close conversation. There is an air of secrecy, covertness, and, most of all, intimacy. Neighbors watch. Friends—and enemies—gossip. There are lies and deceptions, misunderstandings and misapprehensions, passion and pain, fear and fury.
The traditional mystery offers readers a primer in relationships. The distant mother creates a child who cannot love. A tyrannical boss engenders hatred and frustration. Slyness evokes distrust. A man who cheats on his wife or a woman who cheats on her husband cannot be trusted in any relationship. If this, dear reader, is how you live . . .
Readers who do not understand the dynamic of the traditional mystery will inquire, “Why do you want to write about murder?”
The answer is simple.
Murder is not the focus of either the crime novel or the traditional mystery.
In the crime novel, V. I. Warshawski explores how society has been warped and strained by those who flout laws and conventions.
In the traditional mystery, Miss Marple is discovering what went wrong in the lives of those living in the village. The focus of the traditional mystery is fractured relationships. In trying to solve the crime, the detective searches out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective is trying to find out what caused the turmoil in these lives. What fractured the relationships among these people?
Readers, being the intelligent creatures that they are, extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, their own lives.
When readers observe the lives around them, they can see the torment of an abused wife or husband (and abuse can quite often be mental and verbal rather than physical), the despair of an unloved child, the anger of a betrayed spouse, the jealousy of a less-favored child, the hatred of a spurned lover.
Usually these emotional dramas do not end in murder. In fact, they do not end. The violent emotions created by fractured relationships corrode the lives of every person involved. Often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath what seems to be a placid surface. And often, the traditional mystery affords humor as well as insights.
Once again, Agatha Christie comes to mind. No one ever captured the destructive power of greed any better than she did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But equally, in book after book, she punctures pretension and wryly observes the human drama. In The Body in the Library, Christie notes with humor the stuffiness and class consciousness of Col. Bantry, but she also observes with compassion how a suspicion of wrongdoing, if not resolved, could destroy his life.
It is no accident that Christie has outsold every writer, living or dead. It is because her people are real. Readers recognize them at once. Oh yes, that’s just like that fellow in my office. Or yes, that’s just like Aunt Alice. Or the woman across the street. Or me.
Truth to tell (and fortunately), most readers do not spend every waking moment trying to escape from a serial killer. Yes, serial killer books have enjoyed enormous popularity. They are a very visible example of the randomness of violence today and of the ultimate separation of a human being from society. These books respond to a definitive reality of our times. Readers want to try and contain this kind of evil. One way to contain its horror is to read about the vanquishment of a serial killer.
But readers are also deeply concerned about the expressions of dissension and violence far short of murder that occur in their own lives. Readers spend much of their lives in moments of stress and confrontation with those around them. They know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister. These are the realities of life with which they must cope.
This is why Christie’s mysteries and all traditional mysteries are so popular.
What could be more everyday, more humdrum than life in a remote English village?
Miss Marple can tell you.
I’ve always been amused by those who dismiss traditional mysteries by saying, “Oh, how absurd. All those bodies in a little village. Isn’t that silly?”
It is reality.
There may not be a body in the library, but there will always be heartbreak and passion, fear and denial, jealousy and revenge in every society everywhere.
It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the writer and reader of traditional mysteries.
Mysteries mirror the realities of our lives, personal and social. But perhaps the greatest gift we take from the mystery is a continuing reassurance that goodness matters.
Readers read mysteries because we live in an unjust world.
That’s why I write mysteries.
In life, evil can triumph as Americans were reminded most painfully on 9/11. We still want the world to be good, we want the world to be just, we want the world to be fair so we can go together, you and I, to a magic place where goodness will always triumph, where justice is served, where wrongs are righted. We can read a mystery. —Carolyn Hart
Among many other honors, Carolyn Hart has won three Agatha Awards for best novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Letter from Home. Recently, a complete, uncut version of her WWII suspense novel Escape From Paris was published to rave reviews; the latest book in her popular Death on Demand series, Death Comes Silently, was released last month. http://www.carolynhart.com/