“And Then There Was Why: The Mystery in Mystery Fiction” (by Tim L. Williams)

Tim L. Williams’s short stories began appearing in EQMM in 2005. A number of them have gone on to be nominated for, or to win, major awards in the field. In 2011 he received the International Thriller Award for his EQMM story “Half-Lives,” and he is currently nominated by that organization again for his 2014 EQMM story “The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky.” His 2013 story “When That Morning Sun Goes Down” (EQMM, August 2013) was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story, and two of his earlier EQMM tales were nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. It isn’t only in the mystery field that the Kentucky author’s work appears regularly, however. He is a contributor to many literary magazines and is a college professor as well as a writer. Last month, New Pulp Press brought out a collection of his stories called Skull Fragments (paperback and digital editions are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other stores). Booklist, in reviewing the collection, described the author’s style as “deceptively foursquare with a poetic power for all that. There’s literary achievement here.” In his second post for this site, Tim discusses an aspect of fiction that literary critics often fail to acknowledge the presence of in works from our genre.—Janet Hutchings

A couple of years ago, at a professional conference, I ran across a friend from my undergraduate days, a fellow English major with whom I’d shared a number of Lit and Creative Writing classes. Feeling nostalgic for those long-gone days when nothing seemed more important than Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks and whether or not Minimalism was a dead end or a much needed corrective for the extremes of the 1960s Experimentalists, we decided to ditch the evening session and hit a local bar. For a little while, it was fun. Then, when we were both nearing our limit, this old friend mentioned that he’d “seen” a couple of my detective stories.

“Don’t you feel silly writing that stuff?” he asked. “I’d feel foolish if I spent my days explaining that Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe.”

I’d like to say that I made a rousing defense of the genre, one so eloquent it sent him running to stock up on Chandler and Thompson, Hammett and Highsmith, Reed Farrell Coleman and Daniel Woodrell. The truth is I was so shocked, I don’t remember exactly what I said. Whatever it was, we parted ways a few minutes later, and wherever he is now I wish him well. Overall, he seemed like a decent guy. He just didn’t realize that the mystery genre isn’t as simplistic, orderly, and buttoned-down as its most dismissive critics have always liked to pretend. He didn’t understand that the real mystery in a mystery or suspense tale is never truly solved.

Depending on the manner of telling—what Stephen King refers to in Danse Macabre as the method of attack—we may learn who committed a murder, how it was done, the circumstances that lead to it, the trials and tribulations of the victim, the perpetrator, or the investigator. We had certainly better know the “motive”—greed, revenge, hatred, resentment, perversity, etc. But in the best of mystery and suspense fiction, no matter whether it’s cozy, hardboiled, or noir, the fundamental question of why can’t be answered.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that violence in life or fiction lacks motive, but motive itself exists at the nexus of internal desire and external circumstance. The unanswerable “why” I’m speaking of is buried deep in our consciousness. One husband discovers his wife in bed with another man, checks into a hotel, and phones a lawyer. Another survives the shock, forgives his wife, and works to rebuild his marriage. A third reaches for a knife or a gun or a chopping ax and guarantees himself a spot on the evening news. All three had the same motive for killing a spouse, but only one did. This is the why that I’m speaking of, and it seems to have its roots in the mystery of personality.

Back in the mid nineties, my cousin woke on a July morning, made his wife and sons a rare weekday breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and biscuits and lingered at the table before pouring a Styrofoam cup of coffee, kissing his wife, and heading out the door. Ten or fifteen minutes later, he stopped at a convenience store, filled a five-gallon container with gasoline, and bought a package of Dolly Madison chocolate-covered doughnuts. On the outskirts of town, he turned onto a gravel road that dead-ended at a repossessed farm, polished off the doughnuts, lugged the five-gallon can fifty yards into an overgrown field, emptied the gasoline over his head, and struck a light.

It didn’t make sense. He was happily married, had two sons he loved, and was nearing the end of his nineteenth year in the Air Force. He had never seen combat and had never been diagnosed with depression. Neither he nor his wife was having an affair. He’d recently passed his yearly physical.

But of course there were problems. He had debt, but nothing that hinted at financial disaster. He’d been frustrated at his lack of promotion. As he neared the end of his service, he seemed uncertain about the future and what he might do. Only a couple of years earlier, his mother had died. His childhood hadn’t been easy. We could say that the “motive” for his suicide was a mixture of grief, professional frustration, and worry for a combination of personal and financial reasons. A particular set of external circumstances reacted with his internal landscape and resulted in a horrific suicide.

But that doesn’t really explain it all, does it? He was one of four boys, all close in age, who experienced the same childhood and had similar genetic dispositions. Financially, he was better off than his older and younger brother, if not quite as prosperous as the oldest of the boys. The circumstances of his life were not more traumatic than those of his siblings. One had served in Vietnam and another had lost his two-year-old son. None of the other three attempted suicide. In the end, my cousin’s actions remain a mystery. We know what happened; we know how it happened, and we have the sketchy details of the circumstances that contributed to his death—the “motive” if you will. But the why remains unanswered. For me it is this unanswerable question that is the engine that drives the mystery genre. No matter how tightly plotted or how lifelike the characters, that question cannot be answered. In fact the more well-rounded and well-developed the characters, the more we readers feel that paradox and understand that the real mystery at the heart of mystery must remain unsolved.

I was a late-life baby, and my father and my uncle grew up during the Great Depression in a coal-mining town that was depressed long before the market crashed. To make matters worse, their father died when my dad, the youngest of the boys, was eleven. It fell to my dad and his brother, Ed, only two years older, to scrounge for themselves, their widowed mother, and baby sister. They were rough kids. One day, walking home along the railroad track, they spotted a friend of theirs, a boy my dad’s age, coming towards them. My uncle pulled a slingshot from his back pocket, nudged my dad’s elbow, and said, “I’m going to shoot Hubert’s eye out.”

And then he did. In one nearly fluid motion, he picked up a cinder, fitted it, pulled, and let fly. He never forgave himself. When I was a teenager and he was in his mid sixties, he would say, “It troubles me. Hubert was a good boy. I didn’t have no reason to do that.”

Violence certainly doesn’t hold the patent on irrational or inexplicable behavior. What is more mysterious than romantic love, religious sentiment, the desire to create art? Violence, love, religion, art. We are talking, of course, about aspects of life that help define what it is to be human, and of course, human consciousness itself is a mystery. If not, philosophy, religion, materialism, and a few dozen other “isms” wouldn’t compete to offer the solution to that particular puzzle.

No matter how skillful the writer and no matter which “category” he or she works in, there always remains the mystery of the individual at the core of the mystery novel or tale—something Poe made clear in “The Tell-Tell Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” If Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe because he discovered the good professor was sleeping his wife—there you go, “motive”—why didn’t Captain Mayonnaise stab Professor Pedantic for seducing his? What about Justice Wargrave, that forerunner of both Dexter and Jigsaw, and Lou Ford, the cliche-obsessed lawman who is the grandfather of so many of the colorful psychopaths in modern noir? We are given details, explanations, and believable “motivations” for their action. But there are millions of boys who, like Justice Wargrave, are born with a cruel streak and a perverse sense of justice who don’t gather criminals on an island and murder them off one by one. Sadly there are thousands of children who suffer the same abuse as Lou Ford yet rarely speak in cliches and never beat to death hookers, church ladies, and bums. And it isn’t always about the villains. Why exactly is it that Marlowe feels the need to be a knight errant? Why is he so willing to accept every beating that comes his way in pursuit of justice in an unjust world? Those questions are never truly answered, yet any reader knows immediately that Marlowe is alive and breathing and unforgettable when he or she opens a Raymond Chandler novel.

An important thing to keep in mind is that mystery fiction is fiction for a reason that goes beyond make-believe characters and circumstances. At its core, all good fiction recognizes and probes the mysteries of identity and human consciousness. Simply identifying the traits and circumstances that lead to violent or creative individuals is the province of journalism, psychology, and sociology. Most of the traditional, hardboiled, and noir writers I know want more than that. In fact, a number of them are former journalists. Former is the important word. If these friends were satisfied with writing about how Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe, they would have never changed careers, because at its core, that is what journalism does. It reports the facts and the circumstances of external events. Fiction has another concern. Henry James called it capturing the quality of felt life, and felt life is always complex, always mysterious.

For me, fiction is fundamentally about the unknowable yet powerful mysteries of life, and crime fiction, with its emphasis on the violent and the extreme, provides a shortcut to those mysteries. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has probed those mysteries as deeply, as well, and as often as Joyce Carol Oates. In her most powerful stories and novels, Oates binds her perpetrators, her victims, and her readers in a web in which each strand of action, motivation, circumstance, and connection disappears into mystery and yet remains as true, if not “truer,” than the life we experience every day.

To answer my old friend’s question, I often feel foolish, but never when I’m reading or writing in the crime genre. Like I said earlier, I was shocked and probably inarticulate in my response. I wish that I had nodded wisely, scratched the beard I didn’t have at the time, and said,

“Sure Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum. But why do you think he did it?”

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2 Responses to “And Then There Was Why: The Mystery in Mystery Fiction” (by Tim L. Williams)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    A brilliant short story writer—now proving himself an equally gifted essayist.

    I really enjoyed your reflections here. Gives me a lot to think about—and ways to try to dig deeper when writing my own fiction.


  2. Tim L Williams says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Art. I appreciate it.

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